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Chelsea dives into a relatively uncomfortable topic, asking: what kind of world are we creating where children are being used in online content, often for the purpose of earning money, without their consent?

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0:00 Investing Workshop
1:15 Chelsea's experience with being on the internet too young
8:34 Children on social media
12:31 When sharing becomes a job
22:00 The dangers of child content online


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It's only $10 and you will become a confident investor. Hey, guys. It's Chelsea from The Financial Diet and this week, I am going into a topic that I know-- even before I say a single word, just from the title and thumbnail alone-- is a bit of a minefield.

Now, this video is going to be a bit longer than I usually make them and it is entirely because I recognize the sensitivity of this subject and because it is something that is quite important to me, personally, and I want to make sure that I'm doing it justice, even if that doesn't mean entirely protecting myself from people throwing tomatoes in the comments. As I've stated before on this channel, I not only don't have any children myself, I don't plan to have any children. I am someone who considers themselves a part of the child-free by choice community.

And though I'm a bit more agnostic about things like eventually fostering children or working with them in some other capacity, I definitely know that giving birth and raising a child is just, not for me and, therefore, the fact that I'm even going to touch on the topic of parenthood and, more specifically, motherhood makes me a bit of a sitting duck. But where I don't have the authority-- nor, to be clear, the desire-- to speak on parenthood, I do have a lot of authority on the topic of being visible and making money on the internet, both of which are things that have been a defining feature of my life for the past 10 years and have led me to have a lot of serious convictions on when and how people should be able to enter into these choices themselves. So I initially started my career as a writer, kind of, by accident.

I submitted some articles to a then, very nascent website called Thought Catalog, where I ended up getting published many times over-- initially for free, then for about $25 an article, then eventually as a staff writer, where I started at $33,000 a year and capped out at $42,000. So in terms of the money that I was exchanging for my high level of visibility, it's fair to say that for that first part of my career, it was quite low. And it also came at the time at an extremely high level of personal exposure, in large part because when I started writing publicly on the internet, I was 22 years old and quite flippant about not just the opinions that I was expressing in my articles, but about expressing them at all in such a forum when you're being read, potentially, by millions of strangers.

At certain points throughout my writing career there, I was under a quota of four articles a day, meaning that the actual content going into the writing was-- to put it nicely-- often, less than well-considered. And-- for example-- in my first year of writing publicly, I wrote an article about the then popular Slutwalk March, where I, more or less, made the argument that women who dress provocatively on some level deserve to be harassed. It was a terrible article and not even one I really think I fully understood when I was writing it, but I did already understand the very crude internet logic of express trenchant opinion, get clicks.

The article went viral for all the wrong reasons and led to me being what I could refer to now as proto-canceled. I was lucky enough to be able to continue my writing career. A year later, I wrote a follow-up article expressing how my thoughts on the matter had changed because in addition to being 22 at the time I wrote it, 2011 internet was-- let's just say-- a little bit less woke on gender issues and I was really learning, along with the rest of the culture, why that internalized misogyny I grew up with wasn't it, Chief.

And over a decade later-- although I still from time to time receive disgruntled emails from people who are confronting that piece of content for the first time-- I consider it something that's no longer reflective of who I am today and I'm lucky enough that it doesn't have a bearing on my current career. Later on in 2015-- after starting TFD as a personal blog and then, my full-time job, but still in writing form-- through a production partnership with John and Hank Green-- who some of you might know-- we launched the TFD YouTube channel-- the one you're watching right now and the one which has almost a million subscribers. It's a level of visibility on the internet that is quite high and comes with a lot of drawbacks, but the success of this YouTube channel has largely enabled us, as a company, to grow to the 12 employees that we currently are and do all of the other amazing things that we are able to do, both on and off of this very channel.

