The Trouble with Online “Sharenting”
Newsweek|October 15, 2021
Social media featuring intimate family moments is popular and lucrative. It also comes with serious risks for kids

ON SEPTEMBER 8, PARENTING AND LIFESTYLE influencer Jordan Cheyenne posted a tearful YouTube video updating her 538,000 subscribers on the family puppy, Rosie. The dog had just been diagnosed with canine parvovirus, a frequently fatal disease. Sitting beside her in the front seat of their car, Cheyenne’s 8-year-old son cries.

Then Cheyenne, fighting back tears herself, says, “I know she’s going to make it through. She’s a beautiful, amazing little girl and I can’t wait to bring her home and be part of our family. So if you could pray for us, we appreciate it. I love you guys. Bye.”

That’s probably where she meant to end the video. But the post that went up also included several additional seconds of Cheyenne coaching her son to look more convincingly upset for a thumbnail to go with the video. “Act like you’re crying,” she says, demonstrating an anguished expression. “Let them see your mouth.” The boy says. “No, Mom, I’m actually crying”.

The post prompted a flood of outraged comments, ranging in tone from concerned to vicious, and quickly went viral. Cheyenne got death threats. Her son was targeted in harassing messages. She soon took down the video and issued several public apologies. Appearing on another YouTuber’s channel, The Dad Challenge Podcast, she said, “I am disappointed in myself that in that moment, I prioritized the YouTube, the thumbnail, the acting over [my son’s] genuine emotions.” She also announced she would stop involving her child in future videos and take a break from YouTube to focus on his mental health. Cheyenne did not respond to Newsweek’s request for comment.

Parents showing off their children has long been a highly popular staple of social media. In 2019, the Pew Research Center found videos with children who appear to be under the age of 13 received three times as many views as other videos. Nine-year-old Ryan Kaji, star of the Ryan’s World channel, topped Forbes’ 2020 list of highest-paid YouTubers, making an estimated $29.5 million from his content and product lines.

“Sharenting” has now become an increasingly professionalized—and almost entirely unregulated—business in which influencer parents and kids across a host of platforms can amass millions of online followers and land lucrative sponsorships. Some family influencers get paid directly by brands for endorsing their products. Some sell their own branded merchandise directly to viewers. Many more earn income via Google’s AdSense program (Google owns YouTube). YouTubers can opt to let AdSense pick relevant ads from a pool and put those ads on before their videos. Google shares the ad revenue with the poster and the more viewers that click on the ad, the more the poster gets paid.

The pursuit of internet fame and dollars may pose serious potential dangers to the kids who appear in popular parenting vlogs and other family social media. A look at Twitter, Reddit or the comments section of almost any website proves the internet is often a very ugly place. And while the business of family social media is big and growing, there are as yet few meaningful safeguards for kids’ privacy and safety, both from media companies like YouTube and from existing law. All of that has experts on children’s rights and development worried.

“In many cases, the kids who wind up in ‘commercial sharenting’ are too young to understand what’s going on or to give any type of consent or knowing involvement,” said Leah Plunkett, assistant dean for learning experience and technology at Harvard Law School and author of Sharenthood: Why We Should Think Before We Talk About Our Kids Online. Plunkett says, “If there is content going out about them when they’re three years old that they may be pretty uncomfortable with when they are 13, that content is not going to go away.”

Price of Fame

JORDAN CHEYENNE'S VIDEO WAS ONLY the most recent example of a kid being used for clicks by a YouTuber parent. In 2017, Mike and Heather Martin, a Maryland couple behind the popular DaddyOFive channel, lost custody of two of their five children and were sentenced to probation for child neglect after posting hundreds of videos of the kids being tormented with a variety of cruel and sometimes violent pranks.

In one, the Martins falsely accuse their two sons of having made a mess by spilling ink, screaming and swearing at them while the children cry and plead with their parents. In another, Mike Martin taunts his distressed young son, then shoves him into a bookcase as the boy tries to rush past his father. Their channel had more than 700,000 viewers and their videos were watched millions of times. The Martins subsequently took the videos down and issued public apologies but also said it was all just an act.

“We were going for shock value,” Heather Martin told a local TV station. “What you see on our YouTube channel is not a reflection of who we are. It’s not. It’s a character. It was a show. A bad show. But it was a show.”

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