As family vloggers rack up controversies, some followers can't quit them

A camera recording a girl live-streaming.

Jane Halterman is trying to break a habit. For the past year, the first thing she does after waking up is check the YouTube channel of her favorite family vloggers to see if they have uploaded new content. But she is starting to rethink this morning routine since one of her favorite influencers, Ruby Franke, was arrested and charged with child abuse. Halterman worries her viewership is part of a bigger problem, but even with those concerns, she can't quit cold turkey.

"Honestly, it's like an addiction," Halterman, 30, says. "Habits take time to break."

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Franke was, until a few weeks ago, best known as the Utah mom of six behind the YouTube channel 8 Passengers, which boasted more than 2 million followers. Franke rose to online fame by sharing videos detailing her family life and parenting strategies. Some of those videos raised viewers' eyebrows, like when Franke's 5-year-old daughter forgot to bring her lunch to school and Franke refused to bring the child food. "Hopefully no one steps in and gives her a lunch," Franke says. "Then she's not going to learn from the natural outcome."

On Sept. 1, Franke and her business partner were charged with multiple accounts of aggravated child abuse after her 12-year-old son escaped to a neighbor's house appearing to be malnourished and have open wounds. Police found Franke's 10-year-old daughter appearing similarly malnourished. Franke's arrest (and the subsequent deep dives done by online sleuths into her past content) has reignited recent debates around the ethics and monetary complexities of family vlogging and child influencers - and it has some viewers questioning their own allegiances.

Franke is part of a sprawling family social media apparatus in which her parents and all four of her siblings have their own dedicated YouTube channels, with combined followers around 5.5 million and views in the billions. Halterman found their content fascinating. It even made her feel closer to her faith, as both she and the Frankes are Mormon. "They looked perfect," she says. But since Franke's arrest, Halterman wonders if her interest in family vloggers is part of the problem. "I now see it for what it is - exploitation of these minor [children] and voyeurism on my part." She's wrestling with what to do next and why she became so interested in the first place. Is it possible to ethically continue to watch family channels? Or does she need to cut it off completely? She hasn't decided yet, but she's watching less than she was before news of Franke's arrest.

Annie, 20, started watching family channels during coronavirus lockdowns. It was a lonely time, she says, and she liked seeing how other people were living. She especially liked the LaBrant family, whose channel has 13 million YouTube subscribers, but that was before the LaBrants baited viewers into thinking their toddler daughter had cancer in 2021. A video titled "She got diagnosed with cancer. (documentary)" opened with the LaBrant parents talking about their toddler daughter going to the emergency room before eventually segueing into a story about an unrelated child's fight with cancer. "That really rubbed me the wrong way," says Annie, who spoke on the condition that only her first name be used to protect her privacy. "Then the [Ruby] Franke stuff happened. I don't think I will ever watch a family channel again. I've unfollowed all of them."

For fans of family channels, Franke's arrest is the latest puncture in the veneer of perfection that influencers make their living portraying. Jo Piazza, host of the podcast "Under the Influence" which examines the culture of mom-fluencers, says the industry is being questioned and regulated in ways it wasn't before. "At first mom-fluencers were a joke and then they started to be taken seriously because it's a multibillion-dollar business," she says. "Now we're finally looking at them with a critical eye and they deserve that critical eye when they have so much influence and power over the people that are consuming their content." Piazza points to the recently passed Illinois law protecting the earnings of influencer kids as an outcome of the new evaluations viewers - and legislators - are making when it comes to family vlogging.

Chloe Comstock, 22, has watched some of her favorite influencers topple - the Shaytards (a family with 4.76 million YouTube subscribers whose dad was embroiled in a cheating scandal), Colleen Ballinger (the YouTuber who responded to allegations of child grooming by singing her denials while strumming a ukulele), and now, of course, Franke.

Before their downfalls, Comstock liked watching their videos out of pure fascination. "I saw it as a documentary I could watch every night," she says. Most of the big family channels document the lives of religious families with many children, which was interesting to Comstock because it was so far from her own reality in a small, liberal family in California.

But now, Comstock can't stomach the same channels she used to love. She worries about the privacy of the children and the reality of their family life and the long-term effects of being featured in what amounts to a self-produced reality show.

She hopes Franke's arrest could mark a turning point in the family vlogging industry. But realistically, she's not sure if it's possible at this point.

"I think there's too much of a market for it," she says, as family channels are a pillar of the multibillion-dollar parent influencing industry.

Comstock has decided to stop following her old favorite family channels the way she used to. She's found a new way: through Reddit snark communities that chronicle the vloggers' downfalls. In fact, Comstock is one of more than 24,000 new subscribers who have joined the r/8passengersnark subreddit. The community has raked in 15.7 million views since Franke's arrest.

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