Families make online videos a job but few rules protect kids
A trip to the grocery store. A little league baseball game. A cute baby swinging from a tree. Millions of people have watched strangers do these everyday activities online.
Family video blogs are a multimillion-dollar industry that has allowed some parents to quit their jobs and be with their children full time as they document their daily lives and post the footage for anyone to see. But the popularity of the videos, which draw corporate sponsors, has come with a price for some children.
An Arizona woman was indicted Tuesday on charges of abusing her kids who had starred in a popular series of YouTube videos, including using pepper spray to punish them if they performed poorly during filming.
While the case is extreme, it has raised concerns about the legal protections and ethical quandaries surrounding children who appear in money-making videos.
"From a developmental perspective, you have a dual role as a parent — you are their boss as well as their parent, and that's very confusing for a child, especially for younger children who want to please their parents," said Yalda T. Uhls, founder and executive director of University of California, Los Angeles' Center for Scholars and Storytellers, which offers insights from research to guide children's entertainment.
"Even though it may appear on camera they are playing, they are working," Uhls said.
Labor rules that protect children on movie and TV sets are not enforced online. State laws guide how long child actors hired by studios can work, how much schooling they must get and where their money is kept. In video blogging, parents are the only regulators.
No other agency, including social media platforms like YouTube, plays more than a minimal role in labor protections for children appearing in online videos, which can earn families hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. The videos carry ads and companies also offer marketing contracts for popular channels to feature their products.
For some families, it's a dream to earn a living from broadcasting their lives, whether it's going to soccer practice or showing off scripted skits.
Samuel Rader and his family have a YouTube channel with 2.6 million subscribers. It started five years ago when he and his wife, Nia, posted a video singing along in the car to a song from the Disney animated movie "Frozen." The video got 23 million views.
Within about a year, the family's videos had gotten so popular that Samuel Rader quit his job as an emergency room nurse to focus on video blogging full time.
"The impact was my wife and I were gonna be able to stay home and be with our kids basically every waking moment for them — and that was huge," Rader said. "That was an easy no-brainer for me because I grew up with a very absent father, and that would have been a dream come true for me."
The Rader family, including 8-year-old Symphony, 5-year-old Abram and 2-year-old Juliet, gets monthly paychecks generated from ads. Rader said that the kids' checks go into funds for when they're adults and that he and his wife can't touch the money.
He said he's heard plenty of criticism about exposing his children to the public but isn't concerned.
"They're already accumulating retirement plans, and how can you possibly look back and regret that? I think they have it made," Rader said.
He said his kids aren't always on camera, they're not overworked and they have a choice about whether to be recorded.
Kristine, matriarch of the YouTube channel Family Fun Pack with 7.9 million subscribers, said she goes to extremes to protect her six children, ranging from 1 to 12 years old.
Kristine won't publicly use the family's last name or say where they live. When she was scouting baseball teams for her young children, she chose one that didn't list the city's name on the uniforms.
Videos of a Halloween costume runway show and her twin boys crawling up their cribs are among the family's most popular. Kristine said the channel's wide viewership, and the money it generates, allowed her and her husband to quit their jobs and focus full time on creating videos.
The family uses the income, but the kids also have their own channels that bring in money.
"Every single penny they make is in their bank waiting for them," Kristine said.
Many people have concerns that not all parents have taken the same precautions.
"The internet is like the Wild West," said Paul Petersen, founder of A Minor Consideration, a nonprofit that advocates for child actors. "Children are being exploited; we can all see it. It's right there in front of you, and nobody's doing anything."
Google, which owns YouTube, says it works closely with experts to protect families by providing educational materials like learning guides.
Every time someone uploads a video, a notification pops up about YouTube's policies and labor laws that apply to minors. There isn't a federal child labor law, leaving states to address the issue.
YouTube relies on content creators to enforce those rules, Google said. It says it works closely with families that have the largest viewership but essentially acknowledges that the site has too much content to track.
The Arizona case showed the abuse that can emerge.
Police say Machelle Hobson, 48, used pepper spray to discipline five of her adopted children and locked them in a closet without food, water or access to a bathroom for days. Police said the children were punished if they didn't perform as instructed for the family's YouTube channel, which got millions of views across 36 videos.
YouTube has terminated the channel, posting a message that it violated its community guidelines.
For many, watching families post about their everyday lives is wholesome entertainment. They see families spend time together and experience milestones in real time.
"I think why these things are so popular is because it so reflects their own experience. Fictional content doesn't always reflect their own experience," said Uhls of UCLA.