The Necessity of Child Influencer Laws Amongst a Monetized Content Society

in Entertainment/Labor Law/Social Media/Volume VI

By Sophie Zarkesh

Introduction

As we mindlessly scroll through our social media platforms, one thing is certain: children are everywhere.  Instagram Reels and TikTok’s of babies giggling and children falling flood our feeds.  On other social media platforms, like YouTube, family channels who film the daily lives of their kids and teenagers are amongst some of the most highly watched channels to date.  In realizing the popularity of their children, many of these families have opted to focus in on their children specifically, turning them into “child influencers.”  Child influencers are kids who are featured on any type of social media that stands to make a profit.  There are a variety of different child influencers: some sing, dance, and cook, while others are mini makeup gurus and actors.[1]  These children sometimes work with major brands and earn money through sponsored posts on their family run social media accounts.[2]  For many families, the income from their children’s fame is substantially more than their own, effectively turning these children into the breadwinners of their households.  The growth of child influencers and their popularity has spiked concern for their online safety and lack of legal protection over their profits.

This article will discuss the recent urgency some states have faced to create laws which protect children on social media.  Further, this article will examine the background of monetized media and the platforms which increasingly use monetization to pay their creators.  The necessity of influencer marketing for business profits will also be explored as a driving force of their method of marketing.  Moreover, this article will analyze the issues inherent in child content, current laws protecting these children, and legislation pushing for more protection over them.  

In sum, this article will evaluate the necessity of child influencers laws in an increasingly social media dominant society and describe the dangers of allowing these children to freely  develop online presences without proper legal protections.

Background of Monetized Media

Monetized media is a social media marketing strategy that allows creators to generate income from their social channel audience.[3]  Many of these strategies come in the form of products that the creator promotes or their exclusive content the creator offers, including streaming, podcasting, blogging and more.[4]  While important amongst influencers and social creators, monetized media is an available marketing strategy for a plethora of different people, including small business owners.[5]  Furthermore, many people choose to monetize their social media platforms because using digital marketing is a relatively simple way to activate a new income stream.  Not only is it an easy way to reach a target audience, but it cultivates a space for people to be influenced by those they follow and watch daily.

There are three major categories of “creators.”[6]  First, creator-educators are those who primarily focus on content that teaches their viewers about a specific subject or product.  Second, creator-entertainers simply aid those watching pass time by, without actively teaching them anything.  Third, creator-edutainers teach their viewers about a given topic in an easy-to-follow format.  Most current influencers on platforms like TikTok and Instagram fall into this last category, and children featured on social media are some of the most popular creator-edutainers.

Different Forms of Monetized Media

Monetized media takes many different forms, all of which help creators boost their income.  Affiliate marketing is one form in which creators sell other people’s products and earn  commissions every time a user uses an affiliate link or code to purchase a product.[7]  Many podcasts, like Armchair Expert hosted by Dax Shepard and Monica Padman, offer discount codes for a special deal on a specific product.  For example, the podcast tells their weekly listeners that they can use BetterHelp, an online therapy service, with 10% off their first month with their code.[8]  Furthermore, direct paid influencer marketing is another form of monetization, in which creators earn money by posting content about other brands’ and offers.[9]  Celebrities like Kendall Jenner or Hailey Bieber frequently post in Alo Yoga outfits and simply tag the athleisure company’s Instagram handle.[10]  As one of the top models in the industry, Jenner has claimed another title as the highest-paid Instagram influencer, making an estimated 1.27 million dollars for each post shared with her followers in 2019.[11]  Moreover, paid memberships and sponsored videos and posts are among other ways creators profit from their social media usage, by directly asking their followers to subscribe to learn more from them and having businesses pay directly to promote, respectively.[12]  While monetized media has expanded users ability to profit from their posts, videos, blogs, and more, it has also expanded vulnerability to children who utilize social media for income or are featured on social media for income purposes.

