The internet has become a staple of everyday life, even for society’s youngest members, and the reach of social media has created new risks for people online. Most people can personalize their online experience to the level of anonymity they prefer: posting every meal they eat, posting just once every week, or staying off social media all together. But one group in particular continues to be disregarded in the conversation about consenting to having an online presence: children.
Family channels are a massively popular type of YouTube content — pumping out amounts of videos that strive for quantity over quality — focused on the lives and everyday actions of the families who run them. The ACE Family, for example, has 18.6 million subscribers on YouTube. The channel is run by parents Catherine and Austin McBroom, and features their three children, Elle, Alaia, and Steel. At the time of writing, it features 706 videos, and has garnered over 4.5 billion views. The kids are six, four, and two respectively and have been online for the majority of their lives.
The McBroom children are an example of how family channels exploit their kids for views and profit. Many of the channel’s videos are focused on very personal parts of life — its second most popular video, with over 33 million views, is entirely about the labor and delivery of their second child.
But the bigger issue is that these kids can’t consent to being online in the first place. Often, these child influencers get their start online before they can even form a sentence, much less understand what the internet is. In the case of the ACE Family, all three children have Instagram accounts run by their parents. Elle has had an Instagram account since August 2017, when she was only 15 months old. The account has over 4.2 million followers, and its first video post has been viewed over 8 million times. Her sister’s account has 2.1 million followers, and her brother’s account has accumulated over 987,000 followers in the two years since his birth. The LA Times reported that even though child labor laws “do apply to social media influencers,” they are not regularly enforced because their content is often produced at home.
Online privacy is inherently tied to consent. People should be able to consent to whether or not their personal information is online, because once data is on the internet, it is there forever. This idea is known as digital permanence, and it’s hard-wired into the internet. According to a study done by the Association for Computing Science, even data that is untouched for hundreds of years is expected to “be available for later research or perusal.”
Influencer Maia Knight, who has 8.5 million followers on TikTok, has gained a platform because people love watching her twin daughters, Scout and Violet, grow up. Previously, their faces were included in videos. But on Dec. 23 of last year, Knight announced in a TikTok that she would no longer be posting her children’s faces online. She said, “I’m making a choice for my daughters to protect them.”
Knight’s decision reflects one made by Allison Irons, a “mommy vlogger” whose videos were viewed by large amounts of middle-aged men before she removed her kids from her channel. The New Statesman reported that her videos had been uploaded to pedophile websites, as well as YouTube playlists which are often “hundreds of videos long,” featuring videos of babies in diapers, “breastfeeding and in the bath.”
In order to protect kids, we need to create a culture that widens the scope of our perception of the internet and realizes the implications of broadcasting intimate family moments to the entire world. By taking a step back and considering the permanence of these videos and the privacy risks we are willingly taking on our children’s behalf, invasive content could be discouraged. While there will probably never be a full ban of posting children online, we can protect them a better collective understanding of what the risks are.
Kids may be cute and funny, but being able to watch them online shouldn’t be prioritized over their safety. The internet is an unforgiving place, and we need to keep kids safe from it.