In the era of YouTube's influence, a distinct group of content creators has surfaced—family vloggers. Especially captivating are those who feature their children, like the Bellinga family, including Fara, Daniël, and their four children. Despite their widespread appeal and daily vlogs amassing millions of views, questions arise about the surveillance implications of family-centric content. This study explores user-expressed surveillance concerns related to the Bellinga family and family vlogging, scrutinizing how these issues are tackled through the lens of surveillance theory.
Bellinga's Privacy Paradox
To assess the privacy concerns surrounding family vlogging, this study situates the online practice within the theoretical framework of surveillance studies, incorporating key concepts. The first concept, 'societies of control' by Deleuze, describes a pervasive surveillance system in daily life, contrasting with disciplinary societies. In this shift, spaces coexist, and technology plays a crucial role, blurring individual identity and fostering constant surveillance (Deleuze, 1990).
Another pertinent concept is 'the right to be let alone,' introduced by Warren and Brandeis in 1890. Initially focused on home privacy, this concept faces complexity in the modern online-offline nexus, where boundaries between 'inside' and 'outside' blur due to the internet and social media (Blommaert, 2020).
The 'digital footprint' concept becomes crucial in the discussion, highlighting the inescapability of leaving traces online. Every click and post contributes to a person's data, creating a searchable and potentially harmful digital presence, impacting various aspects of life, including employability (Cheng & Wang, 2018; Taylor & Dobbins, 2021).
Additionally, the terms 'ascribed' and 'performative identity' bring attention to identity construction and power dynamics. Identity is shaped through actions (performative) or assigned by others (ascribed), and power lies in the ability to categorize and assign identities to individuals (Shahin, 2023). This framework provides a comprehensive exploration of the multifaceted privacy concerns in the realm of family vlogging.
Analyzing User Comments on Bellinga Family’s YouTube Channel
Because the research question is two-part, the methodology is as well. To answer the first part of the research question: “What are the surveillance-related concerns about the Bellinga children that users express in their comments?” the comments on four YouTube videos will be collected using Netlytic, which is a data mining platform allowing users to collect data from social media, such as YouTube comments. The 50 most-liked comments for each video will be read to ascertain the topics discussed the most.
To provide a clear overview of the main topics, the amount of comments per topic will be shown for each video. These main topics will then be linked to theoretical concepts. Doing so will make it clear which areas of concern are most prominent and how they relate to surveillance studies.
It is important to note that the Bellingas have the comment function on their videos turned off, as mandated by YouTube (Bellinga TV, 2020). The video mentioning this has been removed from YouTube during the writing of this paper but is available on Bellinga’s website where no comments can be posted. Therefore, the viewer reactions to their videos could not be analyzed.
The data in this section consists of four YouTube videos. The first is ‘Kinderarbeid op YouTube’ (child labor on YouTube) by popular Dutch YouTuber Gamemeneer (2018). In this video, he poses the question of whether the children of family vloggers are being forced to perform child labor by appearing in videos every day.
The second YouTube video is ‘Hoe de BELLiNGA’s Familievloggers van Herbalife naar Bioscoopfilm gingen | egbert reacting’ (How the Bellinga’s family vloggers went from Herbalife to Cinema Production | egbert reacting) (Egbert Kanaal, 2022). YouTuber Egbert zooms in on the history of the Bellinga channel, arguing their inherent intention to produce financial gain from their channel.
The third video is by the Jeugdjournaal (daily news broadcast for children) titled ‘De Bellinga’s over beroemd zijn en elke dag vloggen’ (The Bellinga’s on being famous and vlogging daily) (2020). A reporter visits the Bellinga family, showing clips of children who sent questions, and the Bellingas' responses are analyzed.
The fourth video is ‘Vlogfamilies | Bezorgde Boomers | De avondshow met Arjen Lubach (S2)’ (Family vloggers | Worried Boomers | The evening show with Arjen Lubach (S2)) (2020). Arjen Lubach critically assesses the phenomenon of family vloggers, addressing concerns and showcasing controversial moments involving the Bellingas.
