Abuse case shows few rules protect kids in online videos

Published 7:54 am Thursday, March 28, 2019

PHOENIX — A trip to the grocery store. A little league baseball game. A cute baby swinging from a tree. Millions of people have watched strangers do these everyday activities online.

Family video blogs are a multimillion-dollar industry that has allowed some parents to quit their jobs and be with their children full time as they document their daily lives and post the footage for anyone to see. But the popularity of the videos, which draw corporate sponsors, has come with a price for some children.

An Arizona woman was indicted Tuesday on charges of abusing her kids who had starred in a popular series of YouTube videos, including using pepper spray to punish them if they performed poorly during filming.

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While the case is extreme, it has raised concerns about the legal protections and ethical quandaries surrounding children who appear in money-making videos.

“From a developmental perspective, you have a dual role as a parent — you are their boss as well as their parent, and that’s very confusing for a child, especially for younger children who want to please their parents,” said Yalda T. Uhls, founder and executive director of University of California, Los Angeles’ Center for Scholars and Storytellers, which offers insights from research to guide children’s entertainment.

“Even though it may appear on camera they are playing, they are working,” Uhls said.

Labor rules that protect children on movie and TV sets are not enforced online. State laws guide how long child actors hired by studios can work, how much schooling they must get and where their money is kept. In video blogging, parents are the only regulators.

No other agency, including social media platforms like YouTube, plays more than a minimal role in labor protections for children appearing in online videos, which can earn families hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. The videos carry ads and companies also offer marketing contracts for popular channels to feature their products.