Children are growing up with their lives chronicled on social media. Some are even YouTube stars. What is the long-term effect on this youngest generation?
Six-year-old Hailey is no stranger to internet fame.
Her YouTube channel, Hailey’s Magical Playhouse, has 1.3 million subscribers and her videos have wracked up views in the billions.
The vast majority of her videos are of her playing with toys and opening surprise eggs, but personal family moments are documented as well — like Hailey opening all of her Christmas presents this year.
According to her father TJ (last name withheld for privacy), starting that YouTube channel when Hailey was not quite 4 years old was all his daughter’s idea.
“Hailey bugged me and bugged me and bugged me for a few months,” TJ told Healthline. “Since she didn’t give up, I eventually figured we would try it by giving her my full support and technical abilities with however she wanted to do it. I wrongly assumed she’d get bored in a few weeks and she’d move onto something else. But nearly 3 years and 570 or so videos later, she still bugs me to do a video every single day. Sometimes multiple times a day.”
Editing the videos and maintaining the page has become a full-time job for TJ. But he’s not alone in being the parent behind the camera.
In September, the New York Times shared Mila and Emma Stauffer’s story, 2-year-old twin sisters anyone with an internet connection is sure to recognize.
And in December, news broke about 6-year-old Ryan making $11 million with his YouTube channel.
YouTube kid stars are on the rise and their parents are raking in the dough.
But let’s be honest.
It’s not just this new breed of child star that’s taking over the internet.
Many parents are guilty of oversharing a time or two (a week) when it comes to their children.
This youngest generation is being raised in a world where their images are easy enough to find and their embarrassing childhood stories are out there for the world to see.
Media experts are starting to speak out against this growing practice, with the American Psychological Association posting a warning to parents in their July/August 2017 issue.
“There’s so much out there about adolescent and child behavior and their use and misuse of the internet,” Nancy S. Molitor, a clinical and developmental psychologist, told Healthline. “But there’s not a lot about adult misuse. When it comes to parents broadcasting their children on the internet, we have to think about consent. And most kids can’t give true consent until around the age of 12. Younger than that, the boundaries are kind of confusing. Often kids want to be popular or to please, and they don’t understand the ramifications of having their images and stories out there.”
“Trying to figure out how these kids will feel about this as they get older is all just speculation at this point,” Molitor added. “The research is starting to accumulate, but there’s not a lot of it. What I know from personal experience is that my own daughter, who is herself an actress in L.A. today, sometimes gets embarrassed about the childhood photos we just have up around the house. And those are in a place where only the family can see them.”
Molitor’s advice is to exercise caution when it comes to what parents share about their children online.
And when it comes to using those kids to pursue internet fame?
“When you take a child who is too young to make any choices, and you use photos or video of them for commercial reasons, you have to consider how they might feel about that when they are older.” Molitor said. “It’s a complicated thing for even a 10-year-old to understand, how these images could be used for money, how these images are distributed around the world, how these images and videos allow people to comment negatively on them. The young person may think it’s fun when they are 5 or 7 or 10, but when they get older, it’s permanent and they have no control over taking it back. It’s not a picture they can just tear up. There are repercussions that extend far beyond their childhood.”
Some of those repercussions are just recently emerging.
In December, Chamath Palihapitiya, a former Facebook executive, came forward to share his “tremendous guilt” over helping to build the social network.
In his words, social media has “eroded the core foundations of how people behave by and between each other.”
Is it possible this current generation of kids could be the biggest victims of that?
TJ has had his own concerns.
“In the beginning, I was worried about the increased exposure and what that would mean for her safety,” he said. “But this thinking can lead to sheltering a child inside all day, as it’s dangerous just to drive her to school. For now, we don’t ever say where we live. Like most parents, I keep her safe and take many precautions.”
He also had concerns about Hailey becoming a spoiled brat, but tells Healthline those worries dissipated pretty quickly.
“She’s a great kid and I’ve never had her melt down and have a tantrum in a store,” he said. “I’m lucky to have such an easy-going, well-behaved child.”
Dr. Wendy Walsh, a psychologist specializing in attachment, told Healthline there are no easy answers when it comes to how this new technology and increased exposure may be affecting today’s children.
“The most important thing is that parents need to listen to and respect their kids. If they don’t want to be videotaped, if they don’t want their picture taken, if they ask for something to be taken down; that’s their right,” Walsh said.
So what does she think about the parents who are monetizing their children online?
“When we are seeing videos, we are only seeing a slice of their life. And I’ve always said we should never judge parents in just that slice,” she said. “These could be parents that are setting boundaries and respecting individuality. Or they could be stage moms and dads who are making that internet fame their child’s whole life to pay the bills. We can’t tell by what we see in those short video clips of their lives.”
It’s not just what parents are posting online themselves, though.
As the technology grows, more children are gaining access to their own pages.
In early December, Facebook even launched a new chat app directed specifically at kids.
Dr. Claire McCarthy, spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), told Healthline, “The problem is, we don’t know how most kids are going to feel about the way their lives were displayed online. To a real extent, we are conducting an experiment on a whole generation of children. But at the same time, there is another phenomenon going on, which is a cultural normalization of putting lives on display. So it’s hard to say exactly how it will affect our children as they grow.”
It’s true that this is all new.
As such, there isn’t much in the way of regulations protecting the average child or the children who become YouTube stars.
Speaking to an entertainment lawyer for a major studio in California (who requested to remain anonymous), Heathline learned that there are currently no laws regulating what happens to the money those child YouTube stars make.
“There is probably a legitimate need to have laws similar to what is on the books for kids working in traditional media,” the entertainment lawyer told Healthline.
But she was quick to point out the complications with applying the current laws directly, because when it’s the parent pointing the camera, there is really no “employer” for whom the laws would apply to.
“My personal opinion is that it can be very tricky applying old laws to new technology. This is an area where the law has not yet caught up with where our technology is at,” she said.
Which means that for now, many of these children who are being marketed and monetized could be making millions they will never actually see.
When it comes to those child YouTube stars, McCarthy told Healthline, “I think that there are abundant ethical and other questions that should be raised when children are being used to pay the family bills, and we should look to extend whatever regulations exist in the entertainment industry to children who are essentially doing the same thing on YouTube that child actors do in the entertainment industry. I do think, though, that the number of YouTube child stars is relatively small — and that the first thing we should do is raise awareness of the issues involved in widely broadcasting videos of any child. Parents need to think about the ramifications of posting anyvideo. I wouldn’t want them to think, ‘Well, at least I’m not doing what thoseparents are doing.’”
So what does the AAP recommend?
McCarthy told Healthline, “The AAP does not have a policy statement on this, but obviously encourages parents to be thoughtful about what they post about their children,” McCarthy said. “I wrote a column for healthchildren.org, the AAP site for parents and caregivers, that has some tips.”
For his part, TJ is just following his daughter’s lead.
In fact, his advice to those who hope to follow in their footsteps is this: “Don’t force videos. Just play as naturally as possible. Let them decide what they want to do, and never do anything dangerous or abusive just to get views.”
It’s advice most would likely consider common sense.
But considering the YouTube parents who lost custody of their kids in early 2017 as a result of their online behavior, it’s also probably an important message to share.