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Is it safe to turn your children into YouTube stars?

By now, you know Zoella. When you hear the word “vlogger”, her squeaky-clean, baby-faced brand is exactly what comes to mind. But vloggers are varied. Older, rounder and balder individuals have also amassed millions of views, subscribers, and pounds on YouTube. But they don’t do it by filming 20-minute lipstick reviews. Instead, they film their children.

The daily vlogging of family life is nothing new. The Shaytards, an American family with five children and over 3.7 million YouTube subscribers, have recorded every day of their lives for the past eight years. But family vlogging is on the rise and hundreds of Britons are now copying the Shaytards.

Jonathan and Anna Saccone-Joly have been filming their children Emilia and Eduardo literally since the moment of their births. Their daily videos, viewed by 1.1 million subscribers, showcase the realities of family life: cooking, shopping, bathing and eating. Loyal fans follow every move and some younger viewers evenwrite fan fiction about being adopted by the family.

The answer to that might be the parent who received a card threatening to “gouge out” the eyes of their baby daughter. Or the parent who was told that pictures of their naked child have been uploaded to paedophe websites. This might put many off daily vlogging, but neither event has deterred the Saccone-Jolys.

“I have never felt threatened,” says Jonathan, though he says he discussed these incidents with the police and his gated house is now surrounded by CCTV cameras.

Less immediately tangible than these threats, but perhaps no less serious, are the longer-term legal, moral, and psychological consequences to filming, and making celebrities out of, your children.

“Parents need to think very carefully about how the material they are filming is available for the world to see in perpetuity,” says Prof John Oates, a Senior Lecturer in the Child and Youth Studies Group at the Open University, and founder of the British Psychological Society’s Media Ethics Advisory Group (BPS). This year, he has represented the BPS in the UK government’s development of regulations to safeguard child performers.

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“Some children are bullied simply because they’ve been shown on TV.” he says, “Footage of a child that might be fine aged two or three could be very distressing if it was available on the blogosphere when they were 12 or 13.”

The BPS’s list of potential harms – defined as “immediate or delayed, short-term or long-lasting effects” – is long.

“The first potential harm is simple emotional distress,” says Oates, “followed by harm to self-esteem, and a loss of a sense of autonomy.

“Mental fatigue is another problem,” continues Oates, “as well as an increase in a child’s generalised anxiety level, which could lead to general anxiety disorder.” GAD is a long-term psychological condition that causes an individual to feel anxious on a daily basis. It can lead to restlessness, panic attacks, or trouble concentrating and sleeping.

It’s worth noting that the children of YouTube probably don’t face the same risks that drove traditional child stars like Lindsay Lohan or Macaulay Culkin off the rails. Oates explains destructive behaviour isn’t necessarily caused by the stress of being a child star. He adds if a child has a “secure attachment”, meaning they trust the adults around them to be a secure base in times of distress, potential harms can be alleviated.

Unlike traditional child performers, however, the children of YouTube are not currently subject to any psychological guidelines or legal protection.

In February 2015, the Department for Education updated their licensing legislation for child performance, but specified “this does not extend to user-generated content, for example where young people or a family record themselves and share it on a website or social media”.

The current legislation states that children should not perform for more than six consecutive days, and children aged 5five to nine should not perform continuously for more than 2.5 hours a day. But it does not extend to user-generated content – the children of YouTube, who are filmed day and night, seven days a week, are not protected. They are also not protected from taking part in meet-and-greets and signings with fans at events such as VidCon, which have been known to last up to eight hours at a time.

When asked why the regulations do not apply to YouTubers, a Department of Education spokesperson said: “We trust parents to act in the best interests of their children.”

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Though a nice sentiment, it seems perhaps a little naive, especially when there are financial gains to be made. Without legal protection, there is no guarantee that a child will see a share of these earnings. Nor is there any requirement for a child to consent to being filmed.

Jonathan believes his children do want to be part of his videos, though he admits Emilia, who is three, is more extroverted than one-and-a-half-year-old Eduardo. He talks happily about a recent clip he filmed of her singing in a restaurant. “If she didn’t want to do it, she wouldn’t have,” he says, “My filming isn’t directional, it’s observational … I don’t make [the children] do anything.”

Ofcom’s March 2015 guidelines say producers should seek expert advice on whether or not young children are assenting. They also note that older “children may find it difficult to contradict an adult’s suggestion to participate”.

Oates says “for younger children we look for signals that they are assenting”, noting that babies and toddlers can’t verbally consent. “You have to observe carefully. A very young child may simply go quiet. Other signs they’re not assenting are self-touching, repetitive behaviours, or curling in on themselves.”

In The Shaytards’ video entitled DAD! CUT THAT PART OUT! from April 2014, nine-year-old Avia begs her father to remove part of the video where she talked about flirting with a classmate. “But this is good footage!” her father replies, before she gives in with an exasperated “FINE!”.

“I promise you, listen, in 10 years from now, you will look back on this video and you’ll be like ‘that was so cute … I’m so glad I have that memory’,” he continues. Hopefully, he’s right. But will she be equally happy that 3,108,012 strangers now share that memory with her?

Katie Marie of YouTube channel Katie&Baby, shortly after the birth of her daughter (and co-star), Ellie.
Katie Marie of YouTube channel Katie&Baby, shortly after the birth of her daughter (and co-star), Ellie. Photograph: Katie&Baby

The truth of the matter is that every YouTuber has a different approach. Katie Marie, the 23-year-old owner of YouTube channel Katie&Baby, started vlogging in 2009 and later filmed a series of videos documenting the first 34 weeks of her daughter Ellie’s life. She has over 3.2 million total views on her videos.

“From the moment she was born, I knew I wanted to film most of her life, because time is so precious,” she says. However, Katie is very careful when filming Ellie, and edits out any footage that may be inappropriate.

“If Ellie is in the bath I always make sure to film her from the shoulders up as you should respect your child’s privacy in certain aspects,” she says.

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Katie says she will respect her child’s wishes if she doesn’t want to be part of her YouTube channel when she is older. She also makes sure Ellie profits from the videos.

“I have started to put [some of our YouTube earnings] into a savings account,” she says, “All the money I earn usually goes on Ellie, so all the profit goes to her and that’s how it should be, as if Ellie wasn’t in my videos I think they would be pretty boring.”

Jonathan also rejects the idea he isn’t doing this for his children. “Obviously we’re their parents … they have trust funds,” he says. “I want my children to have a better life than me.”

Oates recognises some of these benefits, that children “may acquire status, financial rewards, and enjoyable exciting experiences”, but adds that some form of regulation is needed. “There is difficulty legislating such a fast moving field. Currently there’s also a lack of evidence, so we have to rely on case studies.”

While YouTube has been around for more than a decade, it still carries a sense of mystery that sometimes intimidates or leads to it being ignored by those who aren’t part of its culture. The law will take some time to see YouTube performances in the same way as it does other work, if it ever does. YouTube itself could regulate its users, but as yet it’s too early to know what the long-term effects on the child stars will be.

Are the parents worried about any impact on their children’s futures? “Come back and speak to me and Emilia in 10 years,” says Jonathan Saccone-Joly. “I’ll put it in my calendar. We’ll see then.”


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