Milkshake Duck is an internet concept when a viral internet star is adored, until its uncovered they have some distasteful or horrible characteristic—such as being racist. Given the speed at which viral people explode into internet stardom, it’s no wonder their light can just as quickly become consumed by the black hole of reality. A recent viral star, Keaton Jones, famous for a video recorded by his mother where he calls out alleged bullying, might now be facing his own Milkshake Duck: His mother, who recorded the video, posted suspected racist comments on Facebook.
However, the focus for me isn’t whether his mother is racist, disturbing though that discovery is. Many of us seem to have glossed over an earlier troubling question: Why was a parent recording her crying child?
If someone is in a state of shock, sadness, and pain, my first response is not to whip out my phone to record their tears. This is particularly the case for someone I love. Yet, that’s precisely what occurred. In the video, Keaton, apparently, has just experienced painful bullying. He describes the kinds of things even I was bullied for, with some part of your body (or your name and your skin color in my case) singled out for mockery. His mother, in a stern but seemingly supportive voice, asks her child questions to get him to elaborate through his tears.
Now, Keaton, being a child, can’t properly consent to many activities. Did he know or consent to being filmed and posted for the world to see?
Seemingly, the answer is yes: Keaton’s mother claimed on Facebook that he asked her to film the video. Nevertheless, Keaton’s a child—so should Keaton’s mother have posted the video in the first place?
Parents too often treat their children as property, not caring whether they should post images or videos—regardless of how cute or inspirational—of their child’s activities. Even in 2014, Victoria Nash, of the Oxford Internet Institute, noted what parents should consider when it comes to sharing any information, data or images about their children:
“There are two things to be careful about… One is the amount of information that you give away, which might include things like date of birth, place of birth, the child’s full name, or tagging of any photographs with a geographical location—anything that could be used by somebody who wanted to steal your child’s identity. The second issue is more around consent. What type of information would children want to see about themselves online at a later date?”
Parents can dress it up as being for good causes, but there are plenty of ways to achieve those same causes without using children as props in videos or pictures made for sharing, likes, and retweets. The problem is we’re not asking these questions and we don’t seem to demand them of parents, because we get sucked into the sympathy or adoration that comes from seeing a younger person fighting back against universally bad acts or performing something supposedly adorable. Being a parent doesn’t grant you immunity from actions regarding your child (just ask courts of law)—indeed, it’s parents who are most answerable since they are meant to be responsible for the child’s care and well-being.
Again, I don’t think the instinctive outpouring of support from an audience is bad, but that doesn’t mean we can’t simultaneously stress ethical practice when it comes to personal conduct online. After all, it’s the parents—the so-called adults—that are often the problem, not the children. Adults who have a responsibility to these individuals who can’t yet consent, and who may come to resent such actions at a later date. When we see a child being recorded, we should immediately ask who is doing the recording and does the child actually know what’s happening?
In Jones’ case, many of us got swept up in standing for a proper moral cause: Bullying is bad. Within apparently seconds, Jones got invited by the Avengers performers to the film’s premiere and, I don’t know, will probably soon have his own morning show. (It was not lost on people of color what a difference black kids and white kids being bullied has on the internet’s barometer of care.) But, on seeing such content, we should also immediately consider young people’s well-being when they’re recorded.
Social media is a nightmare landscape where we’ve painted our horrors and fears and a major reason Americans elected a reality star to the Oval Office. But its newness is precisely why there’s more reason for us, as ordinary individuals, to think about the moral dimension of our actions, to recognize ourselves not merely as audience but producers and content creators. Social media is a stream of user-generated content, after all. It’s important to demand these considerations from ourselves and others, especially those who have a responsibility for the care and well-being of young people.
More people, including and especially parents, should place others’ well-being and consent above the number of likes and retweets they’d receive from some media they’ve created. And we, on the receiving end, should be more hesitant about sharing content featuring children, no matter how “cute” or “brave” they may be. We can stand up for bullying without needing a parent to film their crying child for us to care.
We all know what bullying does, we know it exists. No one needs a reminder, especially the bullied child later in life, who was recorded.