And although my increasing visibility on this platform has changed, in some ways, my own relationship with social media-- for example, in the past few years, especially, I've become a lot more discerning about the things that I'll post on my personal accounts, particularly when it comes to other people and especially, minors-- I do feel at 33 years old and with over a decade of experience being on the internet behind me that I'm able to do an accurate cost benefit analysis of what this public exposure allows me to do with my life and with my business and the downsides that I could, otherwise, avoid, even if I'm not particularly interested in keeping this same level of visibility long-term or is it something I really enjoy, in and of itself, on its own. I also-- because of my long career in digital media-- I'm very aware of the finances of YouTube. I've often spoken with other adult creators who went into the YouTube world a little bit blindly and achieved viral success before they learned about the infrastructure of making money on the internet and, therefore, were exposing themselves to all kinds of predatory behaviors, unfair deals, and unsavory ways of making money off of their content.

I was lucky enough in that I worked in sponsored content at my old job before I even started TFD and part of what allowed me to start my company was that I understood not only how to monetize stuff on the internet, but how to do it well and sustainably. This video wasn't brought to you by anyone today, but that was a specific choice. And you may notice that-- for those of you who don't have YouTube Premium-- you saw some automated pre-roll ads playing before the video, which is also a choice.

I should note here that pre-roll is not only based on your own algorithm so when you see an ad for something you don't like, it ain't because we chose it. It's based on your search history and what YouTube thinks you want to see-- don't blame me-- but those ads also represent a very small amount of the overall money that TFD makes. For context, the ads that you see automatically playing before one of our videos are about 5% of our revenue on any given year.

We also, in addition to having a really solid grasp on how we make money with our content, are very transparent with our entire company about how that money is made, how it's divvied up, and even-- for example-- what I'm taking out of it personally. I also-- for example-- don't do things like sponsored content or brand deals on my personal platforms not only because I would rather channel them into my broader business where it benefits everyone, but, also, because it's very important for me that I maintain some kind of a partition between what is my actual personal experience and what I'm being paid to endorse-- something that gets incredibly blurred on people for whom their personal platform is also how they make money, but more on that later. All of this is to say that as someone who has gone through basically, everything being visible on and making money off of the internet has to offer-- from the horrible and exploitative and potentially, life-ruining to the sustainable and thoughtful and, quite frankly, very rewarding-- I only feel now-- at the big ol' age of 33-- that I'm even really beginning to understand it.

And when I look back at my 22-year-old self naively posting the most inflammatory content she could to get the most attention out of it, I think it should have been illegal for me to do that-- quite honestly. I know it never will be, but I wish someone had stopped me. And the idea of people who are too young to meaningfully consent to that type of thing or whose consent was never sought in the first place, being thrust in the same kind of world that I have found myself in makes me really scared.

So today, we're talking about the phenomenon of children on the internet, both at the massive viral level-- which we'll talk about-- as well as on the individual day-to-day level because I do believe that the problem goes beyond just the incredible lack of child labor laws and regulations about how children work on the internet-- and let me be clear. After more than a decade making my career on the internet, this is work. I also believe it's a broader problem of our fundamental philosophy about children and the autonomy that they should have over their own digital lives and likenesses.

So let's start by talking about the normalization of children being visible on social media. When it comes to the idea of children being visible on their parents' social media accounts or as a broader part of their personal brand, we've basically totally normalized it as a society. We're now seeing children well before they're even born.

We follow along with their ultrasounds. We get a real-time replay of their gender reveals. We sometimes even see the pregnancy test, itself, sometimes even in a post that's brought to you by ClearBlue #spon #ad-- but more on that later.

We also often see parents sharing widely about their children's mental or physical health, their sexuality or gender identity, their experiences in their academic or personal lives and many other things that to some-- including those children-- might be considered private information. And while there is a strong argument to be made that parents have a right to share imagery or information about their child to their personal accounts-- and, quite frankly, I am in neither illegal, nor immoral position to tell parents-- of which I am not one-- what to do with content of their kid-- one of which I do not have-- though, there has been a sharp rise in children suing parents or guardians over non-consensual social media sharing-- the undeniable reality is that our relationship to this kind of sharing at a personal level establishes two key premises, which are later exploited at the professional level. One, consent on the part of a child to having a visible presence on social media or what things should and should not be OK to share is either outright not considered or considered only as an eventual opt-out scenario.

