Note: In case you couldn't tell, I’m going to talk a lot about kids in this post. I will be talking in a more general sense than listing out a lot of examples of child influencers, and hopefully after reading this you'll see why. I will, however, link to news articles and videos that delve much deeper than what I’m doing here and will name/show the faces of child influencers. Stock photo by Gabby K from Pexels
SAG-AFTRA announced last week that TikTok and other social media influencers are able to join the union. This alone is huge because while influencers (also interchangeably called “content creators”) are sneered at for having their hob online, they still work. It’s work to plan out social media posts, have good photography, and plan out hashtags to reach many people. The idea that influencers get paid for being themselves is deeply oversimplifying but also not entirely incorrect.
I worked with influencers on brand deals before. Content creators have to think about messaging, positioning the product in a way that is prominent and yet still feels natural, and overall sells the product while also being themselves. It’s a lot to think about. (And that’s before discussing things like exclusivity and copyright clauses in contracts.) That’s why I hope that SAG-AFTRA will also protect child influencers.
Yup. Kid influencers. Or kidfluencers, as New York Times calls them.
The Kids Are Alright...Maybe
You’ve definitely seen child influencers at some point. Perhaps you’ve seen them as a meme or posing with their family on Instagram or unboxing toys on YouTube. Even though most social media platforms have age limits, kidfluencers side step this rule because accounts are run by their parents.
“Internet platforms don’t have much of an incentive to take kidfluencers off the site,” Josh Golin, who leads an organization dedicated to ending marketing to children, told New York Times. “TV views are down and more kids spend time online, which means advertisers and brands are flocking there.”
Even though there isn’t much data on kidfluencers, the influencer industry overall is expected to be worth $15 billion by 2022. And no shortage of that will be from kidfluencers, partnering with brands like Claire’s, Target, Lego, and more.
Full transparency, I’m not sure that I particularly enjoy this trend. This form of marketing takes advantage of the parasocial relationship between a creator and a fan, where product placements and promotions often feel like they’re coming from a friend. Unlike adults, children are in the early stages of parsing out such content and might not understand or even care that they are being marketed to.
On the other hand, it’s important to say that I’m not a parent, and I can’t tell other people how to parent their kids. And genuinely, influencer work can be a path to a higher quality of life for the children. But as the New York Times explained, this is the first generation of kids who have inherited a digital footprint. They are growing up and we don’t know what the effects will be.
Here are just a few of many concerns surrounding kid influencers:
Sharenting is the phenomena where parents seemingly overshare moments of their kids’ lives, from sonograms to first steps to candid vacation photos.
In the case of family vloggers and other content creators that prominently feature children, this problem is exacerbated many times over by the sheer number of people who are watching the children grow up and developing parasocial relationships with the children. At its most benevolent, complete strangers might feel happy over learning intimate details of a child’s life such as hitting second grade. At its worst, fans might become obsessive to the point of endangering the child’s life.
And who knows how this will affect a child’s development as they grow older, or how they will feel about it once they are old enough to understand?
Consenting To Work
In a lot of the kid influencers I’ve seen while writing up notes for this piece, the kids claim that they want to work.
My one concern is wondering whether kids are truly consenting to work. If they are driven by a desire for cool stuff or for their caregivers’ approval, for instance, does that count as consent? Reasons might seem innocent enough but when you see situations like DaddyOFive family where children were literally bullying each other with minimal (or rather none) parental interference, that’s where the line has to be drawn.
Money, Money, Money
Parents have direct control over the money. Child actors and traditional entertainers have protections thanks to so-called Coogan laws throughout the country. These laws are modeled after the plight of Jackie Coogan, who was a child actor in the 1920s and sued his parents for squandering his fortune. Coogan laws are designed to protect child entertainers from exploitation and have rules in place to protect the child’s interests. In California, for instance, there are regulations surrounding the child’s hours, schooling, and time off.
The law also requires the child’s employers to set aside 15% of the child’s earnings in a trust (often called a Coogan account).
As of right now, the closest thing to a Coogan law for influencers is a New York bill that will bring child influencers under New York’s existing child performer laws and will require parents to set up Coogan accounts.
One particular situation that comes to mind is the Stauffer family scandal last year. To immense uproar, the Stauffer parents “rehomed” a child they adopted from China who had extreme developmental issues. That child starred on the mother’s YouTube channel. Videos featuring him were some of her most popular, reaching millions of views. That child, therefore, generated a lot of income for the family.
Yet that child, who had to travel to a new country and was given up by the parents who adopted him, might not ever get to see a portion of the money that the Stauffers earned from his role in their videos.
Unionizing and Protections
Hopefully, with SAG-AFTRA opening its doors to content creators, child content creators will have the same protections as their contemporaries in the more traditional lines of entertainment. Current SAG-AFTRA protections for minors include limits on work hours, required space for playing and recreation, a teacher or tutor on set, and most importantly a Coogan account that can’t be touched by the parents and can be accessed by the child when they are of age.
Based on the information I have while writing this, however, it’s uncertain how SAG-AFTRA will protect child content creators. I just hope that these Brave New Kids grow up in healthy environments in this Brave New World of manufactured authenticity.
Stuff I Talked About: