Despite having always been morally questionable, child influencers have existed on social media platforms for well over a decade now. And what started off as snippets of first birthdays and trips to the zoo in YouTube family vlogs quickly transitioned into the offspring of online creators becoming permanent fixtures of their parents’ online lives. Sounds dodgy? Yep, we think so too.
As children quickly appeared more and more frequently in content creation, questions surrounding ethics and treatment—both socially and financially—became something that needed to be addressed. And not just by a Mumsnet group chat, but by the government.
According to CNET, Washington state recently held a hearing for Bill 1627, a piece of legislation that “aims to ensure that children who are heavily featured or star in online content have a right to financial compensation for their work.”
The law, titled ‘Protecting the interests of minor children featured on for-profit family vlogs’ would also empower kids to maintain their privacy by allowing them to request the deletion of videos and other content they’ve featured in once they reach the age of majority.
Kidfluencer content might appear innocent enough on the surface, but these mommy-run accounts aren’t a constructive way to safeguard children from online predators. Financial compensation aside, there’s a serious conversation to be had about whether or not minors should be featured online at all.
Nevertheless, this bill marks a significant moment as it’s the first time the US has taken legal steps to curb the power of parents when it comes to documenting their children’s lives online. While the concept is regarded as highly seedy among the more cynical of us gen Zers, it’s an unfortunately highly lucrative business. Family vloggers dominate the YouTube and TikTok space.
And for some reason, because it’s the parents—rather than an unknown director—holding the camera, audiences seem less concerned about the rights of the children on-screen. Or indeed the emotional and mental impact being documented online at such a young age can have on a child.
When a production company hires a child actor, they’re subject to a heavily guarded list of restrictions and regulations—all curated in order to protect the rights of that child. These labour laws are an imperative tool for any young person within the entertainment industry.
These kinds of protections simply do not exist within the online creator space. It was only 2022 when notorious family vloggers the SacconeJolys faced widespread criticism in regard to their incessant and highly intimate filming of their six children’s lives.
In particular, the family faced backlash over the documenting of one of their kids’ gender transition from boy to girl. And while some of the criticism was highly laced with transphobia, there is also something to be said about filming such a personal journey, especially when the child is under ten-years-old.
One of the individuals spearheading the new Washington state bill is 18-year-old Chris McCarty, a political science major at the University of Washington who recently launched the advocacy campaign Quit Clicking Kids.
The project, which hopes to promote “fair labour standards, fair compensation and a reinstatement of childhood privacy,” is representative of a growing movement pushing back against the monetisation of children on social media.
Of course, this is only a state-based legislative push and what’s really needed is a global effort to combat this highly complex problem. Moving forward, it’ll be interesting to see if the political elite—who place so much supposed importance on morality—decide to take steps which’ll provide legitimate and overdue protection for children online.
While family vlogs gripped YouTube in the early 2010s, the accounts monetising its supposedly kid-friendly fun has since undergone a tomato pelting in the court of public opinion. Gone are the attitudes of innocent and playful fun. Now, sceptics are rightfully questioning the lack of protection such famous kid influencers have—unable to consent to their image being used for their family’s gain. One such family is the Saccone Jolys, an infamous household of six (plus six dogs) that filmed their day-to-day lives on YouTube. During the 2010s, the family exploded into popularity but have since been criticised for the exploitation of their children ‘for views’.
Though not directly mentioned in the report, the virality of such discussions seem to have caught the attention of the UK parliament—as MPs warn that child influencers in the country must be protected from exploitation. Julian Knight, the Conservative chair of the committee, stated that the unsettling online reality had left children vulnerable to danger, The Guardian reported. “The rise of influencer culture online has brought significant new opportunities for those working in the creative industries and a boost to the UK economy,” he said.
“However, as is so often the case where social media is involved, if you dig below the shiny surface of what you see on screen you will discover an altogether murkier world where both the influencers and their followers are at risk of exploitation and harm online,” Knight continued.
In a landmark report published Monday 9 May 2022, it was cited that many children were being exploited by their own parents online, aiming to capitalise on the ‘kidfluencer’ market. Not only did the investigation unveil vast regulatory gaps surrounding their protection and advertising rules but it also highlighted the potentially life-long mental health consequences of being exposed to evidenced harassment and kidnapping threats.
“As with other influencers, monetising successful child and family influencer profiles can be the primary source of income for a family,” the report read, as published by The Telegraph. “It is well understood that fame at a young age can have damaging effects on a child’s development. The precise effect of social media fame, which can be constant and far more personal, has not yet been explored. However, there is evidence that social media fame can have serious mental consequences,” it continued.
Though the concept is relatively new—as in it hasn’t been around for that long—the impact it has on a child’s development could be indefinite. One such case has been around public concern for the Saccone Joly child that the internet has titled ‘E’. E, who was born Eduardo and later changed to Edie, has made headlines for having their transgender journey documented online—one that some argue they were pushed to do, with others allegedly evidencing that E has previously stated they didn’t identify as either gender. The family challenged those claims on Sky News:
The TikTok onslaught, married with the ‘exposing’ resurged 2019 documentary on the family titled Stacey Dooley Sleeps Over: The Family Who Live Online, eventually led the YouTuber parents to delete their entire channel. And just like that, thousands of videos were scrubbed clean from the internet. Thanks to such clearance of their content, SCREENSHOT is unable to accurately substantiate the accusations made above by social media users. However, it may be likely that such viral issues have played a part in parliamentary discussion around the subject, leading MPs to worry about the “dark side” of kidfluencer culture.
Sarah Adams, otherwise known as @mom.uncharted on TikTok, previously spoke to SCREENSHOT as part of an investigation into the phenomenon of such ‘mommy-ran accounts’ and the dangers of ‘sharenting’. For Adams, the issues surrounding kidfluencers boil down to three major points, “One: the exploitation of children for fame and financial gain. Two: privacy and consent—children cannot give informed consent [as well as] their right to privacy infringed upon. And three: the disregard, or lack of knowledge on the dangers/potential consequences, for the child’s online safety.”
Adams went on to state that, worryingly, not only does the world of hyper-consumerism and materialism inadvertently poison children with unhealthy ideals but their overexposure online makes them susceptible to a dark web of paedophile rings. Interestingly, Dooley posed a question that touches upon the same topic to Jonathon Saccone Joly in her documentary. “How would you feel in your heart of hearts if it became apparent that a paedophile had been looking at your children, had been masturbating over your children for example?” she asked.
To which Saccone Joly replied, “It’s such an odd question… I don’t know how you’d feel, obviously is it a terrible thing? It’s like… I don’t really know how to answer… I don’t really make content for that purpose, I just make it as difficult as I can for my content to be consumed that way.”
“I don’t think there’s any footage out there… there probably was in our early stuff I’ll admit that, we made mistakes,” he continued.
The report concluded its findings by stating that it is “deeply concerned that a lack of action in the booming influencer market will lead to even more children in the industry being exploited, with potentially lifelong consequences.” With it becoming a booming element in the UK market, the committee which led the investigation are calling for stronger child labour laws that can better combat the complexities of the kidfluencer industry—implementing limits on working hours, the protection of their earnings as well as enforcing the child’s right to erasure.