On an early summer day in 2007, Howard Jones* was videotaping his sons as they snuggled peacefully on a chair in their Buckinghamshire, England home. Then it happened: Charlie, 1, bit Harry, 3. “Charlie bit me,” Harry giggled as his younger brother grinned at the camera.
If the quote sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’re one of the 94 million people who’ve watched “Charlie Bit Me- Again! ” on YouTube.
In an age when laughing babies and breakdancing toddlers are becoming Internet stars, parents like Jones are finding themselves in unforeseen and unprecedented, though not necessarily unwelcome, circumstances. Three years ago, Jones was just another camera-happy dad who shot videos of his kids for private posterity. Today, “Charlie Bit My Finger” is the fourth most-viewed video on YouTube. According to Jones, it gets around 160,000 hits per day during the week and 250,000 per day over the weekend. That’s the entire population of San Diego watching the video on an average week.
Jones posted the clip in the summer of 2007. With the exception of family and friends, it existed in YouTube anonymity for a good four or five months. “I was close to taking it down because I thought there was little point in keeping it up,” says Jones. “Then what happened is I think it was used on CollegeHumor.com, and suddenly it just went crazy. Pretty much every day after that it was doubling its hits. I think just before the new year, it was a million.”
The adoration for these YouTube toddler videos spans the world. Praise ranges from typical “LOLs” and smiley faces to exalted mini-essays exploring what makes the videos so touching. “[Harry] was so sweet, kind and patient with baby Charlie,” one fan wrote to Jones. “It’s SO funny how we see him putting his finger in harm’s way because his youthful curiosity is just too active to pass on this experiment.”
Nowadays, it’s standard practice for parents to post videos of their children on YouTube. With family and friends spread across state and country lines, online video-sharing is a cheap, easy way to share precious moments with far-flung loved ones.
“Once I realized how to post to YouTube, I posted religiously,” says Shelly Cellak, a Chicago publicist and mother of two. “My mom is in Colorado, my brother lives in Brooklyn and I have a sister in New Hampshire, so I wanted them to be able to get to know the kids.”
The only people who look at Cellak’s videos are those in her inner circle, but what if one of her clips were to suddenly become the next viral sensation? “It wouldn’t be a big deal,” Cellak says. “We’d probably take it in stride and have fun with it. Everything I put up there is something I’m comfortable with everyone seeing.”
Not all parents feel the same way as Cellak. While the advent of YouTube and similar video-sharing sites is a blessing to many, it raises red flags to parents who are leery of posting private videos in public forums.
Adam Slesinger, a father of two based in Rhode Island, says he cringes when people post images of their kids on YouTube and Facebook. “I believe those moments should be shared with a family only,” he says. “It shouldn’t be a public thing.” Though he doesn’t like to dictate what other parents ought or ought not do, he did start a website, MyBabyPlace, where parents can post secure home videos. His is one of numerous similar sites, such as Totsites and Famoodle, that offer family-friendly privacy settings.
For the record, YouTube does have privacy settings, but it requires viewers to sign in. In addition, you must list e-mails of the people (twenty-five maximum) who are permitted to view the video. To many parents, the process is too cumbersome and defeats the purpose of YouTube’s hassle-free appeal.
Cellak and her husband have no qualms about posting their videos for all to see, but they have developed an unspoken set of rules. For example, no nudity, partial or full, shall appear online. Other parents lay down different rules, such as no posting of photos or video until the child is old enough to approve, or no mentioning of kids’ names on the Internet.
Rules or no rules, some detractors go so far as to say that YouTube child stars are victims of exploitation. David DeVore, an Orlando real estate agent, is all too familiar with these naysayers.
A year ago, DeVore videotaped his seven-year-old son’s trip to the dentist – it was for his wife, who was unable to be there that day. His son, also named David, was getting his tooth extracted, a procedure that required anesthetics. Afterwards, David, still anesthetized, started spouting loopy lines. “Is this real life?” he asks his father in the video. “You have four eyes.” “Why is this happening to me?” “Is this gonna be forever?”
Eventually, DeVore posted the video to YouTube so that his family and friends, who’d been asking to see the clip, could watch. This was Friday, January 30. By Sunday night, the video had spiked to about 10,000 views. By Tuesday, it skyrocketed to three million and by Wednesday it had become one of the year’s first viral home video hits. Something about David’s precocious, existential inquiries struck a chord with viewers, and today the video has passed twenty million hits. The DeVores have now been on the Today show with Matt Lauer, as well as The Tyra Banks Show. DeVore started a “David After Dentist” blog and sells T-shirts sporting quotes from the clip. The shirts have been ordered by fans as far away as Iran and Iraq.
