The second narrative type of commercial sharenting script is activities. The topics in this category run from arts and crafts to zany pranks, typically with a focus on doing activities with kids or guiding kids as they engage in such activities themselves. Some activities land on the quotidian. For example, the founders of WhatsUpMoms YouTube channel identify the search for travel tips for families as a key impetus to start creating content. Still other familiar activities include holidays, sports, and household decor. Sometimes these pursuits move beyond quotidian concerns into inspiration. Do more than get through the holidays: accessorize your home into transcendence!
Other activity categories are less common across households. Many moments in family life unintentionally create humor, as when you put laundry detergent in a dishwasher. Oops. But the laughs that bubble over from mistakes or spontaneous play are distinct from those that arise from elaborate plots to “put one over” on a family member. When that family member is a child, the prank may be no laughing matter. The dark side of the family prank space requires zooming in beyond the screenshot level. This side reveals how commercial sharenting can result in the total exposure of children at their most vulnerable. At its most extreme, such sharenting reveals to the world parental conduct that meets the legal definition of child abuse or neglect.
Recently, a court determined that a Washington, DC, area couple had neglected two of their children after a series of videos posted on the father’s YouTube channel, DaddyOFive, showed what to “most onlookers… looked a lot like abuse.” In an especially disturbing sequence, the parents spill disappearing ink in their son’s bedroom, swear and scream at him about how much trouble he’s in for the mess, then mock his justified indignation when he is told, “It’s just a prank, bruh!” This basic script repeats itself in a number of episodes: they put a child in an inappropriate or unsafe situation, capture his understandable emotional reaction, reveal that it’s “just a prank,” then document and ridicule his inevitable meltdown.
The court ordered two children removed from this family’s home and placed in foster care. The parents themselves had already suspended their YouTube channel, which had roughly three-quarters of a million followers. Viewers alerted authorities about the dangerous household. This development could suggest that the family’s YouTube postings, although a privacy intrusion for their children, were justified because they allowed outside eyes to witness the inner workings of this house of horrors. It could also suggest that the incentives to generate new and sensational content to capture viewers’ eyeballs contributed to this vicious and dangerous conduct in the first place.
Regardless of where you come down on these complex questions of causality and consequences, two general points about privacy and pranking are straightforward. First, after a prank is loose in the digital world, it is pretty much impossible to scrub it from the internet. The DaddyOFive YouTube channel is gone. Its content is the digital equivalent of real ink, however, rather than the disappearing kind. Its stain remains. The internet hosts perpetual reruns, whether the “actors” like it or not. The DaddyOFive content is readily available through other online sources, such as the YouTube channels of the viewers who have commented on it.
Even when that commentary is a respectful and thoughtful analysis of the “many ways to abuse your kids” and the reasons they’re all unacceptable, as one leading YouTube commentator put it, that commentator is still facilitating viewers’ access to the videos. Cody, the boy who was the butt of most of his parents’ so-called jokes, appears to have lived through a nightmare in the DaddyOFive household. In some ways, he will continue to live through one as long as that footage has an undead perpetual existence on the internet.
For Cody, decision makers about his current and future opportunities will not need a data broker to dig for or an algorithm to analyze intimate information about his childhood. His humiliation, fear, anger, and so much more are there in plain view. You would have to be heartless to hold any of his experiences against him.
But how about reasoning that goes something like this: “Of course, it wasn’t Cody’s fault, but given what we know about the potential for childhood trauma to have lifelong adverse impacts on survivors, maybe I don’t want to let my child have him over for a play date. Maybe I don’t want him in my class. Maybe I don’t want to give him a summer job.” Such questions are rational. They are also unfair to Cody. Depending on the role of the decision maker, they could shade over quickly into unlawful discrimination against him based on an assumption of disability. Perhaps more important, from a child’s perspective, they likely will make it hard for him to make friends and be himself, whoever that self turns out to be.
The second general point about privacy and pranking is that many kids today are subject to parental pranks. But there is a difference between so-called pranks that actually constitute abuse or neglect, like Cody experienced, and pranks that do not. A prank that is in poor taste or just not funny typically will be lawful. Today’s digital sharenting culture, however, does have an uncomfortable subplot of parental pranking to it even among commercial and noncommercial sharenters who avoid crossing the line into abusive or neglectful behavior.
Kids are natural comedic geniuses. Toddlers find it hilarious to repeat the old “throw the spoon on the floor, shriek for dad to pick it up, repeat” routine. Parents are also funny: they can make the spoon start to talk, flirt with the fork, and elope with the dish. Mazel tov! Maybe the family is the only one laughing, but it’s a spoonful of sugar to help real life go down. The sweetness starts to sour, though, when we get laughs at our kids’ expense rather than laughing with them or at ourselves. Take the annual trick or treat prank that late-night television host Jimmy Kimmel sets up every year.
