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The Viral Lives of Children

The representation of everyday children in our media-driven society often ignores how parents shape their child’s digital presence long before the child is able to have a say. Issues of privacy and protection, hotly debated in other arenas, are overlooked as parents post images and videos on social media. Katie Elson Anderson focuses on the issues of protection and privacy as everyday children’s lives go viral. —Cyndi Maurer, PhD (editor)

YouTube is full of adorable babies, sassy toddlers, precocious preschoolers, and talented and entertaining elementary school students. When a video goes viral, besides being viewed on the internet, it can be widely shared by other media outlets, including the nightly news or a late night comedy show. In some cases, adults are encouraged to share videos in which they do mean things to their children, such as tell them they ate all of their Halloween candy (Jimmy Kimmel Live, 2015). The child’s reactions and emotions become entertainment for a broad audience, violating the child’s right to privacy, which encompasses the right to cry about a hurtful event without being put on display.

The ease with which images can be viewed and shared via the web, from email to streaming websites to social media, continues to present challenges regarding privacy and safety. Publishing images is especially problematic for children too young to give permission for their images to be shared. Two of YouTube’s most viewed videos, “David After Dentist” (Bobba1234, 2009) and “Charlie Bit Me” (HDCYT, 2007), have been seen by millions, and the child stars have grown up on the internet, which they themselves did not choose to do. Parents take away their child’s right to privacy each time they decide to publically post about the child.

According to a 2010 survey, 92 percent of U.S. toddlers have an online presence. Sometimes this presence begins before the child is even born. Parents post fetal monitor pictures on Facebook or share information about pregnancy and growth via blogs and social media. After birth, the proud parents post photos and videos and describe the child’s daily activities, humorous phrases, and embarrassing moments. Parents share these digital items with family and friends and sometimes with complete strangers. In some cases, videos are shared with strangers because the parents are ignorant of the privacy settings. The most popular digital media sharing sites have default settings that allow the widest audience possible and must be adjusted in order to limit the viewers.

Nonetheless, it seems that the worldwide sharing is often intentional. While most parents would not willingly allow their video baby monitor images to be widely accessible, as has happened several times recently (Crimesider Staff, 2015), many parents are willing and eager to share images of their children with the public. Such parents are crafting their child’s digital presence well before the child is able to have a say in the matter. These pictures and videos occasionally “go viral” and are viewed by thousands, even millions, of strangers. While some parents are keeping the digital presence of their children private, a look at any day’s list of viral videos indicates that many are not. The actions, words, and dance moves of thousands of children are being offered for public consumption without the children’s permission.

Privacy is not the only concern for children who have a strong online presence. Videos with comments enabled are subject to trolling remarks and bullying. There have been unfortunate examples of cyberbullying on social media sites, including YouTube, that have led to injury and worse.

One of the earliest known incidents of bullying caused by a viral video involved Ghyslain Raza, who became known as the “Star Wars Kid.” He was subjected to bullying both online and in person when a video of him acting out a scene from Star Wars was uploaded to the internet by classmates. He has recently spoken out about his experience in order to bring attention to cyberbullying (Hawkes, 2016).

Children are not protected in this venue, as anyone, including adults, can post negative and demeaning comments. In fact, there are many examples of videos that became viral because adult comedians or comic websites shared them with an adult audience. In this way children’s videos become entertainment for adults. Further, once posted, videos are difficult to eliminate from public view, and they continue to intrude on children’s privacy and raise protection issues. While it is possible to delete the original video, there is little guarantee that the deletion removes the video from the internet. In the case of viral videos, many people make copies and post them, hoping to gain money from the postings that they are responsible for.

Why do parents share such a vast number of videos and pictures of children with the general public? In some cases the motivation for sharing is to win a bit of fame and fortune. Posters of videos earn money through partnering with YouTube for advertising revenue, and in the case of viral videos, the amount of money can be substantial. Then there are the parents who hope their child will become the next Justin Bieber, who was discovered through his YouTube videos. Many “stars” of viral videos receive invitations to morning news shows and daytime talk shows. Even after a video’s popularity has peaked, the child may continue to be an internet celebrity as the world watches the growing-up process in this very public forum.

Parents must understand the impact of how a child’s image is shared and whom it is shared with. While fame and fortune in the present are alluring, parents need to consider the effect of these on their children in the long run. The brief moments of childhood shared with millions are likely to be a large part of the child’s identity and digital presence. The ramifications of not being able to create their own digital presence are still unknown. The children in some of the earliest viral videos are only now entering their teenage and young adult years.

It is important to consider the relevant moral issues before posting images of a child who is too young to understand or grant consent. While there are protections for child actors in some states, at this time there are no protections for child stars of viral videos. Parents are not obligated to save the money made from a video and give it to the child later, nor do they have to remove a video even if the child requests it. Finally, the user agreements and copyright guidelines of many of the video sites take ownership of the images and videos from the parents, further violating the children’s rights to their own images.



Bobba1234. January 30, 2009. David After Dentist. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=txqiwrbYGrs

Crimesider Staff, CBS News. April 15, 2015. Police: Baby Monitor Hacked, Child Pics Likely Global. Retrieved from http://www.cbsnews.com/news/police-minnesota-familys-baby-monitor-hacked-child-pictures-likely-global/

Hawkes, R. May 4, 2016. Whatever Happened to Star Wars Kid? The Sad but Inspiring Story Behind One of the First Victims of Cyberbullying. The Telegraph. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/films/2016/05/04/whatever-happened-to-star-wars-kid-the-true-story-behind-one-of/

HDCYT. May 22, 2007. Charlie Bit My Finger—Again. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_OBlgSz8sSM

Jimmy Kimmel Live. November 2, 2015. Jimmy Kimmel YouTube Challenge “I Told My Kids I Ate All Their Halloween Candy 2015.” Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N1pTZTHZF4E



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