The second part of the research question concerns how the Bellinga’s address viewer concerns. They are not known for giving many interviews. To answer this question, the video by Jeugdjournaal is used again to analyze Bellinga’s responses. Two songs by Luan and Lucilla will also be analyzed in light of theoretical concepts, linking the Bellingas and their online presence to surveillance theory.
Due to the combination of these two methods, this research can be considered a complementary mixed-methods study, as the two types of analysis complement each other to answer the research question.
Capturing Memories or Exploiting Kids?
The comments on the four chosen YouTube videos were collected on 15/10/2023. Netlytic captures up to five one-level replies per comment, without including second-level replies. This means the total YouTube comments may vary from Netlytic's count. A top-level comment is a standard 'main' comment, a one-level comment is a direct reply to a top-level comment, and a second-level comment is a reply to a reply. Table 1 displays the posted comments and the quantities mined using Netlytic.
An analysis of the top fifty liked comments on each video revealed specific audience sentiments. This led to the identification of the main discussion topics, as shown in Table 2. Interestingly, the varied nature of video audiences was evident, with some videos lacking comments on particular topics.
Highlighting the connection between categories and discussed concepts, some, like 'kids will be bullied and embarrassed,' can be tied to the digital footprint concept. Users worry that videos might be seen by classmates, future employers, or coworkers, leading to mockery or job disadvantages. They disagree with parents deciding on their children's digital footprint when the kids are too young to grasp its implications.
The comments in the sections praising family vloggers for their positive qualities seem connected to the idea of 'societies of control.' Users in these categories seem at ease in a society where constant surveillance is the norm, with everyone watching everyone else, especially those with a significant online presence. This becomes particularly noteworthy for the children, who, despite not choosing a life in the public eye, are observed and monitored by millions of strangers.
However, it's worth mentioning that the Bellinga family's fans primarily commented on videos by Jeugdjournaal and Gamemeneer, channels generally catering to a younger audience compared to others.
The concept of 'the right to be let alone' is a key theme in the comments. Some suggest rules on filming children, while others insist on no filming at all. Unlike child actors who work on set, the kids of family vloggers are constantly on set, with their homes under surveillance and private moments shared with millions. This concern prompts calls from commenters for stricter regulations on family vloggers.
Many comments were labeled as jokes, falling outside other defined categories and thus considered irrelevant for the analysis. Gamemeneer's video stood out with the highest number of joke comments, including one such comment: “Did he say Jackspedicy?”, playfully mocking Gamemeneer's pronunciation of ‘Jacksepticeye,’ a well-known YouTuber's screen name. Numerous comments centered around this theme.
Additional instances of irrelevant comments, grouped under the jokes category, included generic statements like "Hi guys," "Yes, you read my comment," and similar expressions.
In the Jeugdjournaal video, examples of such comments were: “2:45 😂😂 such difficult words!!”, referencing young Luan's formal language use, and “4:50 you ask the bellingas something while wearing a KnolPower sweater😂😂😂”, commenting on a child wearing another YouTuber's merchandise. Some comments were responses to jokes within the video itself.
For instance, in Arjen Lubach’s video, a joke about Daniel Bellinga's late grandmother watching their video 'from the cloud' prompted comments categorized as jokes or other. While it's plausible that those finding this joke amusing may harbor criticism toward family vloggers, such a connection couldn't be conclusively established. Therefore, comments of this nature were consistently categorized in the same manner.
A Qualitative Look at Ethical Concerns
In the case of the Bellingas, it becomes evident that the children are ‘categorized’ into a certain personality type, they are being ascribed an identity by their parents. Then, they perform this identity, and their media presence is built upon this. Examples of this can be seen in the Bellinga movies, but also in their music videos. For example, daughter Lucilla has a song and music video about doing her make-up and wearing pink dresses. She sings about having a golden crown and the most exclusive nail polishes and shoes, and how much she loves this lifestyle.
Meanwhile, son Luan is portrayed as her opposite: He sings about the fact that he loves singing and being on YouTube but does not ‘do it for the money’. In this song, he describes his non-materialistic viewpoint by stating that he would rather go by train than by Bentley and that he likes candy better than caviar (Luan Bellinga, 2019). While these songs could be based on their real personalities, it becomes clear that their parents have explicitly categorized them in restrictive frameworks of identity which they are always performing on YouTube.
