The Trouble with Online “Sharenting”
Social media featuring intimate family moments is popular and lucrative. It also comes with serious risks for kids
On September 8, parenting and lifestyle influencer Jordan Cheyenne posted a tearful Youtube video updating her 538,000 subscribers on the family puppy, Rosie. The dog had just been diagnosed with canine parvovirus, a frequently fatal disease. Sitting beside her in the front seat of their car, Cheyenne’s 8-year-old son cries.
Then Cheyenne, fighting back tears herself, says, “I know she’s going to make it through. She’s a beautiful, amazing little girl and I can’t wait to bring her home and be part of our family. So if you could pray for us, we appreciate it. I love you guys. Bye.”
That’s probably where she meant to end the video. But the post that went up also included several additional seconds of Cheyenne coaching her son to look more convincingly upset for a thumbnail to go with the video. “Act like you’re crying,” she says, demonstrating an anguished expression. “Let them see your mouth.” The boy says. “No, Mom, I’m actually crying”
The post prompted a flood of outraged comments, ranging in tone from concerned to vicious, and quickly went viral. Cheyenne got death threats. Her son was targeted in harassing messages. She soon took down the video and issued several public apologies. Appearing on another Youtuber’s channel, The Dad Challenge Podcast, she said, “I am disappointed in myself that in that moment, I prioritized the Youtube, the thumbnail, the acting over [my son’s] genuine emotions.” She also announced she would stop involving her child in future videos and take a break from Youtube to focus on his mental health. Cheyenne did not respond to Newsweek’s request for comment.
Parents showing off their children has long been a highly popular staple of social media. In 2019, the Pew Research Center found videos with children who appear to be under the
age of 13 received three times as many views as other videos. Nine-year-old Ryan Kaji, star of the Ryan’s World channel, topped Forbes’ 2020 list of highest-paid Youtubers, making an estimated $29.5 million from his content and product lines.
“Sharenting” has now become an increasingly professionalized—and almost entirely unregulated—business in which influencer parents and kids across a host of platforms can amass millions of online followers and land lucrative sponsorships. Some family influencers get paid directly by brands for endorsing their products. Some sell their own branded merchandise directly to viewers. Many more earn income via Google’s Adsense program (Google owns Youtube). Youtubers can opt to let Adsense pick relevant ads from a pool and put those ads on before their videos. Google shares the ad revenue with the poster and the more viewers that click on the ad, the more the poster gets paid.
The pursuit of internet fame and dollars may pose serious potential dangers to the kids who appear in popular parenting vlogs and other family social media. A look at Twitter, Reddit or the comments section of almost any website proves the internet is often a very ugly place. And while the business of family social media is big and growing, there are as yet few meaningful safeguards for kids’ privacy and safety, both from media companies like Youtube and from existing law. All of that has experts on children’s rights and development worried.
“In many cases, the kids who wind up in ‘commercial sharenting’ are too young to understand what’s going on or to give any type of consent or knowing involvement,” said Leah Plunkett, assistant dean for learning experience and technology at Harvard Law
School and author of Sharenthood: Why We Should Think Before We Talk About Our Kids Online. Plunkett says, “If there is content going out about them when they’re three years old that they may be pretty uncomfortable with when they are 13, that content is not going to go away.”
Price of Fame
Jordan Cheyenne’s video was Only the most recent example of a kid being used for clicks by a Youtuber parent. In 2017, Mike and Heather Martin, a Maryland couple behind the popular Daddyofive channel, lost custody of two of their five children and were sentenced to probation for child neglect after posting hundreds of videos of the kids being tormented with a variety of cruel and sometimes violent pranks.
In one, the Martins falsely accuse their two sons of having made a mess by spilling ink, screaming and swearing at them while the children cry and plead with their parents. In another, Mike Martin taunts his distressed young son, then shoves him into a bookcase as the boy tries to rush past his father. Their channel had more than 700,000 viewers and their videos were watched millions of times. The Martins subsequently took the videos down and issued public apologies but also said it was all just an act.
“We were going for shock value,” Heather Martin told a local TV station. “What you see on our Youtube channel is not a reflection of who we are. It’s not. It’s a character. It was a show. A bad show. But it was a show.”