Since, in the case of a newborn, I have yet to meet one who is capable of expressing its disapproval of the still gooey hospital photo being shared-- sometimes they're gooey. Two, children exist when it comes to their parents' digital lives to be a kind of subsidiary of the parent rather than its own autonomous individual. So we've created a context in which a default presumption of privacy or choice on the part of the child is not necessary and in many ways, their digital selves-- their likeness, their identity, content produced of and by them-- is seen as property of the parent.

And though this is somewhat confined to the digital space, it's important to remember that children being considered property of their parents and essentially, economic extensions of those parents is far from new. It's a philosophical concept that has waxed and waned in all different cultures throughout history on all kinds of different issues and up until roughly, the late 1930s in the US, the default presumption that children were effectively, the economic property of their parents and arguably, should be exploited as such was very much the default position. Now, I do not say any of this to suggest that every parent who shares a photo of their toddler enjoying a plate of spaghetti is committing some horrible ethical transgression or that they're taking us back to the Victorian era in terms of children being seen as economic subsidies of their parents, but I do believe that all of these choices being made are being made in a broader context that we are all part of creating-- intentionally or not.

When we see children as fundamentally not needing to render consent about a given thing, we cannot then blame individual parents for not seeking that consent. And again, I have many parents in my life whom I love and think are wonderful, thoughtful parents who do this kind of sharing, and I understand how and why it is so normalized at that personal level, but where it becomes even more complicated and-- in my opinion-- outright more ethically dubious is when that content is being monetized or leveraged to build a more public brand. When sharing becomes a job.

From your titans of mommy blogging to the MLM peddler from your high school hey, girling you on Facebook DMs, turning social media accounts into ways to generate income-- either directly or indirectly-- is a defining feature of our current internet and something I am personally quite familiar with. And even if you're not directly selling a product with a given post or being paid to post it-- in the case of $spon-- when you are monetizing your personal accounts to any extent, the overall growth, engagement, and performance of the channel become integral parts of that account's success and financial viability. Data around the impact of posting children to a given piece of content's performance and engagement metrics can be difficult to find because honestly, that's just kind of a bleak thing for people to acknowledge out loud, but both an anecdotal trip around the pages of some of your favorite influencers, as well as deeper dives in pieces like this recent one in Newsweek demonstrate the extent to which heavily featuring your family, including and especially your children, can be excellent content business.

A child's presence in YouTube videos can rake in considerable profits. In 2019, the Pew Research Center found videos with children who appear to be under the age of 13 received three times as many views as other videos. Nine-year-old Ryan Kaji-- star of the Ryan's World YouTube channel-- topped Forbes' 2020 list of highest paid YouTubers, estimated to have netted $29.5 million from his content and product lines.

And while I do believe that story is, in and of itself, quite heavily compromised, when compared to other examples of children being leveraged for the good content engagement they provide, the outcomes can be much darker. From the same Newsweek article, one prominent case saw Maryland couple Mike and Heather Martin, who ran the infamous DaddyOFive channel, lose custody of two of their five children and end up sentenced to probation for child neglect. The Martin's content involved inflicting emotional torment onto the children under the guise of pranking In one, the Martin family accused their two sons of having made a mess by spilling ink, screaming and swearing at them while the young children cry and plead with their parents.

In another, Mike Martin taunts his distressed young son and then shoves him into a bookcase as the boy tries to rush past his father. The channel had more than 700,000 subscribers and their videos were watched millions of times. The Martin's subsequently took the videos down and issued public apologies, but also said that they were just an act. "We were going for shock value," Heather Martin told a local TV station. "What you see on our YouTube channel is not a reflection of who we are.

It's not. It's a character. It was a show-- a bad show, but it was a show." And as someone who is intimately familiar with the way that metrics and engagement can shape the kind of content you're creating-- especially when money is on the line-- although this seems monstrous to imagine, it also seems a very logical outcome of platforms, which are ultimately rewarding this type of content.

