Family vlogging is an ethical dilemma we can’t unsubscribe from

ANU researcher Faith Gordon unpacks the viral psychological spiral faced by children at the centre of family vloggers channels.-

Elaine Obran

ANU Reporter Senior Writer

Imagine a childhood where every aspect of your life, both good and bad, is documented and uploaded online for anyone to see. This is the reality for the children of family vlogging channels.

For digital generations, the family vlogging phenomena may feel commonplace, although it wasn-t that long ago that the idea of doing so was almost unheard of.

In 2008, The YouTube account -The Shaytards- were documented as one of the first to post videos of their family online, and their channel quickly grew in popularity, 4.9 million subscribers to be exact. From their Christmas specials, family fights and even their children’s birth (yes), each video had an authenticity that humanised parenting and daily life.

Like everything on the internet, one click led to another, and by 2010 family vlogging channels were ubiquitous.

Dr Faith Gordon is a professor of law at The Australian National University (ANU). She says this type of online content raises immediate ethical concerns, noting the power dynamics that so often exist between those holding the camera and the person behind it.

-Ethically speaking, vlogging -especially in terms of third-party commentary of children resisting being recorded, where it gets posted anyway - does have huge implications for their well-being and their development in many ways.-

-There are power relations between children and adults, whether in the context of schooling, the family home, or the medical field-ultimately, children are in a less powerful position.

-But your home is a place where you would envisage having a level of privacy, however when you-re being filmed and recorded and even family holidays are documented, that privacy isn-t available, or it’s in a very skewed form. So that’s a big issue.-

More recently, the American-based YouTube channel 8 Passengers has brought this debate directly to our social feeds. Ruby Franke, the mother from the YouTube channel, was sentenced to 30 years in prison after pleading guilty to child abuse. Some of this abuse was documented on her channel and was frequently pointed out by viewers.

In some of the most alarming instances, Franke took away her child’s bed for several months as a form of punishment, forcing him to sleep on a beanbag; denied her children food, and continued to document their lives online despite the bullying that was taking place at school.

While 8 Passengers may be at the extreme end of online discourse, the case has raised questions about the difference between Franke’s abuse and the ethics of family vlogging at large.

Through her research with young adults who have spoken out against their lives being documented online, Gordon says these concerns hold an uncomfortable weight.

-The psychological and mental health implications have been highlighted by a number of young adults who were children at the time of the content being shared - that gives us unique insights from those with lived experience, into the longer-term consequences and implications.

-Where it becomes potentially an ethical issue is when very private information about the child is exposed. That might be medical information, information about their development, such as whether they were potty trained.

-If we looked at this through an adult lens, would that child want that information discussed when they are 18? Would they feel embarrassed, or would they feel shame? These are key questions which should be posed and this is actually what a lot of young adults are reporting.-

Outside of the psychological implications, Gordon says these children are also vulnerable to financial exploitation, particularly for channels with a large following that bring in an income through Adsense and brand deals.

-We know that children cannot earn money part-time until they are a particular age. If they are under the age of the country’s employment and contract law age limits, then they won’t get paid unless the parents decide to reimburse them in some way.

-I think ethically speaking, given the hours that children are having to invest, of course they should be receiving the financial funding from what that channel is making. It’s unethical if they are not, in my opinion.-

These laws, or lack of law and regulation, adds another layer to the tangled web of vlogging.

-We should be listening to the accounts of those young adults who were children when vlogging became a thing.-

Dr Faith Gordon

While progress has been made, as seen in countries like France, who passed the right to be forgotten law in 2020, giving children the right to have their content removed without their parent’s consent, Gordon says countries such as Australia still have a long way to go.

-Unlike countries in Europe, children in Australia don’t have the right to remove their personal information from the data controller, which would be the platform.

-There are different situations where some types of online content can be taken down, through the eSafety Commissioner.

-We-ve seen that operate in the spaces of cyberbullying, sexual imagery and, in its most extreme cases, that does go into the domain of child abuse. In Australia, the eSafety Commissioner’s legislation has been strengthened in recent years, bringing in new protections.

-But in relation to children themselves, they have to go through this third party to get that content removed. But the challenge is always screenshots and third-party recordings. They are almost like bushfires, they just keep on going and going, it’s very challenging to track them all down.-

Young people often struggle to access support from the social media platforms hosting the content they feature in.

-I-ve worked with a lot of organisations engaged with children and young people who have complained to platforms, and I have worked directly with children who report that they either only received an automated response or have received no response,- says Gordon.

-Their access to justice is very limited in the digital space because of the lack of accountability of these platforms. It’s not often actual people who are the content moderators; it’s typically now AI moderation. And we know through research that AI is not as effective as a human moderator on the platforms.-

Like the nature of doom scrolling itself, finding solutions to this ethical debate can feel endless and ongoing. However, Gordon explains that a much-needed starting point involves listening and engaging with children and young people.

-When you release content, you have very limited control over how it’s responded to, reacted to or re-shared, so I think more education is needed.

-I think we should be listening to the accounts of those young adults who were children when vlogging became a thing. Many of those young adults are very brave in speaking out, particularly about the psychological implications of having their lives documented online.

-I think overall, we just need really clear discussions about ethics, boundaries and consent. We should be having ongoing conversations with children and young people and actually listening and acting upon their views, as well as ensuring that proper laws and regulations are in place and that they evolve as the technology and culture does.-