Content warning: Mentions of child abuse
Ask anyone who knew me in middle school and they’ll tell you that I grew up on family vlogging channels. Whether it was Bratayley, The ACE Family or The LaBrant Fam, those vlogs were my not-so-secret obsession. Each afternoon, I had a ritual of getting home from school, grabbing a snack and lying down in bed to view the newest “daily vlog” posted to YouTube by one of these families. I watched eagerly as they went on family vacations, sent their kids to school and did other normal family activities. Regardless of how boring the content may sound, I drank up every second of it.
Thankfully I’ve grown out of that hyperfixation, but many of these channels still have millions of subscribers, a large portion of whom are devoted fans who hang on these families’ every activity. Due to their immense success, some of these channels have even gone as far as to release merchandise, organize meet and greets and find other avenues to connect with their fans. Amid the success, the families in question have made millions of dollars, all from simply picking up a camera and filming their daily lives.
The playful vlogs, packed meet and greets, and financial success, however, are only part of a much larger, darker story.
Over the past several years, the curtain has begun to be lifted over many of these “wholesome” family vloggers, and the picture-perfect image that was plastered all over the internet for years on end has been torn to shreds. Issues such as child exploitation, privacy violations and religious prejudice have been brought into the limelight as fans have begun to see the truth behind the light-hearted vlogs they used to enjoy.
There is no family, however, who has fallen apart quite so tragically as the “8 Passengers.” A Mormon family of eight living in Utah, mother and father Ruby and Kevin Franke began vlogging in 2015 and amassed over 2 million subscribers over the next several years. In 2022, their channel was deleted from YouTube. Fans have speculated as to why, but the most obvious reason arises from the intense scrutiny the family has been subjected to regarding the Frankes’ controversial parenting habits.
But wait — doesn’t every parent have a right to raise their child the way they see fit? Though the answer is yes in theory, the strategies employed by the Frankes are not your typical harmless disciplinary practices. Ruby Franke would regularly take away “food privileges,” threaten to destroy her children’s prized possessions and even force her children to sleep on the floor because they had lost their “bed privileges,” all while thrusting a camera in their face. One particularly concerning moment that sticks out to viewers is the time when the Frankes’ 6-year-old daughter forgot to pack a lunch for school, and Ruby Franke insisted that — instead of bringing her one — she must go hungry because it is the “natural consequence” of her action.
Over the years, viewership has continued to dwindle. Many have chosen to unsubscribe or have even taken their discomfort a step further by making formal complaints to Child Protective Services. In fact, it has now been reported that CPS has made at least 15 visits to the Franke after some viewers launched a change.org petition to call attention to the issue. Last week, years of controversy culminated in the arrest of Ruby Franke — along with her business partner, Jodi Hildebrandt, with whom she ran the infamous parenting advice company known as “ConneXions.” Both were taken into custody under suspicion of multiple counts of aggravated child abuse.
The details themselves are — to put it lightly — disturbing. The police were initially alerted to the area after Ruby Franke’s youngest son climbed out of a window and knocked on a neighbor’s door, asking for food and water. According to reports, he was clearly injured and malnourished. After authorities arrived, another young child, also injured and malnourished, was found in the same home, and both were taken to the hospital for treatment.
The internet was understandably shocked. No one had ever assumed that such intense abuse was going on behind closed doors. It made me and viewers who had speculated for years about “8 Passengers” wonder what red flags they may have missed. Were the kids always suffering in silence? Should authorities have intervened sooner?
Unfortunately, while the Frankes’ life was relatively public, they did an incredibly effective job of masking their emotional and physical abuse as a parenting style rooted in respect, “truth” and religious authority. They explained away the way they treated their children as a response to their “selfishness” and “entitlement,” rather shocking adjectives used to describe children under the age of 10. Though audience members were concerned, they were able to shrug off their worry by amounting Ruby Franke’s disciplinary practices to a way of life that they may disagree with but was not unheard of. In fact, a common thread that runs between many popular family vlogging channels is a core tenant of religious faith and authority, beliefs that the children are expected to abide by, no matter what.
