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The Dark Side of YouTube Family Vlogging

As YouTube becomes big business for some family vloggers, are the kids adequately protected? Photo: Paramount Pictures

In 2011, along with tens of thousands of others around the world, a 13-year-old girl named Allie started a YouTube channel. (I’ve changed her name at her request.) She had grown up with the platform, founded in 2005, and she’d been dreaming of making her own videos for years. Like many of the YouTubers she watched, Allie was, and remains, a bit of an obsessive. Her greatest love as a preteen was a collection of Bratz-esque fantasy dolls, a group of monster-themed high-school friends who, she felt, reflected her offbeat aesthetic. She eagerly followed, and yearned to join, the young community of vloggers — a term that itself was in its infancy — springing up around the dolls.

Finally, after years of watching and a few false starts, Allie and her best friend launched a channel of their own. Their initial plan was to write and produce a series using their dolls as their actors, but after she posted a few videos reviewing her growing collection, she fell in love with that format and shifted direction.

Allie began posting just as toy-review channels were becoming a full-fledged phenomenon on the growing video-sharing platform. In a typical video, a child, an adult, or most often a pair of disembodied hands will open a new toy and play with it or put it together, usually gushing over each feature as they describe it. The content of these videos is formulaic and fairly inane. As YouTube has become more competitive and commercial, most of the creators are either fanatics, or sponsored by big brands, or both. The “reviews” most often feel like low-budget infomercials written by children — because, you know, they are. Still, they are insanely popular with young kids, who respond more to novelty and enthusiasm than to nuance and originality. Thousands, probably tens of thousands of these channels exist, but viewer communities tend to coalesce around certain brands — as Allie’s did. After a few months of work, her video on a newly released collection went viral among the doll collection’s obsessors. In seven months, she had 15,000 subscribers. In a year, she had close to 100,000.

Her parents knew that she was making YouTube videos — she’d had a similar channel a few years before that never took off — but they didn’t take much interest until her viewership skyrocketed. Her mother encouraged her to monetize the channel. Since 2008, YouTube has allowed users to enable advertising before their videos play, and to earn 55 percent of the profits they yield. Monetizing is as easy as checking a box, and earnings are deposited in a Google AdSense account.

Allie set up an account in her mother’s name, and before long, she was averaging a few thousand dollars a month. The money piled into the AdSense account, where it sat, untouched and unavailable to Allie, presumably being kept for her until adulthood.

But as her success skyrocketed, her spirits plummeted. As Allie’s popularity and profits increased, her mother started pressuring her to work long hours filming and editing.

“I was staying up all night editing videos,” she said. “I wouldn’t be able to wake up in the morning, and my mom would be like, ‘oh, you’re so lazy.’ But I was just working, working, working. It was never enough.

“She wanted me to be famous enough and make enough money where I could provide for the entire family,” Allie said. “She would be able to quit her jobs; my dad would be able to quit his job … She always told me that she would never touch a cent, and then it became, ‘I want 30 percent; I want 50 percent; I’m owed this.’” (Allie’s mother didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.)

Allie developed an anxiety disorder, and eventually left her mother’s house without a word to stay with her father, abandoning the doll collection she’d long begun to resent.

Family vlogging has ballooned on YouTube in the last five years. Parents and their children turn the camera on as they play, craft, bake, go on trips, or review toys, as Allie did, and kids all over the world watch in droves. Collectively, the top family vlogs bring in half a billion views a week, and millions in revenue.

“YouTube really sort of appealed to the geek side of me,” said Melissa Hunter, who started MommyandGracieShow with her daughter, then 8, in 2012. She loved the mines of data she could gather, analyze, and manipulate on the platform. “And then I started helping other people who were starting channels, or who wanted to start channels and didn’t know how.”

The mother daughter team mostly review but occasionally dabble in lifestyle vlogging, going on outings, playing games, or participating in challenges (a huge part of YouTube culture that goes far beyond the Cinnamon Challenge you remember from 2012).

Hunter co-founded the Family Video Network (FVN) three years ago. FVN began as a proprietary network, the subsidiary of a multi-channel network (MCN) called Creative Nation, which works directly with YouTube — the interlocking ecosystem of these subgroups gets convoluted pretty quickly. Now an MCN itself, FVN acts as an intermediary between YouTube and individual channels, as well as between the channels themselves. It provides expertise and advice, encourages cross-promotion, and creates sponsorship opportunities.

The network only accepts family-friendly producers, and Hunter educates her channels on the inner workings of the industry, and talks to them about the way they manage their children’s privacy and exposure to the business. Her brand is built on personal attention, and she is careful only to take on clients whose values and practices she can support.

Hunter thinks carefully about the way she manages her own daughter’s fame and earnings. She encourages Gracie, now 13, not to read the comments or get used to the notoriety, and works to balance Gracie’s desires and interests with a sense of personal responsibility. “She dictates what — you know, she’ll go and pull stuff off the shelves. If there’s a priority or if we agreed [to film a certain video], I’ll be like, ‘Hey, we agreed. Remember, we agreed to do this? Well, we have to do this right now.’ And she’ll be like, ‘Okay, let’s go do it.’”

But she acknowledges that her philosophy is probably not the norm. “It seems to me that it’s the parents making the decisions, and then telling the kids what they’re going to film,” she said. “I don’t know how much of this is delusion on the parts of the parents, because I’ve talked to people about, you know, ‘Do you think that somewhere down the road your children are going to hate you for this — or feel like, feel exploited?’”

