In her most recent brush with scandal, TikTok star Zoe Laverne came under fire for selling “exclusive” photos of her newborn baby, Emersyn, for $15 to her 2.7 million Instagram followers.
The incident sparked several lines of debate, from the inability of children to control their online image to the dubious ethics of putting a price tag on access to your child. It's reflective of a dilemma that family vloggers, mommy bloggers, and influencers alike have grappled with in recent years: Is using your child for likes moral?
A slew of child labor laws have been put in place to protect young talent working in the entertainment industry. Now, many have called for legislation to extend these policies to minors working in the social media realm as well.
Take the case of Ryan Kaji, an elementary–schooler who has become one of the highest paid stars on YouTube. Known for his loveable demeanor, Kaji shot to fame for his online show Ryan’s World, which features him unboxing toys on camera for his elementary–aged audience.
In 2019, his fame raked in upwards of $26 million for his parents. At the time, he was only eight years old. With videos coming out almost every day, Kaji works around the clock (even if he’s just playing with toys) while his parents reap the fruits of his labor due to his status as a minor. That said, many viewers have called into question the ethics of filming your child to rake in advertising and sponsorship dollars.
The whole issue gets a bit more insidious once you bring family vloggers into the mix. Family vlogging has blown up on YouTube in the past five years. Parents turn the camera on as their young children play, take vacations, review toys, and more. Kids all over the world tune in in droves. In 2017, New York Magazine reported that the top family vlogs brought in half a billion views a week, and millions of dollars in revenue.
One such family YouTube channel called 8 Passengers, a vlog run by parents Ruby and Kevin Franke, came under fire last year for alleged child abuse and neglect. Prior to these claims, the pair vlogged even the most intimate details of their children’s lives—including having “the talk” with their kids, their son’s puberty appointment, and their daughter's first period.
Despite their children stating numerous times that they don’t want to be filmed and that the channel has subjected them to bullying at school, the Frankes continue to invade their children’s privacy for views—recording them without their consent in order to gain likes, subscribers, and money.
The allegations of child abuse and neglect against the Frankes stem from instances where they purportedly punished their son by forcing him to sleep on a beanbag for seven months, refused to bring their six–year–old daughter her lunch after she forgot to pack it, and subjected their children to several other forms of cruel treatment that the Frankes’ viewed as entertaining.
Embodying the dark side of family vlogging, Ruby and Kevin Frankes exploit their children in the pursuit of money and fame. While they claim that they use the money their children bring in to improve their quality of living, these earnings come at the cost of the kids' wellbeing.
8 Passengers is just one all–too–common example of why child labor laws need to be expanded into the social media sector. Without legislation dedicated to protecting children from exploitation on apps like YouTube and TikTok, parents will continue to take advantage of their children due to their age and inability to consent.