Me, Myself, as Mommy: Our children’s lives are not for the internet’s entertainment
Timing is everything. I’m often grateful I wasn’t born when the pioneers crossed the plains, my ancestors traveling across the country with the ill-fated Martin Handcart Co. I was lucky to come after vaccinations were established, tested, reliable and safe so I avoided horrific diseases like polio. More fortunately than all of this — I didn’t come of age until after social media, smartphones and YouTube were invented. Disregarding the concerns over socialization or access to inappropriate information, dodging the advent of social media during my awkward, hard-knocks days allowed for those moments to be quickly forgotten, uncaptured on video and never posted for the world to witness.
Case in point, as I was learning to drive I had the ultra-embarrassing moment of smashing a driver’s ed car into a light pole just as employees from Hill Air Force Base and students at Northridge High filter through Hill Field Road. High centered with four flat tires and a smoking engine, I slumped as low as possible in the driver’s seat trying to avoid the stares, honks and laughter while the teacher surveyed the damage. My car-versus-pole moment scarred the poor teacher and two boys in my group, who spent the remaining days wearing football helmets whenever I got behind the wheel. Imagine this happened now, in a time when a smartphone is tucked in a pocket ready to livestream my humiliation. Thank goodness I was born in 1984 so the only viral around was an infection.
When I first started this column back in 2010, I wrote about raising my children. I shared glimpses of our day-to-day, the silly adventures of unbridled toddlers, an inept mother and the balancing act of fatherhood. It wasn’t just my life in black and white, it was my family’s. Toddlers grow, they develop autonomy, friends learn to read and kids get a social life. No longer do I feel it’s ethical to share my children’s lives without permission nor do I think it’s wise to share raw moments of emotion or vulnerable thoughts told to me in trust. Parents who use their children’s personal growth experiences as fodder are dabbling in the realm of abuse, yet so many of us subscribe, tune in and read. What is the line on what’s OK to share and what stays within the four walls of a home?
Former family vlogger Ruby Franke, along with her business partner Jodi Hildebrandt, are facing child abuse charges. Millions of people followed Franke’s YouTube channel “8 Passengers,” since removed from the site. On the platform, she showcased her six children as show ponies. Franke documented these kids’ emotional moments, their mistakes and punishments, deep human emotion saved for those we most trust. Viewers took it all in, cheered her on for “keeping it real” as a parent, some even taking her advice. Other viewers called her out for embarrassing the grown kids, some accusing her of abuse to the point YouTube finally made the right choice and removed “8 Passengers.” Franke violated the unwritten code of parenting — we hold our children’s truths to be most sacred. In fact, what she allegedly did was so much farther than that, violating the actual law.
According to the probable cause affidavit, a child climbed from a window of the Ivins home of Hildebrandt early Aug. 31. This child went to a neighbor’s house asking for food and water. The perceptive, heroic neighbor called police, who then observed open wounds and malnourishment. From there, both Franke and Hildebrandt were arrested and charged. Sadly, these women aren’t the only two influencers using their kids to make videos, but they are certainly the most egregious.
Exploiting children online, even in a frame of family-friendly YouTube content, can have long-lasting consequences. Children are more than likes, views, clicks and shares. The cost is the privacy of those children, children who trust the judgment of their parents. The power imbalance makes it nearly impossible for children to voice their dislike of the situation so even if you ask, can the answer really ever be “no” when the family’s paycheck depends on viewership? Children can’t give informed consent, as they may not fully understand the implications of having their lives broadcast to the world.
During the days of Sigmund Frued, the ethics of conducting experiments on children to understand their psychology didn’t really exist. The story of Little Albert is a perfect example. This 9-month-old boy was conditioned to be terrified of rabbits by way of a metal pipe and hammer slamming together to make a loud noise. That experiment wouldn’t fly today due to ethics and standards. Such is the case for content creators using their children for views. Those creating vlogs starring children should be made to follow ethical guidelines, privacy boundaries and compensation to their employees.
Back to the days of Erma Bombeck, the OG of mommy writing, done with so much wit, sarcasm and grace there’s a reason she was a syndicated, best-selling author. People want to see families interact; they want to read relatable, funny stories reminding them everyone is fighting to keep it together. Now, those stories are told with a camera, rolling round the clock, starring a mother who wants to look like she popped out of bed with mile-long lashes, a wrinkle-free beige dress and a baby who doesn’t poop. Motherhood has become a brand.
It seems a simple rule of thumb — if I wouldn’t want a video of me doing it or saying it, my kids probably don’t want it either. In the age of oversharing, it’s time to be guardians of our children. Even writing this out, it makes me hyper aware of what I’ve let folk know about my innocent, naïve children. They have a right to privacy, and while they are fabulous content creators, it isn’t their choice to put it out there to the public. The litany of embarrassing moments I’ve endured in life is ever growing — from the driver’s ed car crash to flipping backward out of the hammock yesterday. Thanks to timing, they weren’t captured on video, broadcast or uploaded. They are my stories to share. Before we upload that photo of our kid bleeding from the head, pouting or tripping as they run down the soccer field, ask how they feel, put privacy first and ask if it’s just for the likes.
Meg Sanders worked in broadcast journalism for over a decade but has since turned her life around to stay closer to home in Ogden. Her three children keep her indentured as a taxi driver, stylist and sanitation worker. In her free time, she likes to read, write, lift weights and go to concerts with her husband of 17 years.