The Martin's seem to be made an example of, but you don't have to look very hard on places like YouTube to find all kinds of content where children are participating in "pranks" they may not understand, performing all kinds of emotions for the camera, and generally being encouraged to act in a way that leads to high engagement, regardless of the impact that it might be having on their little brains. And what's shocking is that despite these cases-- despite children like Ryan bring in tens of millions of dollars a year on just one platform's revenue-- and despite how ubiquitous things like social media are in our day-to-day lives, we have yet to really understand these things as labor that the child is engaging in, in the way-- for example-- acting on a television show might be labor for that child. And, therefore, despite there being quite intense labor regulations around children in the entertainment industry, when it comes to labor laws in the internet, it's still, more or less, the Wild West.

As we have seen, the child labor laws in even the strictest states like California and New York do not sufficiently regulate social media and parents can claim that their children are not actors, since they are not participating in acting productions. And as our recent TFC interview with former child actress and all-around awesome person Jennette McCurdy taught us, even in industries where the labor of children is heavily regulated, things like child exploitation, abuse, and coercion are still more the norm than the exception. So in industries which have relatively negligible regulation and where labor is not perceived as such, the opportunities for financial and emotional exploitation are basically, limitless.

And making things all the more complicated is the extent to which social media and influencing is predicated on the idea that rather than playing any kind of separate role-- as in the case of acting-- you're rewarded specifically for showing your true self, meaning that even in the case of a child whose financial interests are being well-protected, what they're essentially consenting to sell is their own identity and their privacy. The mother in the Martin case claims that their family were playing roles, but the concept of the channel and what led to its success was the perception of authenticity that these children really were being tormented, even if they claim that those children were consenting to those performances. But even the idea itself of a consenting child seems difficult to truly validate in practice.

When we look at some of the cases of children being leveraged for content-- as in that article-- what does consent actually mean? Does a five-year-old know what it means to have a video of them crying go viral on YouTube to the tune of tens of thousands of ad dollars? Does a 12-year-old whose entire life has been documented on social media since before her birth feel that she can meaningfully opt-out of continuing to be shared?

Does a group of siblings who know that their family's financial health-- at least, in part-- depends on them continuing to do acappella covers in the back of their minivan have an ability to say no without massive consequences? In researching this video, this one woman who has, like, eight children and is really well-known on the social media platforms for it is basically, like the Babadook on my Instagram Explore feed. She's haunting me and popping up all over the place.

And she has this one video-- and I won't give much detail because I don't want this to be about any one person-- but she does this one video where her husband and all of her kids are dancing to a viral TikTok thing in matching outfits and across Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube, at least, it has hundreds of millions, almost a billion views. And my question becomes, do those children even know that them dancing to viral TikTok audio in matching outfits is essential to their family's financial health at this point? Or that their mother's lucrative personal brand is predicated on them?

Do they even know what they're consenting to when they dance in that video? Now, I want to be clear that these types of questions are relevant in any situation where a child is working, which is why there are extremely strict labor laws around children as compared to adults, even if, in many cases, less is actually at stake than their entire digital likeness and private identity and even if those already strict labor laws and more established industries are generally, still not enough. But what happens when the workplace is never actually easily definable?

Because a lot of this stuff is often taking place in the child's own home or during what is ostensibly, that child's personal time. The ability of even the most aggressive labor laws to protect children in regards to work is seriously hamstrung by that. If a video of a child on a playground racks up tens of millions of views and huge ad dollars as a result, were they working?

What if they're playing in the background of their kitchen to make their mother's sponsored post for Bounty paper towels get better engagement on her grid? Is that work? Is it?

I think, yes. And as it pertains to labor laws, it seems clear to me that the two key factors that combine to make it the Wild West that it truly is in this regard is what we discussed before, which is the overall social perception that children don't need to be consenting to any of this, combined with the idea that what we're talking about isn't actually work, even when it's worth tens of millions of dollars. But let's say even if it's not a job-- because it's a much clearer legal and ethical issue when the child is exchanging labor for currency-- but even when it's not a job, this is still a massive issue.

Because even if we were to enact the most strict possible labor laws around this type of content, what happens when the very act of engaging on these platforms, especially at highly visible levels, is in and of itself dangerous, regardless of the monetization? Because it may now seem totally inevitable that everyone, including children, are just going to have their entire lives documented on social media even before birth and way before they can even understand the consequences, but it's important to remember two things. One is that same perception of inevitability used to be applied to children being part of the workforce, which is now seen by our culture as largely cruel and immoral.

