Kids on YouTube: How much is too much?

From a manic cooking show hosted by a 3-year-old to tykes parodying a "Scarface" scene, online videos of kids toe a fine line between adorable and digital-age stage parenting.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
8 min read

A 10-minute YouTube video called "The Yippity Yo Cooking Show" falls somewhere to the left of "Saturday Night Live" at its most surreal: The host, "Zaylee Jean," alternates between extreme seriousness and manic outbursts, with diction so slurred that it's subtitled (in the cartoonish Comic Sans font). Among other antics, she smears the mix for a batch of chocolate chip cookies all over her face, nibbles ingredients off the counter, and routinely pauses to scream something like "I LOVE COOKIES!" at the top of her lungs.

A key point: Zaylee Jean is three years old. The plucky toddler in a flowered sundress and wispy blond ponytail has become YouTube's most unlikely new hit, with a steady cult following of offbeat hipsters fast propelling it to the milestone of 100,000 views. Like so many videos of cherubic youngsters before her, the clip can prompt a dual reaction: on one hand, she's delightful; on the other, in a few years when Zaylee enters the social Hades known as "middle school," the video will likely still be there.

Three-year-old Zaylee Jean hosts her own cooking show in a video on YouTube that's achieved a sort of cult fame. YouTube

"We definitely wouldn't have a problem taking it down in two seconds," said Zaylee's 30-something dad, who goes by Zane--he prefers not to make the family name public--in an interview with CNET. "We did this for fun and love. It's not about fame and fortune."

But videos like "Yippity Yo" don't come without a hefty dose of criticism and controversy. When online videos of a kid become unexpected viral sensations, the parents are subject to perceptions, warranted or otherwise, that they're engaging in a kind of Digital Age "stage parenting" in which kids are being pushed into the spotlight, child-actor style.

"My daughter and I just did this on a whim," said Zane. "On a Saturday, we bought some chocolate chips and I found an old one-hour unused video tape and pulled out the video camera. She'd wanted to do this for so long."

Zane says that Zaylee's safety was his top priority throughout the creation of the video, which he originally intended to just share with family and close friends, and that he was more or less flabbergasted when it became a cult hit on YouTube. "We had an e-mail from a (television) producer," he told CNET. "I'm just skeptical. We're in Minnesota; it's not like we're stage parents out to exploit our kid on YouTube...I've seen comments saying my wife and I should be arrested for child endangerment. I think we're kind people."

Blogs about parenting, many of them deeply personal, have become a huge sensation with readers and advertisers alike. Many of their authors have also become known for espousing strong opinions about how to raise kids. And with that popularity comes the invariable question of how much, if at all, children should be exposed in the process--an issue of both safety and good taste.

Some parenting bloggers don't shy away from bringing their kids into their blogging lives: Ree Drummond, author of the wildly successful "Confessions of a Pioneer Woman" blog and spin-off cookbook, uses frequent, beautifully crafted photographs to accompany stories about her four children (she affectionately calls them her "punks") and their life on a ranch in Oklahoma. On the other hand, Catherine Sanderson, who turned her expat-themed blog Petite Anglaise into a memoir and a novel, referred to her young daughter by the codename of "Tadpole" and did not post pictures. Christine Koh, editor of BostonMamas.com, does not post photos that reveal her daughter's face and doesn't post pictures of her husband either. But she says it's usually an issue of personal preference rather than right and wrong.

In a photograph from several decades ago, the author of this blog post poses in a costume that now makes her eternally glad that YouTube didn't exist in the '80s.

"I think I might have a higher filter than some people," Koh told CNET. "I feel like there are two things that help guide what I post, and one thing is, if it were me, if I were my daughter looking at this 10 years from now or if I were in her position as an adult, what would I feel reading about this stuff?...(Second), if I get a real twinge that something feels wrong about posting on a particular topic, I don't do it. Some things I've even consulted with my husband about because they're a bit sensitive."

Liz Gumbinner, the woman behind Cool Mom Picks and Mom 101, told CNET that it's usually tough to make judgment calls when it comes to bloggers talking about their kids or parents putting family videos online.

"I don't think it's easy to say what single line can be drawn, because I think every kid is different," Gumbinner, who has two daughters aged three and five, told CNET. "When I put my children on my blog, I'm always asking them, 'Are you OK with this? Do you like this? Are you happy with this?' But also as a parent I have to look out for their safety, and their well-being, and the greater impact in their social life to come."