Despite the increasing popularity of “David After Dentist,” DeVore has been criticized for his entrepreneurship.
“Way to exploit your own child! Keep it up! Hope T-shirt sales are going well,” says one commenter on DeVore’s blog. “He might be young and innocent now but man, when he’s sixteen, and has friends, and they find out about this, hes going to get so much flack,” augurs another. DeVore, who welcomes open debate on his blog, is certainly not the only YouTube parent to weather such criticism.
“I don’t think it’s going to scar a child for life, but I do think it’s going to cause bumps down the road,” says Dr. Gwenn Schurgin O’Keeffe, executive committee member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Communications and Media. “Later on [the children] may feel privacy violations by their parents and also a sense of humiliation when they get older and find out these videos were broadcast to the entire world.” She adds, “If you get popular enough, the question to ask yourself is what you’re trying to achieve. What’s the point of a million anonymous people laughing at your video?”
The point, if you ask YouTube parents, is to simply have fun and bring a little laughter into people’s lives. “When David saw it the night we got home, he was just cracking up, as was the rest of our family,” DeVore recalls.
“We literally get hundreds of requests for more videos,” says Jones. “One of the things that drives me to do the whole YouTube thing is that we get such lovely comments and emails from people all over the world. I keep track of them so I can share with the boys when they get a little bit older.”
Then, of course, there is the money. Allison Jacobs, a cop and mother of two in the Bay Area, says that she earned $6,000 from advertisements over the course of six months. Her video, “I Don’t Like You Mommy,” has attracted close to twenty million hits. In it, her then-three-year-old son Justin tells her that he doesn’t like her unless she gives him cookies. When Jacobs posted the video, she thought she had set it up for private viewing only. Instead, she one day got a phone call from her sister asking why she had 9,000 page views. Jacobs now posts videos of her sons a couple of times per month. Justin has been featured on The Bonnie Hunt Show, and has been approached twice by Ellen Degeneres’ producers.
When advertisers contacted Jacobs, she saw an opportunity to start saving for her sons’ college funds. “I would be a fool not to take advantage,” she says. As for people who call this exploitation, she disagrees. “I’m definitely playing it smart and taking advantage of the fact that every time you click, my kids are getting their college tuition paid for. If my sons weren’t benefiting, I wouldn’t put up with all the negative comments. [She’s referring in part to trolls who post deragatory, not-safe-for-family comments.] And I do think their videos bring so much joy to certain people.”
DeVore and Jones receive ad revenue as well. Both partake in the YouTube Partner Program, which entitles YouTube video owners to profit from advertisements posted next to their clips. Though they declined to disclose how much money the ads have generated, both parents are investing the revenue into their children’s future. DeVore is also donating money to charities like the American Dental Association’s Give Kids A Smile Foundation.
“Managing their kids’ bizarre strain of fame is almost like a second job.”In a way, you might say the parents deserve the money, since managing their kids’ bizarre strain of fame is almost like a second job. They read and respond to fan mail, censor X-rated comments, field interview requests from producers and journalists. When contacted for this article, Jones responded with a list of conditions, some of them curiously touching. For example, condition #2: “You have Charlie’s name from the clip, but Harry is also mentioned by name, not as ‘The other kid,’ or ‘The older boy’ for example.” Or condition #3: “The video is not used as a means for ridicule of the boys, a race or nationality.”
Some parents go so far as to hire lawyers and copyright the video, not so much for marketing purposes but to ensure that people do not abuse the video or their child’s image. “Ownership was very important to us because we didn’t want [the video] to be used in an inappropriate manner,” says DeVore. “That was the sole motivation for getting an attorney involved and having it copyrighted. It gives us some teeth if somebody used it in a way we didn’t like.”
As for the kids themselves, if you ask David and Justin if they feel famous, they’ll say yes, with a giggle. Otherwise, you get the sense that YouTube is just a blip on their radar, amid all the sports, school plays and video games.
“It’s been an overwhelming positive experience,” DeVore says. “Right now it’s at a stage where it’s just a fun memory, something that we can look back on when he’s a parent.”
*last name has been changed for privacy.