Issues with Child Content and Monetized Media

There are several major issues which revolve around those under eighteen who earn income through monetized media.  Due to their age, children generally do not have access or control to the money they earn off their talents and work.  In nearly all the United States, these children have no legal protections or guarantees that they will ever see any of the money they have earned.[13]  This issue has been around for decades, most famously addressed in 1938 by Jackie Coogan, who starred in a Charlie Chaplin movie and learned that his parents had spent the millions of dollars he earned as a child actor by the time he reached adulthood.[14]  At the time, a child’s wages belonged solely to their parents under California law and Coogan sued.[15]  The lawsuit sparked legislation about child incomes and the necessity for their protection and the Coogan Law was passed.  Today, the law has been revised to require that 15% of a child entertainer’s earnings go into a trust.[16]  

While the Coogan Law is an important step towards a child’s autonomy over their income, it is nowhere near enough to harness complete protection over their assets.  In the modern era of social media, the financial troubles of child stars have turned into the tribulations of child influencers, who continue to have difficulty accessing their earnings.  On most social media websites, like Instagram and TikTok, children under thirteen may not run their own accounts and must have a parent or guardian open and manage them.[17]   Furthermore, in most states, children are unable to open a bank account independently until they are seventeen.[18]  Children also often do not have a say in what they want or do not want shown on social media.  Often directed by their parents or guardians – and without consent –  children of social media influencers and child influencers find themselves the target of the camera if it boosts their family’s income.

Influencers and Their Children

One of the most prevalent forms of child influencing online are the children of social media influencers who consistently feature their children in posts and videos on their feeds.  While parents are generally free to post their children online, the concern comes to the forefront when parents demand or direct their children to act in certain ways once the camera is rolling.  Many criticizers of parents who do this call it “exploitative” because it broadcasts children’s daily lives, including their emotional states, without their full understanding or consent.[19]  Most notably, YouTube vlogger Jordan Cheyenne sparked controversy after posting a viral video of her son crying after their family dog contracted parvo, a highly contagious disease found in dogs.[20]  By accident, Cheyenne included an unedited clip of her son pleading with her that “he was already crying” and did not need to fake it for the camera, to which she responded that he needs to “act like [he’s] crying” and exaggerate.[21]  In another instance, actress Gwyneth Paltrow caught heat from her own daughter after posting a picture of her on Instagram without her consent.[22]  Her daughter, Apple Martin, commented on the post that her mother “may not post anything without [her] consent,” sparking debate about popular figures sharing their children’s lives on social media.[23]  

With social media presence exponentially growing over the past decade, the current  generation of children are the first to explore consent within the digital era and begin discussion over what they want and do not want online.  As monetized media also becomes popular, children need even more protection to ensure their presence online is limited to what they want and that they are getting compensated for it.  Parents and guardians should not be children’s only protectors when it comes to ensuring their safety online and their possible exploitation; legislators need to protect children.

Movement to Protect Children 

As social media and online presences grow in the modern era, discussions about social media usage and child consent must be introduced to families.  In an era where babies are introduced on the internet from their first ultrasound picture, an understanding of what it means to be shown to hundreds, thousands, or millions of followers is essential for their autonomy and independent decision making.  Sun Sim Lee, a professor of communication and technology at the Singapore University of Technology and Design argues that it is “critical that parents are aware that sharing their children’s pictures should be mutually agreed upon” as they might not be comfortable with their pictures and videos being posted online.[24]    

One of the most important issues frequently swept under the rug is that child predators use social media to identify children for sexual grooming and exploitation.  According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, monthly reports of child sex abuse material has doubled from about one million in March 2019 to two million a year later.[25]  While federal law requires tech companies to report abusive material if they find it, the companies have no obligation to actively search their platforms for it.[26]  As social media usage and monetized media becomes more frequently utilized by children, more stringent protections for them are necessary as the amount of predators increase on these platforms.  Policymakers and parents must be cognizant of their role in protecting children from the harms of child sexual exploitation online.

As new legislation moves forward and new laws go into effect, parents should become more aware of their social media activity and hopefully take their child’s autonomy into consideration before exploiting them, especially for money.  Changes like these are necessary in a rapidly online society, in which new situations and circumstances, especially in regard to increasing online child sex abuse, call for parallel legislation and monitoring. 

