Former child star Jennette McCurdy has been widely circulated in the media within the past year due to the release of her contentiously-named memoir I’m Glad My Mom Died. McCurdy’s inside look into the world of child stars, and in her case, an unhappy childhood and adolescence that was entirely controlled by her abusive mother, shocked readers and fans who know McCurdy as the goofy, lovable character Sam Puckett, which she portrayed on Nickelodeon.
During one media appearance, McCurdy detailed how 15% of the income she earned from her job on Nickelodeon’s iCarly – which she was a cast member of for five years – was, by law, put into a separate account for her which she could access upon turning 18. However, because of McCurdy’s mother’s control and stage-mom machinations, McCurdy revealed that she never saw a penny of the income she earned from iCarly, which during its runtime was a worldwide success.
There are strict laws and policies already in place in many states to protect minors who work in television and movies, albeit ones that unfortunately failed to protect McCurdy’s financial interests. But many keen observers are now noticing that there are no such protections in place for kids who are featured on YouTube family channels, TikToks, or Instagram and Facebook Reels. Within recent memory, children who worked as actors and models were a rarified niche – but now, social media has commodified families, including every minute aspect of their day-to-day lives. Perhaps the worst part of this situation is that social media incentivizes this type of content. Content featuring kids garners views, which earns sponsorships and promotions, which provides lucrative deals for their parents. But in truth, the popular trend of oversharing on social media is rewarding content creators but hurting families.
Why We Overshare
To be completely fair, perhaps the creators of today’s most popular social media apps didn’t know what these tools for entertainment and connection would become. But over time, we’ve seen social media become a career option and vulnerability become narcissism.
Oversharing might not start out as narcissism. When we talk about our experiences, our mental health struggles, our traumas, our relationships, and so much more, we’re taking the heart on our sleeve and throwing it out into the void for consumption by everyone from friends to complete strangers. Maybe we’re desperate for connection, desperate to be understood, desperate to be heard. We’re open books, and the blurred lines between online life and real life disappear altogether.
A 2016 study found a direct correlation between social media use and increased levels of narcissism.
But the chronic habit of oversharing in no way benefits us. A 2016 study found a direct correlation between social media use and increased levels of narcissism. Social media for many is not just a way to keep up with friends, but also a diary and a therapist all in one. We not only share our brunch orders or our vacations, but our DMV encounters, our medical diagnoses, our marital struggles, our dating history. When we see more likes and follows roll in subsequent to these posts, we’re encouraged to keep oversharing.
Nowhere on social media is this trend more prevalent than with family social media vloggers and YouTube channels. These channels rank among some of the most successful on social media, garnering millions of followers and millions of views. But these aren’t just average families whose lives and daily activities we become consumed with for no reason at all. Arguably, the appeal of watching online families lies in craving a sense of normalcy and intimacy in a divisive world, while at the same time watching those close, tight-knit families live in million-dollar homes and drive luxury cars. There’s a level of aspiration to family channels in the wealth that they accrue from being chronic over-sharers, and at the same time, comfort viewers can find in an otherwise dysfunctional culture.
Real World Consequences to Online Behavior
In reality, the success of family channels doesn’t lie with parents or even the family as a whole. The entire popularity of social media families, whether on TikTok, Instagram, or YouTube, really hinges on the children. Family channels rely on publicizing the ins and outs of the lives of children – their school assignments, their picky eating habits, even their bedtime routines. It’s this type of oversharing that has made family channels some of the most popular (and most lucrative) on YouTube.
One such family is 8 Passengers on YouTube, which follows the daily lives of the Utah-based Franke family in truly intimate detail. But to ex-fans and critics of the family, 8 Passengers has been rebranded as “6 prisoners,” referring to the intensely controlling and somewhat abusive way the parents, Ruby and Kevin Franke, parent their six children, including purposefully making a 6 year old go without lunch during a school-day and making a teenager sleep on a beanbag for over a year as a form of punishment. Child Protective Services has previously been called to the family’s house, and it’s abundantly clear from viewing just a few videos that the older teenage children often appear uncomfortable and apprehensive on camera.
Another memorable example is the Stauffer family, who gained momentous popularity on YouTube when they began to document their adoption journey. The Stauffers eventually went to China and adopted a young special-needs toddler, all of which was uploaded to their channel, with their followers even crowd-funding their fees and travel expenses. But eventually, their fame and success were dealt a crushing blow when the parents revealed they’d “rehomed” their adopted child, whose medical needs were more severe than previously thought. Many former fans theorized that the adoption was a means to an end to make their brand more popular and not an actual desire on the Stauffers’ part to grow their family.
The parents don’t share if money has been set aside for their kids or if they respect their kids' wishes about being filmed.
In every situation where a family is making money off social media from brand sponsorships, ad revenue, promotions, and more, their child or children are usually heavily involved in that brand promotion in some way. In almost every case, these children are minors, and there’s never any discussion on the parents’ part to explain to viewers if money is ever set aside for the kids once they’re adults, or if they respect their children’s wishes if they don’t wish to be filmed or posted. Family channels thrive on filming every moment of their lives, and the danger to these kids becomes even clearer when you consider how their daily lives – and information like where they live or where they attend school – are accessible to strangers.
Parents Profit, Kids Suffer
It’s easy to understand why social media content creators fully engage in their online lifestyles. With followings in the millions and ad revenue being accrued every day, a platform like YouTtube can become a lucrative full-time job for some. But because that full-time job requires documenting your day-to-day life and your kids’ routines, there is no boundary between your personal and professional (or online) life.
Oversharing may breed narcissism for adults – we don’t necessarily need to know your innermost thoughts, mental health struggles, or financial issues. But what’s truly invasive and exploitative is that there doesn’t seem to be a line where children are concerned. When parents are incentivized to post absolutely everything about their young children, it could breed resentment for those kids later on and dysfunction within the family as a whole.
A child belonging to a popular family channel that has found financial success online may have a lengthy digital footprint before the age of five. This means that by the time they get to college, their potential classmates, peers, coworkers, and employers will have seen them in diapers, throwing tantrums in public, or otherwise acting poorly. Meanwhile, it’s their parents who have posted those photos and videos without prior thought to how it will affect their children in the future. What’s worse is that because there are no legal protections for these kids the same way there are for professional child actors, these children may never see any of the money accrued from the content they played a part in producing.
Our society fails in so many ways to effectively protect our children, but protecting them online is not only fairly easy, but entirely necessary. Children look to their parents for guidance and protection, and posting them carelessly online, whether you’re a mom on Instagram or a YouTube creator with millions of subscribers, is a recipe for short term popularity and long term unhappiness.
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