It's especially complicated because many of the most popular YouTube videos of kids were not made by parenting bloggers who have been carefully crafting their family story over time, but by parents like Zane who honestly didn't think that anyone would find them on a site where 24 hours of video is uploaded every minute.

This was indeed the case for the kid who's quite likely the biggest YouTube star under the age of 10: little David DeVore, who at the age of seven was videotaped sitting in the back seat of his parents' car, freaking out on the aftereffects of knockout drugs given to him during dental surgery earlier that day. "David After Dentist" now has more than 57 million views on YouTube, and DeVore's father, also named David, has built a Web site in which he sells T-shirts and chronicles media hits. He's now raised more than $6,000 for charity and is hoping to also raise eventual college tuition for David, who is now nine years old.

DeVore (the dad) said he taped the video of his son a year before it ever hit YouTube and that he'd hoped to use it to show David that the dentist's office is nothing to be scared of.

"It was a pretty big deal for him, getting surgery and everything," DeVore told CNET. "I'd just gotten a Flip video camera and I wanted to show David afterward that it hadn't been so bad after all...I just didn't know how funny it was going to be."

Over the following months, DeVore said he asked his son what he would think about putting the video on YouTube. A typically outgoing kid, David concurred. "The fact that I even taped it at all was really because of David's personality," DeVore said. "If he were a sensitive child or was embarrassed easily or didn't see the humor in things, I wouldn't have taped it from the beginning."

Reactions to "David After Dentist" ranged from people who say it's the video they watch whenever they need a pick-me-up on a stressful day to critics who say it's in poor taste.

Among those critics is Koh, who said that "David After Dentist" left her "a little bit horrified." As she told CNET, "That dentist video really tweaked a nerve because that's something where the child is in a vulnerable position...At one point he starts screaming. I had to hop off because I could not take it anymore."

Critics may be a little reassured by DeVore's assertion that David himself thinks the video is hilarious and that the kid is happy to talk about it, too. "He wants to make a video responding to it, saying that his parents are good parents and that we didn't do anything wrong," DeVore explained. David's schoolmates know him as the kid from the video, but DeVore said they don't particularly care. Their attention spans have long since moved on.

Regardless, DeVore says that the reaction to "David After Dentist" made him think about child fame in a new way. "After the video, our experience probably caused me to pause for a few extra minutes. Like with the Falcon Heene thing," he said, referring to the infamous "Balloon Boy" incident in which a 6-year-old's parents, gunning for a reality-show deal, claimed that the child had flown away in a homemade hot-air balloon. "It sure looked like a prank to me, but people were quick to judge us, so I decided to give them the benefit of the doubt." He paused and chuckled. "That ran out pretty quick."

'Scarface' goes to grade school
More recently, the Web was captivated by a YouTube video that depicted elementary school students performing the "Say hello to my little friend" machine gun scene from "Scarface," except with a massive pile of popcorn on the table instead of a mount of cocaine, and the substitution of "fudging" for that other word that begins with an F. It's pulled in well over three million views. As it turns out, it wasn't actually a full-fledged school production of "Scarface" but an orchestrated parody by a music video director who had hired child actors.

DeVore said that this was another instance where he became one of the critics. "I respect the creativity and how the guy went about it and all that and the fact that these were child actors maybe toned it down a bit for me, but it still kind of makes me cringe a little bit," he said.

Zaylee Jean's father brought up the "Scarface" video, too, saying, "I was a bit shocked."

But when speaking about their respective kids' YouTube fame, Zane and DeVore both bring up a strong point: these critics don't know them personally and yet are more or less telling them how to raise their kids. And that can be even worse than the claims that the naysayers make.

"It should be discussed," DeVore said. "We don't shy away from the controversy, we just look at it as an opportunity to explain it. We're a bit biased and admittedly think ours is kind of unique. I think that if people just sit down and talk to us, they'll see that David's handling it well and that's usually the reaction that we get."

"You just have to let it roll off your back," Zane said. "The safety of the kid, I think that's the number one thing."

Mom blogger Gumbinner says that the debate over how much of a kid's life to share online is something that's changing now that social media has made its full transition from early-adopter and youth craze to an element of mainstream family life.

"We're going to have to learn, as parents, how to talk about the Internet and anonymity very early, because that's part of life and it goes well beyond putting your kid on YouTube," Gumbinner said. "This is one piece of the story of how we're going to have to nurture and protect our kids going forward in a world of technology."