Family Vlogging: Blurring the Line Between Parent and Employer

With acts like The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act being passed to protect children behind the screen, we have to ask: what about the children on the screen?


Prasanna Kumar / Unsplash

As more and more of your life becomes vlogged, the line between what is real and what is performative becomes blurred.

The only documentation most people have of their birth and childhood is grainy photographs of their younger selves, along with whatever stories their family remembers about that time period. But for a growing number of children, the intimate details of their birth are not limited to their close family circle. They are instead posted online for thousands, potentially millions of people to see. Their lives have been profitable since they first came into existence, or maybe even before that. 

This phenomenon is known as family vlogging, a subgenre of YouTube videos where content creators not only document their day-to-day lives, but also share details about their children’s lives online. Though the genre has garnered a lot of criticism over the years, it remains  successful, with viewing time for family vloggers increasing by 90% in 2017 and still increasing to this day. 

At a glance, family vlogging can seem entirely harmless, and even beneficial to the families involved. The parents don’t need to worry about a standard job, as they are offered amazing opportunities like brand deals or sponsored trips.

But what about the kids? Though they may benefit from the luxuries that come along with having a successful channel, they must also deal with the consequences of being part of a brand that they never truly consented to being a part of. Since the featured children are usually so young, there is no way of knowing whether or not they approve of certain details or clips of themselves being posted online. 

Susan Cohen ’23 said, “A major reason why I dislike family vlogging is that sometimes, the parents videotape their child regardless if the child is comfortable with it. Many videos on YouTube are about the child throwing a tantrum or having a breakdown.”

One YouTuber who profited off of her pregnancy is Colleen Ballinger, whose brand once revolved around singing videos and wearing a lot of lipstick while playing the character of Miranda Sings. But ever since she announced her first pregnancy –  with a video (“I’m Pregnant”) that has been viewed over 13 million times  – her content has shifted. Her children are featured prominently, and her three-year-old son has become a staple of the channel, just as her excessive use of lipstick once was. 

The problem does not lie in Ballinger describing her pregnancy experience, which is very personal to her and only describes her experiences. However, her son may have a problem with his birth being viewed 33 million times without him having a say. 

Other family vlogging channels have taken their exploitation a step further by taking advantage of their children’s hardships. One of the most infamous examples of this phenomenon is 31 year-old family vlogger Jordan Cheyenne; after finding out that their dog was severely sick, Cheyenne recorded a video of herself and her son in the car as she tried to comfort him. She then proceeded to accidentally upload the raw footage of this video, which shows her trying to make her son pose for a thumbnail as she pretends to be crying. When she tells him to pretend to be crying, he responds “Mom, I’m actually, seriously crying,” as she continues to find the right angle for the thumbnail of her video. 

After the resulting outrage online, she deleted her channel and shared that she was putting herself and her son into counseling. She went on to say that, “People will have their kids ham it up. Behind the scenes they’re like, ‘Do this, and I’ll give you a treat.’ It’s so wrong and I can’t even say how disappointed in myself I am… I think it opened a conversation for how a lot of people might be running their channels.”

She has since returned to YouTube, with her first video back entitled, “I was cancelled worldwide & my life changed forever.”

Cheyenne’s initial reaction to her son’s grief being to film a video updating her audience shows how one’s priorities can become extremely skewed when one’s family turns into one’s source of revenue. Parents utilizing their children’s emotions for content instead of comforting their children can teach these children that their feelings are not important, and these kids will not turn to their parents for comfort in the future. Family vlogging can deny children their agency, as sometimes, no matter how much they plead with their parents that they are upset and want to turn the camera off, their concerns are ignored. 

Maliha Chowdhury ’24 detailed the way that family vlogging can make the featured children feel, stating “When I was very young, my family loved to post videos of me and my siblings on sites like Facebook and YouTube. Now that I am older, it’s very embarrassing to watch those videos, and I can’t even do anything about it. It’s posted, and the whole world can see it. In general, family vlogging might seem harmless at first, but without the consent of the person(s) being filmed, it’s violating their privacy and harmful to their image.” 

