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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Nothing Is Protecting Child Influencers From Exploitation

Jackie Coogan, America’s first major child star, shot to fame in 1921 as Charlie Chaplin’s adopted son in The Kid. But at the age of 21, after earning upward of $4 million through years of unforgiving hours on set, he learned his hard-earned fortune had already been squandered by his mother and stepfather. Coogan sued his parents, and was awarded just $126,000 of the paltry amount that remained. But his case led his home state to pass the California Child Actor’s Bill, also known as the Coogan Act, which stipulates that the money earned by child entertainers must be safeguarded for their use as adults.

Regrettably, however, the exploitation of child entertainers is far from being a shameful relic of the past. Children can now enter the public gaze of millions with as little as their first ultrasound scan. As early as 2010, studies indicated that a quarter of children had an online presence before their birth, curated by expectant parents. There is something deeply Kafkaesque about a child’s day-to-day existence becoming a vessel for logo-embroidered merch and licensing contracts. But whilst Jackie Coogan may have been able to take back at least a fraction of the money made from peanut butter tins with his face on them, the prospects seem bleak for today’s hashtag babies.

Parent-managed social media accounts are now more popular than ever, in some cases even resulting in lucrative sponsorship deals and income from advertising revenue. Anthropologist Crystal Abidin refers to this new wave of celebutantes as “micro-microcelebrities,” experiencing online stardom by virtue of their “influencer mothers.” Wren Eleanor, for instance, is a 3-year-old TikTok star who boasts more than 17 million followers on an account managed by her mother Jacquelyn. The videos mostly consist of Wren doing what many children of her age get up to—dressing up, enjoying trips to local carnivals, and trying out new activities such as ice skating and bike riding. Alongside those are sponsored videos for clothing brands such as Shein and Jamie Kay, as well as a recent unboxing video to promote the release of Minions.

But a prepackaged media empire courtesy of mommy’s blog isn’t necessarily compulsory for this line of business. Since the family vlogging boom of the 2010s, adults have been kickstarting influencer careers with their existing kids via YouTube. Families such as The Shaytards, Not Enough Nelsons, and The Ace Family have amassed millions of subscribers, chronicling their children’s morning routines, holiday traditions, and even visits to the emergency room.

Unfortunately, there are very few labor and privacy laws in place to prevent these children from having their digital destinies commence as soon as they land on the operating table, or even from securing rightful ownership over the fortune their online fame may bring. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, a landmark law which covered the prevention of minors being employed in “excessive child labor,” still has yet to be amended to address child influencers; the same applies for the aforementioned Coogan Act. This is perhaps due to the home-grown, self-employed status of the vlogging market. Calculating the work hours, and therefore the salary distribution, of an edited toy review video hosted by a 5-year-old is dependent on mere guesswork, making for a flimsy case to take to court.

Similarly, the California Consumer Privacy Act, which addresses autonomy over personal data, still requires guardian consent for children’s data sharing, making it powerless to protect infant influencers from parents thrusting a camera in their face to model the latest haul from Baby Gap. Adding insult to injury, the platforms hosting this content do little to mitigate the risk of child exploitation. While users under 13 are prohibited from setting up a YouTube account, no such guidelines exist to prevent parents from featuring their children in vlogs. YouTube has yet to address how the loophole of parental consent can inadvertently exploit a child, save for disabling comments on videos involving children (this isn’t foolproof either; upon checking a recent video from the hugely popular Ace Family, the comments remain active).

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The apparent indifference of lawmakers toward children’s right to privacy is odd, given how much most adults fear their own confidentiality being compromised by data harvesting, security breaches of cloud storage, and terms of service fine print selling our souls to the algorithmic devil. Moreover, those of us who were introduced to social media during adulthood were still able to carve out our online presence from scratch, whether it be as an anonymous lurker on Reddit or a brazen oversharer on Instagram. The next generation are not afforded this freedom of choice; they simply have to lie in utero and pray that the first thing they see upon exiting isn't the glare of a smartphone camera lens, set to an ear-splitting shriek of, “Don’t forget to like and subscribe!”

It becomes even more perplexing when you consider the time and money spent on education around children’s internet safety. This is for good reason; establishing a conduct of mutual respect and trust between parent and child when it comes to online activity could not be more pertinent. The United States Department of Justice is thorough in its advice on how to guide children through internet use, referring specifically to “body safety and boundaries … the importance of saying ‘no’ to inappropriate requests.” It must feel alienating for a child to be lectured on the importance of consent when online strangers may have already been privy to details of their potty-training woes and embarrassing videos of nuclear tantrums.

This lack of ethical consistency in safeguarding and privacy guidelines is hardly excusable, and the failure of the law to keep up with technological advancements has been more than acknowledged in the legal community. In 2012 the American Bar Association amended Comment 8, which pertains to duty of competence, urging lawyers to keep abreast of “the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology.” Despite this, none of the most recent revisions to both the Coogan Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act have pertained to the rights of child influencers. So long as children continue to have their identities trafficked to millions without the security of legal protections and financial recompense, this long-awaited amendment to Comment 8 is not being adhered to.

In the meantime, perhaps the uptick in discussions regarding child influencers could provide a temporary solution. Concerned web sleuths have recently noted the amount of likes, saves, and disturbing comments on Wren Eleanor’s potentially exploitative videos, such as one featuring Wren play-acting with one of her mother’s tampons. Jacquelyn has brushed off the accusations, urging detractors not to “mom shame” on account of “different parenting styles.” But in the wake of the controversy, many TikTok mothers announced that they were taking down all content involving their children, or setting accounts to private. Simply fostering more of this awareness among parents could yield better outcomes than proselytizing solely to children who use the internet. Platforms would equally benefit from a code of communicative transparency. By implementing a user interface design in account creation that clearly delineates the risks and responsibilities, budding vloggers who intend to feature children in their videos can be better informed.

For centuries, advocacy for the rights of children has pushed for them to be recognized in both law and community as individuals, deserving of the same respect and understanding as the adults who protect them. To deny the inevitability that they will soon develop self-actualization and their own preferred boundaries is to deny their humanity, and there is no greater injustice than that. The best gift you can give to your child is not a multitude of likes, followers, and comments wrapped up in a neat package of online validation, but the freedom to carve out their own narratives.

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