Current Laws Protecting Child Influencers

As social media grows larger and more influential, protections for children on these sites has grown as well.  In August of 2023, Illinois became the first state to pass a law that ensures financial compensation for minors, or children under the age of 16, who are featured in video blogs and possible legal action against parents who do not comply.[27]  This includes children frequently seen on family YouTube channels and children who have their own channels dedicated to them.  The implementation and creation of the law is credited to Shreya Nallamothu, an Illinois native, who became increasingly frustrated with the number of children she witnessed online as she believed these pure childhood moments should be kept within a private eye rather than broadcasted to the public.[28]  She wrote a letter to Illinois state senator, Dave Koehler, urging him to consider legislation to protect child influencers.  Just a year later, Illinois Governor J. B. Pritzker signed a bill to amend the state’s Child Labor Law, allowing teenagers over the age of 18 to take legal action against their parents if they were featured in a monetized social media post without proper compensation.[29]  This bill not only solidified Illinois as the first state to implement a child influencer regulation into law, but it encouraged discussion about the problems inherent to monetized content featuring children.  

Other states are likely to follow in Illinois’ footsteps by offering similar protections for child influencers.  In California, Senator Steve Padilla plans to submit an amendment to language in Senate Bill 767, as an update to the Coogan Act, requiring content creators who feature minor children in at least 30% of their content to set aside a proportionate percentage of the earnings   from that content for them.[30]  For these children, the earnings would be placed into a trust that is available to them once they are 18.[31]  Furthermore, as the largest state in the country by population, California is actively setting up protection for children in their state, and serving as an example to the rest of the country.  If this legislation is passed, not only will California children be shielded from exploitation, but further laws regulating social media will be open for discussion.  While Illinois is currently the only state that has implemented legal protections for child influencers, California, Maryland, [32] and Washington state[33] have taken steps to follow suit. 

Necessary New Legislation

The new laws protecting child influencers are major steps towards the recognition of the exploitative nature that children are exposed to while on social media.  Nevertheless, this is only the beginning.  There are mountains of legislation necessary to climb over to completely protect children from the dangers of exploitative media and the harm of not being compensated for their work.  States must move to restrict the amount children featured on their family’s social media pages entirely and should even go so far as to prevent them from having their own accounts.  Children frequently disobey the TikTok and Instagram age limit requirements because these limits are severely unregulated.[34]  Furthermore, these social media sites should actively monitor users to ensure that no one under the age limit is online and should set a time limit for children under the age of 18 entirely.[35]  

Without serious regulation, children are exposed not only for exploitation by their families, but also exposed to the dangers of unrestricted social media.  Cyberbullying, inappropriate content, exposure to excessive advertisements, and other privacy risks are only some of the dozens of issues inherent to social media use by children.[36]  If parents will not monitor their own children’s social media usage and instead use them for their own monetization needs, it is up to state legislators and social media sites to advocate and regulate the presence of children on social media.  

Conclusion

Monetized content on social media platforms is a beneficial way to add to the income of growing families, but not at the expense of their children.  As child influencer content grows exponentially on these platforms, protections and restrictions must be implemented for their safety and vulnerability to exploitation and abuse.  While steps have been made in legislative history to protect children used by their parents for income, the rapidly growing digital era calls for necessary laws protecting children and their rightly earned compensation online.  Moreover, states like Illinois and California have already begun enacting laws and sparking conversation about the laws necessity while others have discussed other plans to protect child influencers.  As brand and companies rely more on social media marketing strategies to boost their revenue, maintaining a safe environment for children online must be a priority as kids are capitalized on.  Overall, with child content becoming more and more popular, necessary steps need to be taken by parents and by state and federal governments to protect child influencers rights and compensation while ensuring they are shieled from exploitation in general.  


[1] Valeriya Safronova, Child Influencers Make Big Money. Who Gets It?, The New York Times, (Oct. 10, 2023), https://www.nytimes.com/2023/10/10/style/children-influencers-money.html.

[2] Id.

[3] Tamilore Oladipo, How to Monetize Your Content, Buffer, (Feb. 7, 2023), https://buffer.com/resources/content-monetization/.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Heideli Loubser, How to Monetize Social Media in 2024 (15+ Ways to Make $$!), Xperiencify, (last visited Feb. 14, 2024), https://xperiencify.com/monetize-social-media/.

[8] Monica Padman, Part 4: Monica and Jess Love Therapy with Harry the Therapist, Armchair Expert, (Mar. 4, 2020), https://armchairexpertpod.com/pods/mjlb-harry-the-therapist.

