Forefront by TSMP: Kidfluencers: Navigating The Fine Line Between Entertainment And Exploitation

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Forefront by TSMP

5 June 2024

Kidfluencers: Navigating The Fine Line Between Entertainment And Exploitation

Managed by their parents for social media stardom, child influencers can potentially earn millions. But how far are their welfare and income protected?

By Ong Pei Ching

Cover photo credit: Jep Gambardella / Pexels

In this month's Forefront, Ong Pei Ching turns the spotlight on kidfluencers.

The alarm clock rings in a dim bedroom. Mummy enters to wake eight-year-old twins Leia and Lauren for school. Her voice-over shares that it’s still a struggle to get her girls ready in the morning. Soon, they trot into the kitchen in uniform but before they head off, she prepares a mug of Milo for each of them. “Milo is yummy!” declares Leia and Lauren replies, “And healthy!”. The camera zooms in on a Milo mug as the girls head off to school.

This is one of the latest reels shared by Ember Yong on the Instagram channel she manages for her children, @leialauren. Listed on Hype Auditor as the top “kids and toys influencer” in Singapore with some 288.2k followers, Yong’s channel chronicles the activities, travel, school and home life of her twin girls and their five-year old brother Luke. The posts average 1,000 likes with paid posts, featuring her cherubic kids, ranging from car brands to tuition centres, fashion and toys. Macro influencers (influencers between 100,000 to 1 million followers) like her can earn between $500 to $10,000 per post.

Welcome to the world of child influencers – or kidfluencers as they’re known. Kidfluencers are a growing phenomenon across platforms like TikTok, Instagram and YouTube. Ryan Kaji, arguably the world’s most popular child YouTuber with 37 million subscribers on his channel Ryan’s World, has reportedly amassed a net worth north of US$100 million. Kidfluencers primarily attract a young audience, often children like themselves. A recent Harvard study found that social media companies collectively made more than US$11 billion in US advertising revenue from minors in 2022.

With the potential to earn vast sums of money from partnerships and advertising, it’s no wonder that more parents are open to, or dreaming of, turning their children into kidfluencers.

Unlike child stars of the past whose public personas were “limited” to their performance-based work, kidfluencers today are filmed at home, in their pyjamas and at the kitchen table. The intrusion into their lives is what drives their content and feeds the voyeurism of their audience. They are also subject to immediate feedback on social media, lobbied at them by anonymous followers who can venerate or vilify them any time.

 

Parents As Managers

Kidfluencers often find themselves working under the guidance of their parents, who act as both managers and guardians. This unique dynamic raises concerns about how these young talents can be protected when their parents are also their bosses, and their film sets are their own homes.

On one extreme is the American example of the Hobson family whose YouTube channel Fantastic Adventures featuring the seven Hobson children had more than 700,000 followers, with over 240 million views. Machelle Hackney, the mother of the children, not only kept all the money made from the channel, she would hit, pepper-spray, sexually assault them or withhold food if they did not comply with production requirements or simply forgot their lines.

In their eagerness to garner views, some lines may be crossed even in less extreme cases. After all, the kidfluencers’ mums and dads are rewarded for whatever gets eyeballs.  A rule of thumb is the bigger the following and the more the number of views, the more money is made, whether from direct rewards from social media platforms to advertising fees from brands. The desire for online engagement and monetisation can lead parents to engage in debatable practices, such as pranking their children for views and likes.

Another American kidfluencer, 12-year-old Everleigh Rose with a net worth of US$2 million from her Instagram, YouTube and vlogs, has also been pranked by her parents. When she was only six, Everleigh’s parents, the LaBrants, tricked her in a video, saying they were giving away her dog. Predictably, Everleigh cried, hiding her face under a blanket, while the camera kept rolling and her father prompted, “You haven’t even told the vlog yet, do you want to tell the vlog?

In Singapore, influencer Naomi Neo faced a backlash in 2022 after she posted a TikTok video of a prank she played on her then four-year-old son.  While her son is not a kidfluencer in his own right, he is featured regularly on her social media. Neo and her husband let her son watch what seemed like a dance video on the phone, then ran out of the room, locking their son in it, as a ghost appears on the screen. Neo’s son appeared frightened, screaming and crying. The video gained 22.9 million views. Other pranks Neo has played on her son, ending in tears, included pretending her son became invisible such that she was unable to see him (a video with over 14 million views) and pretending she was not there to pick him up from preschool (54.1 million views).

 

Who Protects Kidfluencers?

Are these kidfluencers protected, legally? Laws in France and the state of Illinois in the US require that earnings from social media activities be placed in trust accounts for minors, ensuring that the money is safeguarded for their future. The Illinois law protects even children who are not held out to be kidfluencers, so long as, within a 30-day period, they appear in at least 30 per cent of a video or online content for which the adult is being paid.  California is also considering similar legislation, following in the footsteps of the Coogan Law.

The Coogan Law was named after Jackie Coogan who started his career as a child star in Charlie Chaplin’s film The Kid. Coogan earned an estimated US$3 million to US$4 million in the 1920s (approximately US$50 million to US$60 million today). Upon turning 21, he discovered that nearly all his earnings had been squandered by his mother and stepfather on luxury items and fast cars for themselves.  The Coogan Law was enacted, requiring that 15 per cent of a child actor’s earnings are put in a trust account. The child actor’s schooling and work hours (which depends on the exact age of the child) were also specified.

California’s proposed Child Content Creator Rights Act would not only protect the earnings of child influencers but also give them the right to request the deletion of content once they reach adulthood.

In Singapore, laws exist to regulate the employment of children and young persons, prohibiting children below 13 years old from being employed. However, the focus is on the type of work children can undertake in industrial settings versus non-industrial settings, and there are no express regulations for the work of child actors or kidfluencers. This is perhaps because such work is considered to be “participation in artistic performances”, which is an exception to the prohibition of child labour under Convention no. 138 issued by the International Labor Organisation that Singapore has ratified.

It must first be recognised that so long as money is generated, kidfluencing is work. The money kidfluencers earn ought to be protected for them. Work hours and work conditions for kidfluencers may need to be stipulated. The reality is that it is much harder to enforce such limits when the filming takes place in the children’s home rather than on a professional set. But we have to take the first steps.

Given the novelty of kidfluencing, the impact on kidfluencers has not been fully studied. Looking back at the history of child actors who were pushed into the limelight and managed by their parents, we see the enduring impact of early exposure to fame and scrutiny, and a glimpse of the challenges kidfluencers may face if mismanaged by their parents.

Brooke Shields’s mother and former manager, Teri Shields, put her in nude photoshoots when she was just 10 years old. Drew Barrymore’s mother-manager Jaid brought her to parties and nightclubs, where she “had her first drink at nine, smoked pot at 10 and started using cocaine at 12”, according to The Daily Mail. Child actors Daniel Radcliffe and Macaulay Culkin struggled with substance abuse.

As parents, we make decisions for our children every day. One hopes that the emotional well-being of kidfluencers would be a top priority for their parents. But regulations will provide a much-needed safety net that does not rely on hopes alone. Our laws need to evolve to protect the rights of kidfluencers, especially when it is their parents who manage them. We also need to start thinking about the mental toll on children who have their whole lives exposed, and not necessarily by their own choice.

A version of this article was first published in CNA Commentary on 4 June 2024.