The number of families who hold similar values to the Frankes have continued to grow like weeds, overtaking not only YouTube but also platforms such as TLC. Perhaps one of the most notorious examples is the Duggar family, whose life was intimately monitored by the public through their hit reality TV show, “19 Kids and Counting.” Though the Frankes appear on the surface to be far less religious than the Duggars (which, to some extent, they are), the idea that there is a religious hierarchy within the household that the children must respect at all costs rings true for both families.
In the Duggar home, it was clear that father Jim Bob Duggar’s word was “law”, the same way that the Frankes expected their children to obey them, no matter what. The Duggars have (thankfully) not stooped to child abuse, but the toxic side effects of such absolute religious authority have still seeped into the family’s day-to-day life. The family’s eldest son, Josh Duggar, has been thrown into the public eye over and over again, once for sexual abuse allegations regarding his sisters and again for his criminal trial, which culminated with him being imprisoned for possession of child pornography. It was a disturbing turn of events, but it did not shock viewers in the way one might expect. Such stringent religious authority within both the church and household environment has been known to breed abusers. In a way, viewers had been expecting something like this from the Duggars.
Of course, it’s possible to run a household that values religion and religious authority without becoming a breeding ground for abuse, and cases like the Duggars and the Frankes are rare. However, when parents are conditioned to believe that their authority is absolute, the lines between right and wrong can become increasingly blurred, and as the rules and punishments become more and more controlling, it’s the kids who are stuck on the receiving end of what can turn into physical and emotional abuse.
This is only amplified by the online image these families have created for themselves and, in turn, have to maintain. Whether it’s family vlogs or a wildly successful television show, in order for these families to keep up their current levels of success, they must uphold the religious, authoritative image that caused them to become popular in the first place. So, they feed into it, not only making things worse for their children but also adding to the illusion that families like this are happy, functional and successful. The Duggars even took this facade a step further, going as far as to condemn the Frankes publicly, once again attempting to convince the general public that their way of life is harmless, no matter what “other families” — in this case, “8 Passengers” — may be like behind closed doors.
Why exactly are these families so intent on upholding this facade? Merely because people are fascinated by what they do not understand, and these religious families are intent on using their “unique” lifestyle as a means to make a profit, even if it comes at the price of their children’s safety. In the case of the Frankes, this effort to maintain a religious, authoritative image is abundantly clear in the “ConneXions” parenting advice company that Ruby Franke and Hildebrandt ran together. What appears on the surface to be a resource for mitigating conflict within families is actually a twisted methodology that encourages the abusive behaviors the Frankes were exhibiting. According to “ConneXions” experts, children are not “entitled” to anything and, as their parent, you do not “need” to give them food, water, access to medical care or any of the other necessities that parents are legally required to provide. The only thing they “need” is God’s love, and until they have that, nothing else you give them will work. Ruby Franke and Hildebrandt have even been cited saying that “behaviors” such as depression, anxiety and disordered eating are signs that a child is not “living in truth” and that, as a parent, you must take everything away from the child in question — school, friends, social media, etc. — in order to stop “enabling” these “selfish” and “entitled” behaviors.
Thankfully, “ConneXions” materials have been banned from all platforms, but that does not reverse the pervasiveness of the foundation’s message, as well as its possible implications. Just as the Duggars have tried time and time again to convince us that the way they live their life is best, the Frankes have used “ConneXions” as another means by which to sell their lifestyle of religious authority to us. Amid the online chaos, their “teachings” have gotten crazier and crazier, eventually culminating in the shocking display of abuse that led me to sit down and write this article in the first place. The dangerous combination of a religious, fundamentalist household and an online sphere that demands creators to bring something unique to the table may have just forced the Frankes over the edge.
Again, these kinds of cases are rare, but I caution anyone reading this who is thinking to themselves that families like the Frankes or the Duggars exist in a vacuum: They do not. Many other religious family vloggers exhibit the same values that Ruby Franke forced onto her children for years and plastered all over the internet. Though they may not be explicitly abusive toward their kids, there is still plenty of reason to proceed with caution when consuming their content. It’s the viewers’ attention that these creators crave the most, and, while we can’t see what’s going on behind closed doors, it is within our power to withhold the viewer feedback that can feed into these abusive behaviors. Family channels like this may always exist, but by not consuming their content, we may be able to prevent the fame and authority from going to the next parent’s head.
Daily Arts Writer Rebecca Smith can be reached at email@example.com.