Are Parents of YouTube Stars Exploiting Their Kids?

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Today I read a pair of editorials that got me thinking about children being used in viral videos.  Are we going too far?  Are some parents going to live with regret for years for making their kid a star on YouTube?

The first article that got me pondering this question was this negative review Roger Ebert gave the new movie Kick-Ass—short version: he thinks it’s morally reprehensible.  One of his biggest complaints is the use of an 11-year-old character (the actress playing her is 14) in multiple scenes of graphic violence involving guns and knives and more.

The second article was a piece called Kids On YouTube: How Much Is Too Much? It’s a very interesting read and an even more fascinating debate.

Should kids be used in viral videos?  Are they being exploited?  Is it a bad influence on child viewers of the video?  The list of questions goes on and on.

The CNN piece highlights a show called “The Yippity Yo Cooking Show”, which features a hilarious 3-year-old in the kitchen doing what 3-year-olds are prone to do:  scream, smear food products on her face, and giggle frequently.  I’ll go ahead and insert my own observation here on the irony of CNN wondering if the videos exploit the child while simultaneously plastering her face and name on one of the most-read news sites online—if the videos are exploitative, then so is the article, CNN… which kind of tells me which side of the debate you’re on.

Anyway, the girl’s father intentionally avoids mentioning the family’s last name, betraying his own internal misgivings about making his toddler a star, and even goes so far as to suggest that they can always pull the video down when the girl is older and more likely to be embarrassed by the thing.

And this kind of illustrates the problem.  Parents are aware enough of the dangers of the Internet to keep their last name a secret, but naïve enough about how the Internet works to think that pulling a video off YouTube in a few years will mean that it’s actually gone.

This “kids on YouTube” issue has been debated almost since online video arrived on the scene.  Will Ferrell and Adam McKay took heat three years ago when McKay’s daughter (2-years-old at the time) was the star of a video where she played a foul-mouthed landlord to Ferrell’s rent-deficient tenant.  David After Dentist creator, David DeVore, has been accused of exploiting his son in a vulnerable situation (drugged up after dental surgery) and some have gone so far as to suggest it borders on abuse.  It’s worth noting that DeVore now sells T-shirts, makes media appearances, and has earned thousands of dollars (many of which have gone to charity), and that his son seems totally fine with it all.

Just a couple weeks ago we wrote about the Scarface school play video where elementary school children performed a slightly-tamer stage version of the violent film.

My stance all along has generally been that the issue of whether this is right or wrong (using your kids in YouTube videos) is really more of a personal decision for the parents.  It’s hard for me to feel like I have a right to tell another parent they can’t put their cute kid on the Internet if they’re fine with it.  Heck, in the weekly Viral Round Up I’ve gone so far as to playfully encourage you to use your cute or talented kids in your viral attempts.

And yet, there has to be a line drawn somewhere, right ? We don’t let kids stay in homes where they are physically abused or neglected, so on some level this society of ours believes that some parents are so bad that they need to be corrected by the cops, the government, or their fellow citizens.  If, for example, a video hit the web featuring a parent hitting their child, then that would probably lead pretty quickly to an arrest of some kind.

But entertainment videos?  Scripted videos made for fun?  Harmless conversations between children and parents?  Those are not abusive, nor is it exploitation.  Listen, I refuse to buy the notion that David DeVore or Adam McKay are exploiting their kids in a way that is illegal or immoral while the entire country continues to celebrate reality TV moms who have somewhere between 8 and 19 kids they shove in front of a camera.  Those people are getting rich off their kids.  Why should wannabe Internet filmmakers be denied the same opportunity?

Parents have been putting their child-actor offspring on television shows and in R-rated movies for decades.  One of the earliest film stars ever was Shirley Temple, who was three years of age when she began her acting career in 1932.  This is not a new debate, it’s just a new incarnation of an ancient debate.  The Internet changes the landscape because of its permanence and its accessibility.

Ten years ago, a funny video of your daughter playing Julia Child would be shown in your living room on your VCR to friends and family.  In 2010, it’s far easier to share with all your friends by uploading to YouTube—but that step also makes it public and lasting.  Don’t forget that most of these parents have no idea their child’s video is going to go viral and be seen 56 million times—David DeVore and the Yippity Yo father both claim they simply hadn’t conceived of their videos going viral, but merely started with something they wanted to share with friends.  Maybe the real problem is the Internet—and a lack of understanding as to how it works—and not parents putting their kids in funny videos?

I’m not a parent, so it’s hard for me to put myself into the mind of one.  But for me, the issue would be about protecting them from celebrity and attention they aren’t old enough to even decide they want.  Which means it’s a subjective issue.  Some people have a problem with it, while others don’t.  It’s as divisive an issue as violent video games, children playing violent sports, or what age a child should get their first job (I was 9 when I got a paper route, for what it’s worth).  Newsflash:  some folks have different ideas on parenting than you do, and that doesn’t make them wrong.  While people who put their child in a viral video may be bad parents according to some, they aren’t doing anything illegal or immoral… making this much ado about nothing, as most similar “controversies” are.

Any parents out there that have uploaded videos of their children to YouTube want to weigh?  Or the opposite… someone who decided against using their child in a video?  I would love to hear from someone directly involved in this kind of thing.


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