During an interview with Jeugdjournaal (news for children), the Bellinga family is asked why they started their family vlogging channel. To this, Fara Bellinga answers: “My intention was always just to capture memories and it is still our goal”. The interviewer then asks for their opinion on the fact that everyone on YouTube can see these ‘memories’ and that it is no longer a private family home video. Fara replies: “Yes, we are very happy that many families and kids gain motivation and strength from our vlogs”. They also reveal that these vlogs fully support their family financially.
The interview poses the question, "You share a lot on social media, but what do the kids think about this? And if they don’t want something to be filmed, do you still film it? Or do you delete it then?" In response, Little Luan asserts, "Actually, we are the boss whenever we want."
The interviewer asks whether it happens sometimes that they do not want to be filmed. Luan: “Well, really really sporadically, super sometimes, sometimes we want to do something fun and then suddenly we have to vlog it, but that’s part of it. Then sometimes it can be not fun”.
Fara interjects him and says “As a family, we grew up like this and we enjoy sharing things, and the kids don’t know any better, and they are aware that we share things”. Daniël adds: “And out of all the time we are awake we usually only have about an hour of footage per day, so the camera is off for longer than it is on”.
The answers that the parents give show that they attempt to make their vlogs seem insignificant. By using such discourse, they state that their vlogging is always justified because they do not do it 24 hours a day and because the children do not know any better and are aware that private moments are shared. In this way, they completely disregard the question at hand, which asks ‘if the children don’t want something to be filmed, do you still film it? Or do you delete it then?’. This question might be answered by analyzing a vlog on Bellinga’s channel.
In their vlog ‘LUAN DID NOT TELL US ABOUT THIS! + SWIMMING LESSON LUXY | Bellinga Vlog #2974’, Luan is asked to repeat what he told his parents off-camera. He confesses to buying and tasting an iced coffee while knowing that he is not allowed to. Fara asks him to explain the entire story of what happened on camera and says that she is not angry and understands that he might be influenced by social media to try coffee. She also says that she would have rather have seen Luan come to her to try a sip of coffee with his parents. It is important to note that, while Fara does not explicitly punish Luan and says that she is not angry, publicly having him admit that he has disobeyed his parents might already be seen as punishment, as thousands of viewers will be shown what he did. Therefore, this might be an instance of the children not wanting to have something posted online, and the parents going through with it anyway.
This example demonstrates that these children do not always have ‘the right to be let alone’ within their home.
Concerns, Avoidance, and Bikini Videos
It has become clear that there are many concerns about the Bellinga’s. While the analysis of YouTube comments also showed support and positive attitudes towards the family, this was only the case in the videos of Gamemeneer and Jeugdjournaal, which have an arguably younger audience. Many comments expressed that there should be laws and regulations about how often children should be allowed to appear in vlogs, while others condemn it even more and state that this is a form of child labor and abuse and that the private lives of these children are exploited for the financial gain of the parents, while only having negative consequences for the children.
It has also become apparent that Bellinga’s attempt to refrain from giving interviews or responding to criticism, and when they are asked a critical question, tend to avoid it. This discursive technique is significant, as it suggests that they are aware of the criticism and concerns, but choose not to respond. Since their audience consists mostly of children who do not grasp the complexity of the issue, their audience keeps growing and their reputation among their audience remains unscathed, and thus they might not feel the need to respond to criticism.
An aspect that could be looked into further in a different study is the commenters’ concerns about the Bellinga’s filming their children in their bathing suits. It seems as if these worries are valid, as these kinds of videos often get more views than others, and the most replayed parts of the videos are also often the ones in which the children are shown in their bathing suits as pointed out by Egbert Kanaal in his YouTube video.
For example, during a week in October 2023, the Bellinga’s produced daily videos as usual, of which six got between 26.000 and 46.000 views. Interestingly, the one video about Luxy at the pool in her bathing suit has 71.000 views. This raises the question of whether the parents are aware of this, and if they see it as a threat. Perhaps they purposely produce such content in order to obtain more views and profit. However, this is something that cannot be addressed within this study, as it requires more investigation.
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