Opinion: Social media platforms must stop the exploitation of child performers. Now

When kids make money by producing content for a media company in California, they are - or should be - protected by the state's laws, which mandate, among other things, limited hours, on-site education and a state-licensed teacher or social worker present on set at all times. — Dreamstime/TNS

YouTube has a major child labour problem. Just read Amy Kaufman and Jessica Gelt's recent Times investigation into the lawsuit facing YouTube star Piper Rockelle and her mother, Tiffany Smith.

Instagram and TikTok have child labour problems too, as do any social media platforms from which children (and their parents) derive income.

As should be self-evident, when people make money on these platforms, "social" takes a backseat to "media."

When kids make money by producing content for a media company in California, they are — or should be — protected by the state's laws, which mandate, among other things, limited hours, on-site education and a state-licensed teacher or social worker present on set at all times.

Too often, they are not. Too often, what may have begun as a fun little hobby turns into a family-supporting business that rests entirely on the ability of a child to churn out videos and engage with a huge audience of strangers.

That's something you might think about the next time you or your children view content involving children, or if your own child expresses interest in becoming a YouTube star.

Parents of children who appeared in hundreds of Rockelle's videos claim that none of the criteria required by child labour laws was met by Smith, who oversaw the content's production. The suit also alleges that 11 members of Rockelle's Squad were "frequently subjected to an emotionally, physically and sometimes sexually abusive environment."

Allegations also include pressure to engage in orchestrated "crushes" and sexually inappropriate behaviour. Smith denies this and all the claims of the suit, which she says was filed out of jealousy over her daughter's success.

As no state-licensed teacher or social worker was present during filming, the case boils down to "they say/she says." Which is one of many reasons a credentialed third party is required on set by California state law.

Smith claims that although she oversaw filming of videos involving the Squad that resulted in her daughter making money, she was not an employer; Squad members were compensated indirectly, via increased visibility for their own YouTube accounts.

But according to the plaintiffs in the suit and in additional reporting, Smith cast the group, came up with scenarios for the videos, oversaw production and kept the kids on a tight schedule. As there was a lot of money at stake, this sounds awfully like the actions of an employer.

Moreover, in this increasingly gig-based economy, work is not defined by traditional salary. Four years ago, the "Child Performers' Act — Social Media Influencers" became law, legally extending California's child labour laws to performers like Rockelle and the Squad.

Rockelle has earned up to US$625,000 (RM2.77mil) a month through her YouTube channel. When asked, Smith told The Times that she'd set up an account for her daughter under the Coogan Law. Named for Jackie Coogan, the child actor whose parents famously spent all the money he earned before he reached adulthood, this law requires parents or guardians to put 15% of a child's earnings into a separate account for the child.

By setting up a Coogan account, Smith herself appears to acknowledge that what Rockelle does is the same as what any child actor does — i.e., work. Even so, Smith's attorney argues that what she and the other children were doing while filming endless hours of semi-scripted pranks does not fit under the legal definition of work.

It was just a bunch of friends – some of them discovered through casting calls – hanging out and having fun while filming it on their phones.

This is certainly what people watching these kinds of videos want to believe, and what many of the adults producing them argue: The kids choose to do it, enjoy doing it. So how is that work?

Well, many adults, including myself, chose the jobs they do and have even been known to have fun while doing them. That doesn't mean it isn't work. Work is defined by payment for services. If you're paying income tax, you have an income. From work.

YouTube and other social media platforms avoid responsibility for enforcing child labour laws by arguing that they are not employers. Stars of popular accounts are not paid salaries, they are "monetised," meaning they can feature ads for which they receive money from the advertisers. Some stars, including Rockelle, have ancillary product-placement deals with companies, which also claim this does not count as employment.

(In light of the suit, YouTube has demonetised Rockelle's channel for "off site activities.")

The "we're not employers" defence is ridiculous; YouTube and other platforms are not non-profit agencies; neither are the companies that advertise on them. They make a lot of money by having stars of all ages. If platforms and advertisers are going to profit from content involving children, they must ensure that that content is made under the protection of child labour laws.

As many successful social media stars and influencers will tell you, the only way to make money on YouTube and other platforms is by creating and maintaining a popular brand. That means producing creative and well-edited content, posting it consistently, sharing it on other platforms, engaging with your audience and your platform.

In other words, what most professional members of all media do, which is a lot of work. Even if it is done in the backyard on a phone. In fact, many social media stars use much more sophisticated equipment than other media professionals do.

In answer to the allegations detailed in Kaufman and Gelt's report, Smith's lawyer argued that the plaintiff's parents, not Smith, were responsible for their children's education and for abiding by child labour laws.

No doubt. Former Squad parents allowed their children to spend entire days filming at Smith's home without an on-site credentialed teacher or social worker. They allege that Smith banned them from the set, but they allowed their children to participate nonetheless.

Though the parents say their kids eventually left the Squad because of a toxic environment, their initial concern was decreased viewership for their children's separate channels (and the accusation of sabotage is part of the suit). It wasn't until they and their children met with a lawyer about the financial issues that allegations of abuse came out.

Child labour laws were put into place in part to protect children from exploitation by their own parents, after all.

Whether or not their suit succeeds or is settled, its existence should bring attention to a very real and much bigger problem. Millions are being made and spent for the services of child workers with little or no regulation. As The Times revealed, many of the agencies tasked with enforcing child labour laws don't know how to deal with young social media stars.

They need to figure it out and fast. The successful child social media star has become the new American dream, and why not? It seems so simple. Some kid earns thousands of dollars, or even millions, by opening toy boxes or goofing off with friends - what a great gig. It seems easier than having to find acting classes and get an agent.

For platforms like YouTube, it's much cheaper to generate profitable stars if you don't have to deal with all the rules in place for child performers. For advertisers, it's a low-cost way to pinpoint potential consumers.

For those consumers, the enforced myth that these are just kids hanging out, instead of performers who could be working more than 40 hours a week with no credentialed supervision, allows us to enjoy and share the content without a second thought. They're having so much fun!

And if your own kid wants to give it a go (or even if they don't but you do), well, maybe they'll be so successful that you can quit your job and manage their career. Maybe you can finally buy a big house in LA, or get your own reality show.

But here's the thing: Putting a child to work isn't supposed to be easy, at least not in California. If a child has a career, especially one that requires a parent to manage it full-time, that child is working. And in California, there are laws to protect them.

Those laws need to be enforced. Starting yesterday. – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service

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