“Act like you’re crying!” says Jordan Cheyenne to her nine-year-old son, Christian, in a now-deleted Youtube video. In the vlog, “We are heartbroken,” Cheyenne reveals to 500,000 subscribers that her puppy has parvovirus, a potentially terminal disease. “I am crying,” the little boy insists.
Cheyenne then poses Christian for the video’s thumbnail: “Put your hand on your face; but let them see your mouth; look at me; look at the camera.” She knows that an exceptionally overwrought thumbnail will lead to more clicks, and more clicks will lead to more money. Through tears, Christian follows instructions. After holding the gut-wrenching pose for an optimal three seconds, Cheyenne reaches to stop the recording and says to her son, “It’s OK, it’s OK. It’s over.”
After being virally accused of exploiting her son’s emotional distress for views and money, Cheyenne deleted her Youtube channel and all other social media.
Cheyenne’s endeavor falls into a potentially creepy subcategory of Youtube content known as “family vlogging.” Family vlogs are typically filmed and produced by parents and closely follow the experiences of their young children: from birth to potty training, birthday parties to first days of school, doctor appointments to starting puberty. Family vloggers have built multi-million-dollar empires around the relatable, the cute and the intensely intimate.
The LaBrant family (Youtube name, “The LaBrant Fam”) boasts over 13 million Youtube subscribers and averages over four million views each week. Produced by parents Cole and Savannah LaBrant, the channel features personal aspects of their lives and the lives of their three children: Everleigh, age seven, Posie, two; and Zealand, one. (By the way, these kids have 4.9 million, 1.6 million and 700,000 Instagram followers, respectively). From Youtube AdSense revenue alone, the family comfortably pulls in close to $1 million per year. Coupled with their various brand sponsorships, the LaBrants are certainly doing okay.
But, is the LaBrants’ growing wealth and fame imposing an unintended cost to the well-being of their children? In 2019, the parents posted a video unabashedly tricking Everleigh into thinking they were giving her dog up for adoption. In the video, Everleigh becomes distressed, clinging to her canine friend. When her parents reveal that it was simply a joke and all is well, she bursts into tears of relief. The camera never misses a moment of (monetizable) content.
Many viewers were outraged that the LaBrants would stage their child’s agonizing distress for views and money. Despite publicly apologizing, the LaBrants continue to capitalize on staged emotional content. In another video, they replace Everleigh’s shampoo with purple dye. The 22 million viewers witness the terror-stricken child scream as she emerges from the bathroom, coated in violet. When the prank is revealed, Everleigh says, “You got me, Dad,” as if to cue a commercial break. Clearly, the LaBrants have no qualms about staging their own version of “The Truman Show.”
While these pranks are physically harmless, emotional consequences may follow money-hungry parents manipulating their children’s lives like movies. With clickbait titles like, “Breaking The Bad News To Everleigh,” “Finding Out The Truth About Everleigh!!!” and “Why We Haven’t Been Seeing Everleigh As Much Recently,” do the LaBrants see Everleigh as their beloved child, or the lead actor in their never-ending reality show?
This isn’t just a theoretical problem; there are real-world consequences to family vloggers’ actions. In the most extreme cases, parents have lost custody of their children due to mental and emotional abuse. Mike Martin, who operated the now-terminated Youtube channel “DaddyOFive, ” used to post “prank” videos featuring himself screaming in rage at his five school-age children. One time, he even told the youngest, Cody, that he was being put up for adoption. At the channel’s peak, it had 750,000 subscribers and sustained Martin’s livelihood. Youtube eventually suspended the channel when Martin and his wife were charged with child abuse over this mistreatment. They received five years of supervised probation. The LaBrants should consider DaddyOFive a cautionary tale. There are limits to “light-heartedly” causing your child emotional distress.
One may think, at the very least, children would be compensated for their participation in their parents’ staged, overwrought videos. Not true! And, there is no guarantee that parents will ever use their income to benefit the child. Traditionally (at least in California), child actors are protected under what is known as the Coogan Law. Enacted in 1939, this law requires that at least 15 percent of a child actor’s earnings be deposited into a trust, inaccessible to the child’s parents. The law was named for Jackie Coogan, famed child star of Hollywood’s silent film era. Coogan sued his mother and step-father for squandering his multi-million-dollar fortune made as a child star. Outrage over Coogan’s parents’ behavior spurred the enactment of the law.
In 2018, it was decided by California lawmakers that digital stars did not qualify for protection under the Coogan Law. The legislature determined that the roles played by social media kids are much less substantial than those on a Hollywood set. Therefore, the pressures made on their lives were not comparable and the children were not considered worthy of financial protection. Without Coogan, children are left vulnerable to their parents’ exploitation. As family vlogging becomes more prevalent, state legislatures should enact versions of the Coogan Law to protect a child’s financial position as well as emotional well-being.
That said, not all family vlogging is terrible. When neither staged nor abusive, family vlogging can become the popular and endearing genre it aspires to be. Youtuber Colleen Ballinger is one example of a wholesome family vlogger. Achieving Youtube stardom a decade before motherhood as the noted character Miranda Sings, Ballinger has earned fame and wealth in her own right—something that cannot be said of the LaBrants. Unlike the LaBrants, Ballinger rarely uses her son’s face as clickbait and never films him in compromising or staged situations. When comparing Ballinger’s 12 most recent videos on “Colleen Vlogs,” to those of “The LaBrant Fam,” her child is seen in two thumbnails, compared to the LaBrant’s eleven. Ballinger’s 10 remaining thumbnails feature only herself, indicating that her audience is there to watch her live her life, not exploit her two-year-old son. Ballinger provides comforting escapist entertainment and also a platform for other parents to observe and evaluate when making their own parental decisions.
Of course, nobody is perfect. Ballinger may not share particularly embarrassing content, but she does share lots (and lots) of “cutesy” content. But staged or real, exploitative or incidental, does exposure of one’s children to mass audiences cross a line of ethics? Ballinger has certainly thrust her son into the public domain. In 10 years, will he be embarrassed by it? In 20 or 40 years, will he be proud of it?
As an unprecedented generation of family vlogger children grows up, only time will tell how the constant documentation of their lives will affect them. In the meantime, consumers ought to think critically about the content they engage with, and exactly what level of exploitation they are willing to accept.