Child stardom is far from a new phenomenon. People have obsessed over famous children for ages, with stars like Shirley Temple who still have their names all over society decades later (alongside a drink named after her). 

Parental exploitation of their children in the entertainment industry is not a new issue. In 1939, the Coogan Law ensured that 15% of all minors’ earnings must be set aside in a “Coogan Account,” or an account that can only be accessed once the child becomes an adult. The law was created in response to a lawsuit from child actor Jackie Coogan, who discovered as an adult that all of the earnings he had made as a child star were spent by his parents. 

However, child stardom in this specific manifestation as an internet microcelebrity – or a state of being well-known by a specific group of people, such as your YouTube followers – is a very recent development, which means two things. First, we do not fully understand how being the subject of a family vlog as a child will affect a person long-term. Secondly, there are absolutely no regulations in place in order to protect children from online exploitation by their parents.

This is a concern that Chowdhury brought up. “Obviously family vlogging needs to be regulated. It’s not safe for people’s identity to be in the media when they have no idea and there needs to be options for them to take the content down if they are uncomfortable with it,” Chowdhury said.

There have been attempts to protect children online in general, with the first thing that comes to most people’s minds being The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA. However, this act only works to protect children behind the screen, not those on it, as it focuses on concerns such as banning ads on content that is deemed as being geared for children, and preventing companies from collecting personal information on children younger than thirteen.  

There are currently no laws in place in the U.S. aimed at protecting children from being posted online by their parents. But recently, certain government officials have attempted to change that. Washington State Representative Emily Wicks worked alongside then seventeen-year old Chris McCarty, who cold-emailed Wicks in an attempt to enact new laws regarding family vlogging after researching the issue for their Girl Scout project. The two drafted and proposed the Washington State Legislature House Bill 2032

The bill addresses how the children featured in child vlogging currently lack the necessary legal protections against parental exploitation, and points out the loss of privacy and nonconsensual exchange of their personal property rights. 

One of the regulations recommended by this bill would be, “to allow minors to receive proportional compensation for the use of specified personal property rights where their parents have reached a specified profit threshold from that use.” This would be similar to the Coogan Law, as it would ensure that some of the money generated by family vlogging is set aside for the children generating the money. The legislation would apply to vloggers who either earn enough views to receive compensation from YouTube, or who earn at least $0.10 per view. It also includes a person’s right to have any content featuring them online taken down once they are an adult if they choose. In my interview with Wicks, she discussed  further steps to protect children’s privacy and rights online.

“I think this bill is very reasonable, and we could definitely go farther with it. I hope it passes – although I am a little pessimistic – but what is most important right now is that it will generate more conversation about this issue,” Wicks said.

She is unsure whether or not the bill will pass for a number of reasons, one being that powerful social media sites like Meta – the company that owns Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp – are against any kind of regulation on their platforms, as less content means less money. She cited a moment when, “A lobbyist with Meta approached me, and they were saying they would probably not be advocating for this bill.”

Wicks also brought up even more risks for the children that could arise out of family vlogging, saying, “It is a loss of agency for the child, and this content can never be taken off the internet. I was talking to one young woman who said that a picture posted of her online was used on [an adult content website]. We really do not know the capabilities of the internet, especially with how advanced deep-fake technology is now. Your personal brand can be tainted because of your parents choices, and what happens when your chasing your dreams in the future and something about you comes up that you did not even post in the first place.”

Despite her criticisms, family vlogging is not all bad. Wicks also acknowledges the potential benefits of family vlogging. “When you can share your personal experiences, it can be very powerful. This kind of content can create community and give you the opportunity to make a difference. You just have to find that line,” she said.

On the future of family vlogging, Wicks said, “As long as there is money to be made, it will continue to happen. But conversations about it will also continue to happen. Social media sites should be leading the way, and they need to step up. They should be working with people like McCarty to develop a good process, and work to find solutions to this issue, not just profit maximizing strategies. But they most likely will not step up until we have real legislation.”

Family vlogging can deny children their agency, as sometimes, no matter how much they plead with their parents that they are upset and want to turn the camera off, their concerns are ignored.