In the most wholesome scenarios, social media allows families to connect with friends and loved ones, sharing their kids’ milestones, as well as snapshots of daily life. Or it can be a way for families to find each other and share experiences.
But what happens when a family’s video blog or “vlog” morphs into something else. What if it becomes a money-making endeavor, with parents hungry for clicks. What if the kids become the unwilling, non-consenting, unpaid stars of the show?
“People are starting to talk more and more about privacy, but they haven’t talked about for-profit family vlogs yet,” said Chris McCarty, a high school senior in Seattle.
So McCarty is spearheading an effort to educate people about the issue with a website, an Instagram account, and by calling for new laws.
At McCarty’s prompting, Washington lawmakers recently proposed House Bill 2032, which states: “Some children are filmed, with highly personal details of their lives shared on the internet for compensation, from birth. In addition to severe loss of privacy, these children receive no consideration for the use and exchange of their personal property rights.”
Rep. Emily Wicks, a Democratic lawmaker from Everett, sponsored the legislation. “You start to think about how that [vlog] is affecting a child’s life and their future,” she said.
HB 2032 would target video blogs that generate at least 10 cents per view and in which an individual minor is featured at least 30% of the time. When that threshold is reached, two things happen:
- a percentage of the channel’s earnings would be set aside in a trust to be handed over to the individual when they turn 18;
- also when they reach adulthood, the individual could request that a tech company remove all of content from the platform on which it was shared.
Katharina Kopp, director of policy for the national Center for Digital Democracy, agreed that these monetized family vlogs are problematic.
“This is a form of child labor and child exploitation, of course all condoned by consenting adults. The digital platforms like Facebook and Google/YouTube are enabling these practices as they operate without any regard to the welfare of children and minors generally, not just here,” Kopp said by email.
McCarty stumbled onto the video genre through a news story, first discovering YouTuber Myka Stauffer’s family vlog. The mother of four posted numerous of videos with millions of views of her family’s journey adopting a young boy from China, including his struggles to integrate into the family. Stauffer ultimately gave up the child and bowing to public pressure acknowledged that the family was not equipped to provide for his special needs — after she publicly broadcast the child’s challenges.
It got McCarty thinking, “Maybe there is a bigger underlying problem here. They can’t be the only family doing this.”
They decided to delve into the issue for their Girl Scouts Gold Award, which is awarded to individually-led projects that make a lasting improvement in the world. It’s the organization’s most prestigious honor.
McCarty kept digging, discovering family vloggers accused of mistreating their children through pranks and bullying and documenting the acts. Others publicly shared personal family strife, allowing commenters to weigh in and take sides. Even innocent family videos of kids in swimming pools or doing gymnastics attracted pedophiles who posted in the video’s comments timestamps of revealing moments.
McCarty, who said they’ve long been interested in public policy, reached out to lawmakers to find someone who might action. Wicks said she impressed by McCarty’s hard work and was eager to help. The lawmaker, who is a member of the House’s Children, Youth and Families Committee, hadn’t known about the issue before connecting with McCarty.
HB 2032 appears to be one of the first efforts by lawmakers to tackle the problem. There was little time to draft and propose the bill, and it won’t get a hearing during the 60-day legislative session that is scheduled to end March 10. But this won’t be the end of the effort.
A main objective, said Wicks, “was to get some of the big ideas that Chris had and put them out there.”
McCarty and Wicks said they are committed to honing and reintroducing the legislation, which Wicks said has support from Democratic and Republican lawmakers. McCarty is also talking to a representative in Oregon about drafting similar legislation there.
McCarty will graduate this spring and head to college, but plans to make time for the work, reasoning that this is what is education is ultimately for.
“It’s real change and the point of classes is to prepare you for the real world, and to make the world better,” they said, “and this is a concrete example of that.”