Allie’s case is certainly not universal, but it’s also not uncommon. This arrangement — in which advertisers pay YouTube, and creators are essentially commissioned — exists outside of the traditional rules for which both labor laws and advertising regulations were written, and this loophole has spawned a gaping chasm, which no one wants to take the responsibility to close.

Typically, child performers work on contracts, and their hours, schooling, and working conditions are strictly controlled. Coogan laws — so named for the 1920s child star whose mother and step-father stole his fortune — also protect a certain percentage of their earnings until adulthood. But YouTube’s creators aren’t subject to these regulations, so the only thing standing between a child and abuse is a parent.

Many parents join online communities of family vloggers, both on YouTube and outside of it. They share their experiences, ask for advice, and support each other as their families and businesses change. These communities are useful and largely positive, but they can also become an echo chamber of support for parenting perspectives outside the norm. Influencer marketing, in which popular internet personalities are paid to use or endorse products, has been a huge boon, especially for products targeted toward kids and teens, and families can quickly become reliant on the extra income. As their businesses grow, it’s tempting to start treating kids like employees, and these pockets of support help justify practices like scripting videos, filming emergency room and dental visits, and homeschooling kids to better accommodate a work schedule. “There are channels making more in a month than some people could ever hope to make in a year, in their life.” Hunter said. “So I think some parents are delusional because they don’t want to give up the money.”

When Hunter posted a video criticizing the industry in one of these private groups, urging parents to check in with their kids about how they were feeling, the thread was immediately flooded with defensive comments. “My thing was, go talk to them,” she said. “Have a real heart-to-heart conversation, and, you know, make sure that they understand that it’s okay to tell you no, or that it’s okay to tell you, ‘That makes me uncomfortable.’”

Most parents are roped into vlogging by their kids, and done right, it can be a great opportunity for families to bond. “It’s an extra activity that the boys do,” said Felicity Kane, whose sons, now 8 and 9, begged her to start a channel for a year and a half, until she caved last fall. “They’re having fun, and if they don’t want to do it, you know … we just don’t do a video.”

Kane’s channel is monetized, though comparably very small (about 700 subscribers), and she’d love to see it grow — “that will all go into something for their university, which is awesome” — but ultimately, she just wants her boys to enjoy what they’re doing. “They are kids, and they can’t think about it from a business perspective. They’re not gonna start branding themselves. They still have to just do it when and if they feel like it.”

No doubt hoards of kids will come out of this industry no worse for wear, with a host of video-editing skills, a tidy college fund, and a permanent and easily accessible childhood archive. But the potential for abuse is enormous, and at the moment, institutions are doing little to discourage it. Advertisers and YouTube itself share some responsibility for guarding against bad behavior, but the financial incentives, and the potential cost of finding and resolving abusive situations, make each of these groups hesitant to take action.

“At the end of the day, they really don’t care,” Allie’s father said of YouTube and its advertisers. Like most vloggers I spoke to, his daughter had never communicated directly with anyone at the company. “They just want to run their ads at the beginning of a video … As long as they get their paycheck from their advertisers, they don’t really care what happens.” YouTube provides community guidelines for content creators and viewers, but while they specifically prohibit explicit material, violence, and copyright infringement, no mention is made of consent, or compensation for people who appear on channels they do not own.

Creator and advertiser pairings are also opaque for both sides. Each selects the other by product category and demographics, and it’s rare that either knows where their money came from or where it’s going. This black hole of imperfect, algorithmic matching has been the subject of some interrogation lately, after several high-profile advertisers discovered that they were being run before “hate” videos and ISIS recruitment.

But monitoring viewer and creator behavior at that scale is a challenge. YouTube does not have any legal authority over creators, nor do they have the resources to examine and approve the 400 hours of new content uploaded to YouTube every minute. And the viewer reports they typically rely on to catch misconduct are not as effective with an audience overwhelmingly comprised of primary schoolers on Mom’s iPad. Still, the platform could do a lot more to develop and promote guidelines for best practices.

“There’s no reason why companies can’t … say, you know, we’re throwing down the gauntlet and saying if you’re going to play on our platform with your content, here is our code of conduct,” said Linnette Attai, a compliance expert in kids technology. Without singling out YouTube, she encourages web platforms to self-regulate, and argues that it’s historically been fairly effective at protecting kids on various online media.

When approached for comment on these issues, a YouTube spokesperson offered the following statement: “It’s inspiring to see that families create content together and start and grow their own businesses on YouTube. We strive to provide all our creators with information on best practices and resources and will continue to make additional resources available.”

Allie’s channel went dormant for a year and a half, as she regained her confidence and forcefully took back control of the AdSense account linked to her channel.

Last summer, she returned with a video, frankly telling her story. “After all of the years of lying to my fans, it needed to be told,” she said of the video, which detailed her years-long struggle with depression, self-harm, and emotional abuse. “Every day, I would see comments like, ‘You’re so lucky; you’re so spoiled’ … in my head I’m like, These kids actually think that I’m living a good life … I wanted to expose the truth for what it was because I felt like I owed it to everybody.”

Her video and others like it hint at the start of a backlash, as the first children of this industry reach adulthood.

“I foresee a ton of very interesting videos like my daughter’s popping up within the next four years,” her father said. “And there’s gonna be some messy ones; some kids who have really been pushed past their limit.”

Allie’s channel led to years of pain, but she’s excited to be making videos again. Like so many other kids on the platform, it was she who grew up watching YouTube; she who fell in love with videos of kids like her; and she who wanted desperately to make her own.

“YouTube was something I’ve always wanted … I wanted to be able to do the things I wanted to do … makeup, funny videos, story time, things like that — just being myself,” she said. “It was always for me.”

The Dark Side of YouTube Family Vlogging