Parents pretend they have finished all of their children’s Halloween candy, film their children’s response, and share the recordings digitally. The YouTube video of the 2017 “I told my kids I ate all their Halloween candy” challenge put out by the Jimmy Kimmel show has more than 2.8 million views. Kimmel gets contributions from sharenters everywhere. Spoiler alert: taking candy from a baby may be easy for the adults, but there’s nothing easy about it for the babies. These kids take it hard. Some of them have epic flipouts, and others struggle to remain calm while falling apart inside. The trick cuts deep, upending the immediate promise of Halloween mirth and the fundamental one of parental reliability. It generates a cheap and even sadistic laugh. That so many parents play along raises a disturbing question about the adult appetite for humor: how much of it is based on behavior that should be understood as bullying? It’s a loaded word, but cyberbullying might be the right term to describe the dynamics underlying certain instances of commercial and noncommercial sharenting.
In the last decade or so, there has been a growing focus by educators, lawmakers, and other decision makers on how to address bullying behaviors between youth, as well as to protect kids and teens from the harms that result. In many ways, the digital world has exacerbated these challenges and risks as children and adolescents engage each other around the clock across a range of devices and platforms. A common response by decision makers has been to pass new or update existing state statutes and regulations to require educator and law enforcement intervention when bullying occurs.
Let’s look at one such anti-bullying state law, which defines bullying as “a single significant incident or a pattern of incidents involving a written, verbal, or electronic communication, or a physical act or gesture, or any combination thereof, directed at another pupil which . . . causes emotional distress to a pupil.” The law specifies that bullying covers “actions motivated by an imbalance of power based on a pupil’s actual or perceived personal characteristics.” This law is binding only in the school context, hence the use of the term pupil. It is a law about how kids treat other kids.
Thought experiment: what happens if you swap in the word minor for pupil? The law then would prohibit a single significant incident that causes emotional distress to a person under age eighteen, including when that incident was motivated by an imbalance of power based on that person’s age. Publishing your children’s suffering—by taking Halloween candy from them, recording their reactions, and sharing the results with the world—seems to fit that adjusted definition. It is a significant incident that causes emotional distress to your child, however that distress is measured. An imbalance of power is inherent in the set-up of the incident. The parental role affords the adult “prankster” access to the candy. The child role puts the child in a place of dependence on the parent. What recourse does she have to get her candy back if her parent says it’s gone? The child role also virtually guarantees that the incident will garner a response that the parent sees as worthy of filming because, from a developmental perspective, the child is likely to have a strong and complex reaction to the “prank.”
Is it time to call in the parenting police? No, an anti-bullying law that covers parents and other adults won’t be written. Such a law likely would be unconstitutionally vague and overbroad. Especially as applied against parents, it could prohibit positive parenting conduct that keeps your child safe, like making your thirteen-year-old cry when you tell him he can’t drive your car because he’s underage. If the government proscribed even one “significant incident” of parental conduct that causes “emotional distress” to a child based on the respective parent and child roles, then the government would be intruding too far into constitutional protection for the liberty to parent and raise a family.
The rights to other adult-child relationships, like teacher-student or coach-athlete, are not entitled to the same level of constitutional protection as parent-child. However, these other roles do carry with them certain legal responsibilities that require adults to make decisions, based on the child’s age, that are necessary to keep them safe but may still cause the child emotional distress. Thus, an anti-bullying law that covers non-parent adult caregivers also likely would be too vague and overly broad to survive a legal challenge.
Although law enforcement won’t be opening a file for the case of the missing Halloween candy, we adults can and should still be thinking about the norms we adhere to in our daily lives. We don’t need a law to tell us that bullying our kids is wrong. We do need to think about how we explain the following to our kids: it is fine for us to take their candy, make them cry, film their crying, and share the video, but if they do the same thing to a younger pupil, they will get in trouble at school and perhaps with local law enforcement.
Is the right explanation similar to the one we give about drinking beer and driving cars? That explanation goes a little something like this: “You can’t do it now, but you can do it when you’re older.” Can we come up with a sound explanation here, one grounded in common decency and upholding the spirit of the anti-bullying laws our elected officials have passed for the schools that teach our children? If we can’t, then we should rethink the Halloween prank, both participating in it and watching it. More fundamentally, we should rethink our current acceptance of sharented “prankster” content by amateurs or professionals that makes kids the butt of jokes. There’s a lot more that is ghoulish than grown-up about it.
Excerpted from Sharenthood: Why We Should Think before We Talk about Our Kids Online by Leah A Plunkett (MIT Press, 2019)