I realise that turning your kids into viral content can be a profitable line of work. A family that films their child unboxing toys on YouTube made $11 million last year; a far meaner family that filmed their kids suffering emotional abuse in the form of “pranks” had more than 750,000 subscribers before their empire collapsed.
Given the exploding popularity of YouTube celebrities and the huge amounts of cash the streaming video site is handing out, there’s lots of incentive to find (or create) the next child star. And who better to mold into the Shirley Temple of the digital age than the cutie pie living in the next room over?
So, like I said, I get it, on some level. Parents have long turned their kids into entertainment for others and reaped the rewards; the Hollywood dream factory has mutated into the YouTube content farm. More disturbing than the businessmen, however, are the folks who film their children having some sort of emotional breakdown and then put it on the internet, just for fun.
I’m thinking of the parents who tape their children dealing with the effects of anesthesia (“Is this real life?”), or the ones instructed by Jimmy Kimmel to film their children breaking down into tears because they think their folks have eaten all their Halloween candy, or the parents who tape reaction videos after telling their children that their favourite athlete has been shipped out of town.
I’m thinking of a poor little boy in Tennessee crying about being bullied, a poor little boy whose tears went viral, a poor little boy to whom celebrities reached out and offered support and love and trips to movie premieres, a poor little boy whose family the howling mobs on Twitter quickly tried to tear down.
A poor little boy who will forever be known to bullies as the kid who cries when you’re mean to him.
I don’t want to name the boy because I don’t want to add to what will surely be a lifetime of Google woes, but if you’ve been online in the past few days, you’ve seen him. And you’ll forget about him in time, as the next viral kid pops up for his 15 seconds and then disappears and then the next viral kid pops up and disappears and ... well, you get it. As the perpetual internet meme machine keeps rolling.
But after we forget the boy and after we bury whatever “awareness” his mother was trying to raise (for her son and for bullying, of course; certainly not for her YouTube page), and after we forget about the GoFundMe page that either hit its goal or got shut down or just kind of limped along, and after we forget about the good deeds done and the angry tweets tweeted, you know who’s going to remember him? The bullies. Taping a kid crying about other kids being mean to him is like slapping a meat belt on a diver and dropping him into the ocean from a helicopter; every shark within smelling distance is going to take a bite.
It’s hard to say exactly what sort of impact these videos will have. In a troubling essay for the New Statesman, Amelia Tait asked whether enough was being done to protect YouTube’s child stars; the answer given by British professor John Oates, founder of the British Psychological Society’s Media Ethics Advisory Group, is not enough:
“There’s the question of what the child will think of these materials, which are there for all time basically, when they’re older and when they have a better capacity to judge ... what they were induced to engage in,” Oates said. He thinks there is “potential” for long-term psychological harm, as well as a possibility that these children will be bullied as teenagers.
I’m not sure what kind of regulations you could possibly impose on a parent to keep this sort of content from being uploaded to YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etc; where does one draw the line between sharing something cute for friends and family on a personal or private page and something that goes viral? What we need instead are parents who act like, well, parents. Adults. Grown-ups who can see that what they’re doing might have consequences beyond the momentary influx of likes and shares and retweets and video views.
For God’s sake: Stop putting your kids’ tears online for the rest of us to either laugh at or empathise with. Everything on the internet will be there forever. Your children shouldn’t be forced to live with your need for attention.