Terence Blacker: YouTube's gain is the family's loss

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There are signs, at last, that the recession is inspiring people into creative new ways of making money. Filming intimate moments in the family kitchen or garden and putting them on the internet, for example, has turned out to be a nice little earner. Not so little, in fact. Howard Davies-Carr, a Buckinghamshire IT consultant, has so far earned more than £100,000 after posting on YouTube a few moderately cute incidents featuring his sons, Harry, Charlie and Jasper. His greatest hits "Charlie Bit Me: Again" (pictured right), "Charlie Bit My Finger: The Accident", "Just Charlie" and so on, have been so popular that the website agreed to share advertising revenue with the Davies-Carrs. Hundreds of other families are making big money by sharing home videos. The peculiarity of this trend becomes apparent only when one sees the clips in question. They are not, to put it politely, exceptional, yet a 56-second film of a baby sitting on his brother's lap and biting his finger has been viewed 387 million times – the equivalent of every man, woman and child in the UK watching it six times. Another clip of the boys eating chips has been seen 27 million times. What is going on?

Unsurprisingly, their online popularity has been exploited financially – or "monetised" as the polite new phrase has it. Apart from the YouTube ad revenue, there are "Charlie Bit Me" T-shirts, a Twitter account, magazine articles and an online blog.

A touch gracelessly, Mr Davies-Carr has blogged that British journalists are obsessed by the money he has made, unlike their nicer, kinder counterparts from Brazil, who see his family values as the big story. The cash, he adds, is incidental and not particularly needed. In that case, this domestic exhibitionism is even stranger. It is a very unusual child who is not endearing at some point and, if a camera is rolling during family meals, capturing those moments is not difficult. To make a business out of promoting them on computers across the world, bringing the children celebrity of a weird and possibly unhelpful kind, seems a slightly odd thing to do unless there is a desperate need for cash.

It is the viewers, though, whom one truly worries about. Hardly a day goes by without more evidence being provided that humanity is increasingly finding virtual life, seen on the screen and experienced in the head, more comforting exciting and satisfying than the messy, physical reality.

Just as porn reduces the complexity of relationships to people thrashing around on a bed, so the fashion for heart-warming videos of kiddies and pets doing the darndest things provides a pared-down, simplified version of family life without the rows, the silences, the niggling and yapping over the kitchen table, the boredom.

It is a grim thought that among the 387 million views of "Charlie Bit Harry Again", many millions will be by parents working late at the office or lingering upstairs on the computer while their own children sit in front of their own screens in another room.

This gurgling idealisation of family life has been one of the 21st century's more bewildering trends. Now everyone can play the game and even make money out of it. Childhood itself is being turned in to a reality show; given a celebrity makeover.