Opinion: Help protect the Internet’s ‘kid influencers’

If you still think of this 'kidfluencing' as kid’s stuff, it is bracing to note how the rest of the world increasingly appears to be taking it seriously. — Image by Freepik


That’s the term in the online world for children and teens with the ability to influence potential buyers of a product or service through their appearances on social media.

The compensation offered by such major social media platforms as TikTok, YouTube, Facebook and Instagram for users who gain enough followers to be called true influencers is way more than kids’ stuff.

The popular act of of parents sharing photos or videos of their children on platforms has grown in the hands of some enterprising parents into a cottage industry that generates a hefty income through advertising, product placements and subscription fees.

Forbes’ list of the highest-paid TikTok earners for 2022, counting only those whose fame originated on TikTok, showed income exceeding that of most S&P 500 CEOs, according to a Wall Street Journal study.

But, since the fan base of these young influencers is mostly children and teens under 18, the rapid rise of such online advertising has raised alarming ethical and legal questions.

Appropriately, Illinois lawmakers, who tend to be much older than TikTok’s core audience, have been alerted thanks to a TikTok user, Shreya Nallamothu, a 15-year-old high school student from Normal and self-described active social network user.

While researching the kidfluencer craze for a class project, she says in a video posted on YouTube, she frequently saw young children and families posting videos online “without any guarantee of receiving any of the income generated from the content.”

Although each platform sets its own standards and formulas for compensation, TikTok offers one of the more competitive and potentially lucrative examples for content creators, according to various sources. To get started, a creator must be of legal age and have a minimum of 10,000 followers and 100,000 views within 30 days. TikTok’s “Creator’s Fund” pays the creator US$0.01 (44 cents) for every one thousand views.

Yet, more money can be made as an influencer by promoting products and services for brands using the platform.

Seeking to “protect the money that these kids have rightfully earned,” Nallamothu enlisted the support of Democratic Senators Dave Koehler, assistant majority leader from Peoria, and Linda Holmes of Aurora, to create legislation to protect children from being exploited by their parents.

It’s a bill that Springfield should pass, and that Gov. JB Pritzker should sign.

Precedents for such legislation can be found in the early days of Hollywood, particularly in the rise of a multimillion-dollar child star named Jackie Coogan in the silent film era. Youngsters — and some of us not so young — know him better today as Uncle Fester in The Addams Family television series.

But his early days in silent movies and, later, the talkies led to the 1939 California Child Actor’s Bill, also called “the Coogan Act,” which emerged out of a family scandal.

By the time Coogan turned 21, he earned a reported US$3mil to US$4 million, which would be worth many times more in today’s dollars. But all of it turned out to have been squandered by his parents. Coogan later sued but was awarded only US$126,000 of the US$250,000 remaining in his earnings.

Under the Coogan Act, which has been revised over the years, a child actor’s employer is required to set aside 15% of the child’s earning in a trust and codifies issues such as schooling, work hours and time off.

In Illinois, traditional child actors are protected by the Child Labor Law, but nothing in the books protects young internet influencers.

The proposed amendment would cover minors under the age of 16 featured in video blogs or other content shared on an online platform in exchange for compensation. It would require that a trust account be set up for the minor’s benefit and preserved until the minor reaches the age of adulthood.

The bill sets a standard when a child can be considered a “vlogger” (video blogger), how much of the content he or she must be included in, and the number of views the content must have reached in order for the vlogger to be compensated.

To protect the children’s privacy rights after they reach adulthood, the former kidfluencer would be able to request the permanent deletion of any content they are featured in, and the platform “will take all reasonable steps” to permanently delete it.

If you still think of this “kidfluencing” as kid’s stuff, it is bracing to note how the rest of the world increasingly appears to be taking it seriously.

In May, the United Kingdom’s House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee published a report titled “Influencer Culture: Lights, Camera, Inaction? " that calls child influencers, “some of the most successful influencers” family influencers as some of the most in-demand social media stars “because they appeal to both children and parents.”

The report’s authors were not necessarily amused. These profiles can be a family’s primary source of income, they said, and the success of the industry is pushing legislators to address extensive regulatory gaps in its regulation, including children’s privacy rights and the possibility of child labour exploitation.

Back here in America, Washington state is the only other state with a kidfluencer protection bill pending, according to Chris McCarty, an 18-year-old college freshman who started the website Quit Clicking Kids as an information hub to fight the “monetisation of children on social media.”

Like Shreya Nallamothu, McCarty comes from the generation that led the way for kidfluencing’s recent rise. Now let’s help them to make it more safe. – Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service

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