Last year, Youtubers Myka and James Stauffer gave up a four-year-old autistic Chinese child they had adopted to another family, saying they could not care for him properly. They had already thoroughly documented and monetized their three years with the boy, including posting videos of his adoption process, medical issues and meltdowns. In one video, the boy could be seen with duct-tape on his thumb to prevent him from sucking it. In 2020, the Stauffers had about a million subscribers on two Youtube channels. Major brands that had sponsored Myka Stauffer—including Playtex Baby, Suave, Fabletics, Chili’s, Danimals and Big Lots—ended up severing ties with her.
Over the past year, Memphis couple Chrystal and Chuck Cackler, who run the Songbyrd Youtube channels with about 300,000 subscribers, came under attack in a now-defunct Reddit community dedicated to criticizing their content. In videos that have since been deleted, Chrystal Cackler had openly talked about family matters, sometimes in her young son’s presence. Subjects included “stressful” issues in her marriage and her unplanned pregnancy with her son. In one video with the boy sitting next to her, she tells her audience that since Chuck lost his job and the family was “struggling,” Youtube videos were “our only source of income now.” The Cacklers did not respond to Newsweek’s request for comment.
In the U.S., kids are protected from abuse or neglect under a range of laws. Their right to privacy is also protected, with parents tasked as
“It just seems like a no-brainer to say, ‘Wait a minute, this kid is, like, three or four years old and their lives are being filmed and they have no control over it.’”
custodians of their children’s confidential information. But things get murky when parents act as both gatekeeper and promoter of their child’s personal life.
Additionally, questions surrounding children’s labor and share of profits when appearing in their parents’ monetized Youtube content are far from settled. One potentially groundbreaking bill that could become a model for other states is currently making its way through the state legislative process in New York. If signed into law, ‘kidfluencers,’ much like child actors, would have their work hours and conditions regulated and a portion of their revenue set aside in a trust.
when influencer parents’ child-rearing tactics elicit scandal, their children can become targets for online hate. Case in point: 8 Passengers, a Youtube channel boasting 2.38 million subscribers, which follows Utah-based couple Ruby and Kevin Franke and their six children.
In one video that stirred backlash, the couple’s then 15-year-old son spoke of his bedroom being “taken away” for seven months as punishment for pranking his brother, which led him to sleep on a beanbag.
On another occasion, Ruby Franke filmed herself reacting to a message from a teacher. Franke’s six year old daughter had forgotten to take her lunch to school.
“I responded and just said, ‘[My daughter] is responsible for making her lunches in the morning and she actually told me she did pack a lunch,’” Franke says in the video. “So the natural outcome is she’s just going to need to be hungry. Hopefully, nobody gives her food and nobody steps in and gives her lunch.”
Following the wave of outrage that followed, in June 2020, Ruby and Kevin Franke told Business Insider their son had opted to sleep on the beanbag despite other options around the house. Of their daughter’s lunch, they said she only had two hours left that day at school, which was a 45-minute drive from their home. Nonetheless, the Frankes said widespread accusations of child abuse resulted in death threats against the family and messages encouraging their children to kill themselves. The Frankes also said they got a visit from Utah’s Division of Child and Family services which resulted in no action against them. The couple did not respond to Newsweek’s requests for comment.
Meanwhile, the Yawi Family vlog channel, which features Sarah and Johnny Tanner along with their seven children, has faced criticism for puberty-themed videos focused on one of their daughters. In one video, the tween can be seen fully dressed sitting on the edge of a bathtub as her parents shave her legs in an effort to teach her how to do it herself. In another titled “Becoming a Woman! I’m 11 and It FINALLY HAPPENED!,” the family takes the girl shopping
for her first bra. The Tanners did not respond to Newsweek’s request for comment, but they did subsequently make the shaving video private.
Dr. Sarah Domoff, who directs the Family Health Lab at Central Michigan University, a clinic that specializes in helping families manage their digital use, says “extreme forms” of parental oversharing–even if they fall short of overt abuse–may be damaging. Domoff warns “repeated shaming experiences,” like embarrassing a child publicly, can encourage negative self-perception and low self-esteem. She adds that growing up in an environment where even the most intimate personal moment can become public can keep kids from learning to value and manage their own privacy.
“For a child who’s developing, they may start internalizing what they see, what they hear, their experience of witnessing what was posted online, as well as the comments that they follow, or the retweeting or the re-sharing of this material,” Domoff says. “For children to grow up healthy and happy and secure, they need to have places where they feel like they have their own space, their own private world, their family environment that is unadulterated by consumerism.”
Even more worrisome, in the past, pedophile rings have exploited YouTube’s recommendation algorithm to seek out content involving children and roamed comment sections of videos featuring kids, leaving lewd responses and exchanging links to child pornography.