And two, the effects that things like social media, internet visibility, and digital content consumption can have on children are already being understood as fraught with consequences for mental health and development, particularly in issues like social anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and even increased risk of self-harm and suicidality. It's, of course, no surprise then that the tech elite have become famous for heavily restricting their children's access to things like social media and devices more generally, as they're on the cutting-edge of the risks that these things actually represent to children. And yes, again, there are vast shades of gray between a photo of a child smiling on their aunt's Facebook and a child who is generating millions of a year making videos playing with toys on YouTube-- which is an entire sub-phenomenon of the platform unto itself and very good business-- the underlying assumption is the same.

While we may know on some level that this stuff isn't good for the kid, ultimately, we, the adults, get to be the arbiters of to what extent they're exposed to it before they can render consent or before they're even asked for it. And this becomes even more complicated when you consider the extent to which content of children-- such as images and videos-- can be used for all kinds of nefarious and abusive purposes. We know that photos and videos of children are being harvested all the time for use in activities, which I'm not even going to describe here because I don't want this video to get flagged.

And-- to be fair-- this is not avoidable for anyone on the internet. Anyone's imagery can be used for really gross things or for purposes beyond what they were initially intended-- let's say. I am a person who has never once posted anything suggestive about what's happening below my ankles and yet, I have a fairly well-established Wiki feet page of people who've harvested pictures of my feet from my Instagram and other places where I was unknowingly and naively posting myself in sandals.

I know I'm also Streisand-affecting the hell out of this and you guys are going to go look at my Wiki feet. At this point, what am I supposed to do? I'm not going to try and get them to take it down.

And honestly, I've, sort of, found it a little bit funny, at this point. Some of the comments I find hilarious and, at the end of the day, it's not really harming me so I'm not going to make a big deal out of it. But I'm an adult who is able to consent to that or at least, understand it.

I know now realistically, when I post a photo of myself in sandals during the summer, those guys are on it. And it's part of the much broader deal with the devil that I'm making for the life that my digital exposure allows me to have and the business that allows me to run-- that I mentioned all the way at the beginning of this interminable video-- but I'm making that choice and I know the stakes. Children are not and they don't.

Ultimately-- I cannot stress enough-- the point of this video is not to point my finger at any one person or to suggest that anyone who's engaged in anything on the spectrum of this behavior is somehow a bad person. I don't think you are. I don't think any of us really are, for the most part, except for a few awful outliers.

I just think people operate in the context in which they live. And again-- to take it back to what we consider normal or acceptable as a society-- people used to have no compunction about sending all of their children to go work in coal mines. That was just considered a way to build character for your kids and if your six-year-old wasn't getting down there with a little flashlight on its head, he wasn't earning his keep.

Obviously, that seems barbaric to us now, but it didn't used to and when I look back at the parents who would have made those choices in that time, I don't think they're bad people, either. They're operating within the context in which we live. And as much as we make fun of Boomers who don't understand the internet and had their brains melted by Facebook memes about Joe Biden and who generally saw the same destruction of their mental health that they told us was going to happen from playing violent video games, the relationship that Millennials, I think, have to the idea of children growing up on the internet as the first generation to really handle that from birth will one day, similarly, be looked at as a huge mistake, especially when we look at children who are being leveraged for their labor, their likeness, and their digital fingerprint.

It's tough to navigate these things in real time. None of us were given a manual, but as someone who entered the gladiator arena of making content on the internet at the age of 22 and who-- looking back-- thinks that even that was ridiculously young and shouldn't have happened, the idea of a teenager or even a young child doing the same thing before they even understand what they're agreeing to is really scary and, as we've seen here, can have truly awful consequences. So if you take nothing else from this video, I ask you to think just a little bit differently about how much we feel that children get to be their own autonomous individuals when it comes to navigating our digital world and maybe get on our favorite mommy bloggers a little bit more when their kids are featured in sponcon, and there's zero disclosure about that child's financial protection.

And as always, guys, thank you for watching and don't forget to hit the Subscribe button and to come back every Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday for new and awesome videos. Ciao.