[9] Manu Sheen, Influencer Payments: How (Much) to Pay Influencers in 2024, Insense, (Feb. 15, 2023), https://insense.pro/blog/influencer-payments.

[10] Alo, As Seen on Kendall and Kylie, (last visited Feb. 16, 2024), https://www.aloyoga.com/collections/as-seen-on-the-jenners.

[11] Harper’s Bazaar Arabia, Here’s How Much the Kardashians Get Paid for One Instagram Post, Harper’s Bazaar, (Jul. 25, 2019), https://www.harpersbazaararabia.com/culture/people/the-a-list/heres-how-much-the-kardashians-get-paid-for-one-instagram-post.

[12] Ernie Santeralli, Sponsored Content: What You Need to Know (and 9 Examples!), Active Campaign, (Jun. 5, 2023), https://www.activecampaign.com/blog/sponsored-content.

[13] Safronova, supra note 1.

[14] Maham Javaid, Before child influencers, a 1920s movie star sued his mother for wages, The Washington Post, (Aug. 25, 2023), https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2023/08/25/illinois-child-influencer-earnings-law-history-jackie-coogan/.

[15] Id.

[16] Safronova, supra note 1.

[17] Catherine Page Jeffery, Is 13 too young to have a TikTok or Instagram account?, The Guardian, (Feb. 9, 2023), https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2023/feb/10/is-13-too-young-to-have-a-tiktok-or-instagram-account.

[18] Id.

[19] Fortesa Latifi, What’s next in the lucrative world of parent influencers? Earnings for the kids, The Washington Post, (Sept. 6, 2023), https://www.washingtonpost.com/parenting/2023/09/06/parenting-influencers-child-earnings/.

[20] Kat Tenbarge, The mommy vlogger caught telling her son to cry for a video shared ‘girl boss’ advice and weight loss meal plans before her viral blunder, Business Insider, (Sept. 14, 2021), https://www.businessinsider.com/jordan-cheyenne-youtube-bio-age-son-cancelled-vlog-thumbnail-2021-9.

[21] Id.

[22] Kate Lyons, Apple Martin tells of mother Gwyneth Paltrow for sharing photo without consent, The Guardian, (Mar. 29, 2019), https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/mar/29/apple-martin-tells-mother-gwyneth-paltrow-off-for-sharing-photo-without-consent.

[23] Id.

[24] Lyon, supra note 20.

[25] Teresa Huizar, Child sex abuse content is exploding online. We’re losing the fight against it., USA Today, (Mar. 10, 2023), https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2023/03/10/how-social-media-emboldens-abusers/11413209002/.

[26] Id.

[27] Kalhan Rosenblatt, Efforts to protect child influencers will continue to ramp up in 2024, NBC News, (Dec. 26, 2023), https://www.nbcnews.com/tech/child-influencer-family-vlogger-protection-laws-rcna127674.

[28] Samantha Murphy Kelly, Illinois passes a law that requires parents to compensate child influencers, CCN Business, (Aug. 16, 2023), https://www.cnn.com/2023/08/16/tech/kid-influencer-law/index.html.

[29] Illinois Department of Labor, Child Labor Law Compliance, (last visited Mar. 18, 2024), https://labor.illinois.gov/laws-rules/fls/child-labor-law-compliance.html.

[30] Foresta Latifi, Child Influencers Could Gain a Major Legal Protection in California, Teen Vogue, (Dec. 21, 2023), https://www.teenvogue.com/story/california-legislation-for-kid-influencers.

[31] Id.

[32] Sarah Sample, Rights, Privacy, and Profit Protection for Child Influencers in the 2024 Legislative Session, Maryland Association of Counties, (Dec. 21, 2023), https://conduitstreet.mdcounties.org/2023/12/21/rights-privacy-and-profit-protection-for-child-influencers-in-the-2024-legislative-session/.

[33] Chase DiBenedetto, A new Washington state bill takes the first step in legislating rights for child influencers, Mashable, (Feb. 17, 2023), https://mashable.com/article/child-influencer-washington-state-bill.

[34] Jeffrey, supra note 17.

[35] Id.

[36] Rosenblatt, supra note 27.