“We know for children who experience cyber victimization, that’s linked to suicidality, that’s linked to depressed mood,” Domoff of the Family Health Lab says. “And what’s so challenging and so damaging about these situations is that you can never fully get rid of online content.”
Conflicts of Interest
under u.s. privacy laws, parents are generally the gatekeepers of their underage children’s private information. This presents a conflict when parents decide to put their kids’ personal details online, according to Stacey Steinberg, law professor at the University of Florida and author of Growing Up Shared: How Parents Can Share Smarter on Social Media—and What You Can Do to Keep Your Kids Safe in a No-privacy World.
“When parents are the ones disclosing personal information about children, they are both the gatekeepers (tasked with protecting the information) and also the gate openers (the ones who potentially benefit from the disclosure of the child’s information),” Steinberg tells Newsweek via email. The enormous pull “both from the lure of profit and the lure of public attention,” she adds, has created an “underexplored” children’s rights issue.
There is a federal law on the books pertaining to kids’ digital privacy: The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of 1998 prohibits websites aimed at kids from collecting information from children under 13 without their parents’ consent, thereby tasking parents with defending their children’s privacy from any breaches by third parties.
In January 2020, Youtube implemented new Coppa-compliant measures including disabling personalized ads and comments on videos that could attract views from kids. (The move came after parent company Google was fined a record $170 million by the Federal Trade Commission and New York’s Attorney General, who found the company had illegally tracked children’s viewing histories to deploy targeted ads). The proposed changes, however, dismayed some Youtubers, who said they would take a toll on revenue generated by their content and disincentivize family-friendly creators. Youtube did not respond to Newsweek’s request for comment.
Youtube’s child safety policy bans certain depictions of minors, including content in which they are sexualized, involved in dangerous acts, subjected to emotional distress or cyberbullied. In an effort to create a safer space for age-appropriate videos, the company launched the Youtube Kids app in 2015. Youtube’s Help Center outlines “best practices for content with children,” which include securing consent from a minor’s parent before putting them in a video. Youtube also urges creators to review local laws and regulations on minors’ ability to work and financial compensation, as well as ensuring healthy work conditions that do not interfere with their schooling.
Jackie Coogan Lives On
Currently, the u.s. does not yet have comprehensive legal protections explicitly geared towards children featured in their parents’ for-profit social media content. While California’s “Online Eraser” law, for example, permits minors to request their own content be removed by operators of websites or online services, how it might apply to content posted by their own parents remains to be seen.
There are laws designed to protect child performers from being financially exploited. Most famously, California’s 1939 Coogan Law, which was passed after child actor Jackie Coogan, star of Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, sued his mother and stepfather for blowing through his earnings. It mandates 15 percent of a child performer’s income be deposited in a trust they can access upon reaching
The enormous pull “both from the lure of profit and the lure of public attention” has created an “underexplored” children’s rights issue
adulthood. As currently written, however, the law does not cover kids earning money from social media.
France went further in October 2020 with a law requiring parents to request permission from an administrative authority to record videos of children under 16 years old for profit. The law mandates that once a young social media star’s income exceeds a certain threshold, any subsequent earnings must go into a fund that is locked until they turn 18. The law also ensures minors are granted the “right to erasure,” allowing them to request the deletion of their personal data without their parents’ permission.
In the U.S. in June 2020, New York State Assembly member Linda Rosenthal introduced a bill that would expand state labor law to include kids who appear in monetized social media videos. “It just seems like a no-brainer to say, ‘Wait a minute, this kid is, like, three or four years old and their lives are being filmed and they have no control over it,’” Rosenthal says. “How long are they working? And do they have a normal life at all? Is their whole life being filmed?”
If signed into law, child influencers in New York would be considered performers and need to obtain a permit, meet schooling requirements and have their work hours and conditions regulated. Parents and guardians would be required to establish a trust account for the minors, with a required minimum deposit of 15 percent of the child’s gross earnings. Once the balance reached $250,000, they would have to appoint a trust company as custodian.
In anticipation of the Assembly’s next session starting in January 2022, Rosenthal says the bill is being refined through discussions with experts in child labor law, psychology and privacy.
“When something passes in New York state, that often is the impetus or inspiration for other states to follow suit,” she tells Newsweek. She adds, “So I expect the same will happen here, which is also why I want to make sure it’s the best bill possible.”