What’s next in the lucrative world of parent influencers? Earnings for the kids.

Sep 07, 2023
What’s next in the lucrative world of parent influencers? Earnings for the kids.
The newest law is just a start in legal protections for influencers’ children, with further safeguards possible in other states

When Shreya Nallamothu, then 13, turned to YouTube to combat the loneliness of the first months of the coronavirus pandemic, she watched family vloggers pump out daily content featuring their children. Her algorithm soon led her to videos exposing exploitative practices of family vloggers.

In one clip, a mother delivers an update about the family’s pet while her son cries and she urges him on. (“Act like you’re crying,” she says, and the upset child says, “No, Mom, I’m actually crying.”) In another, a father who gained a following for pranking his children urged his son to slap his daughter, leaving the girl crying. (The father in the video later lost custody of the children.)

Nallamothu couldn’t forget what she saw, and when she was 16, she drafted a bill to protect child influencers for her independent study project in high school. At the end of the semester, her teacher urged her to contact legislators. “I didn’t think anyone would respond to me,” Nallamothu said, “[but] I decided to just see what happened.”

Someone did respond: Illinois state Sen. Dave Koehler (D), who would go on to introduce the legislation.

Illinois made history last month when it became the first state to pass a law to protect the earnings of children of influencers, requiring parents to put a percentage of gross earnings into a trust. The law is the first of its kind to provide legal protection for children who are featured in monetized online content, such as YouTube videos or sponsored Instagram posts. Before the legislation — and still in the 49 states that don’t have any like it — children were not entitled to any of the money they helped earn.

Koehler said in an interview that, before reading Nallamothu’s letter, he didn’t know about the privacy issues of children whose lives are monetized online, but he quickly familiarized himself and became intent on drafting legislation.

The bill was passed unanimously through the Illinois Senate and signed into law Aug. 11. The law would entitle child influencers in the state under 16 to a percentage of earnings based on how often they appear in video blogs or online content that generates at least 10 cents per view. Under the law, parents or guardians must place that money in a trust, which can be accessed when the child turns 18.

How the legislation will play out is yet to be seen, but the law provides a legal avenue for children of influencers to recoup profits from their efforts. And the profits are astounding: Momfluencing itself is a billion-dollar corner of the influencing industry, said Sara Petersen, author of “Momfluenced.” “You can sell almost anything under the sun by tying it to motherhood or parenting,” she said. “If you can create a whole narrative about someone’s ability to raise a happy, healthy family, you can more effectively market that product.”

Parenting influencers try something new: Giving their kids privacy

A quick scroll through influencers’ ads featuring their children yields an array of products, including batteries, purses and razors. If other states take Illinois’ lead and pass similar legislation, it could change the way parenting influencers create content. At the least, Petersen said, it will force parents to consider more deeply the ramifications of including their children in their social media work.

Family and parenting influencers have come under closer scrutiny lately, because there’s a growing backlash against parents who broadcast their children’s milestones, frustrations and inner lives for millions to watch. “That’s going to mess with your worldview, constantly being broadcast to millions of people,” Nallamothu said. Particular moments stick in her mind as a catalyst for her work to protect children online, such as the child whose parents filmed her sobbing after a prank in which they told her that the family dog had been given away.

Very recently, the backlash against parenting influencers reached new levels when a mother was arrested after her 12-year-old son showed up at a neighbor’s home appearing malnourished and with open wounds. Ruby Franke, a Utah mother of six, had a popular (now-deleted) YouTube channel called 8 Passengers that boasted more than 2 million subscribers. The show became controversial when viewers began calling Franke out for harsh parenting tactics.

But even as questions arise around the ethical and privacy concerns of family channels, the number of parent influencers has only grown — while laws meant to protect their children have lacked. Though the Illinois law marks a turning point, it only tackles the issue of monetization. Notably absent is the question of privacy and deletion, or what is known in Europe as the “right to be forgotten,” though the original draft of the legislation included such provisions. “We still have that part we want to deal with, [regarding] a person eliminating any unwanted videos or content they have from their childhood when they become an adult,” Koehler said. “That’s a privacy issue, a consumer protection issue. It’s also technologically a very tough issue.”

Legislation was introduced in Washington state on Jan. 26 that would not only address earnings, but also give children a legal avenue to request deletion of content “from any internet platform or network that provided compensation to the individual’s parent or parents in exchange for that video content.” If passed, the legislation would be the first of its kind to address the privacy concerns facing children of influencers, but the bill has been stalled in committee since Feb. 17.

Behind the efforts in Washington state are more young people intent on advocating for the privacy of children: 19-year-old Chris McCarty, who started the website Quit Clicking Kids, and 24-year-old Cam Barrett, who testified in favor of the bill and shared her experience as the child of a mother who overshared online.

McCarty first became passionate about child privacy after reading about the saga of Myka Stauffer, an influencer who went viral for creating content chronicling the adoption of an autistic child from China for three years before tearfully announcing in a YouTube video that the child had been “rehomed” with a family better able to handle the boy’s medical needs.

McCarty began emailing legislators in Washington state during their senior year of high school and eventually worked with state Rep. Kristine Reeves (D) to introduce H.B. 1627. Though the bill hasn’t moved forward, McCarty says they’re working with Reeves to reintroduce it in the upcoming legislative session and hopes the bill will be adopted into law. But that’s not where McCarty’s ambitions stop. “Right now, this isn’t something that’s getting federal attention,” they say. “But I think the more states that adopt this issue, the more people are talking about this and the more feasibility we’ll have to pass something federally.”

“I am excited to see Illinois pass this legislation. Child influencers deserve these crucial legal and financial protections from exploitation,” said Maryland Del. Jazz Lewis (D-Prince George’s), who plans to introduce legislation in the state this year.

Barrett is fighting for legislation after her mother shared to her followers an announcement of Cam’s first menstrual cycle, a description of a car accident Cam was in and photos of her unconscious in the hospital.

Now, Cam Barrett is in charge of her own online footprint, which she uses to urge other parents to avoid what she sees as exploitation at worst and carelessness at best. She has been publicly involved with the passage of the Illinois legislation and the efforts in Washington state, and politicians and aides from California, Florida and Texas have contacted her to discuss the possibility of similar legislation in their states. “It gives me a lot of hope,” Barrett said. “It’s really exciting that people are listening.”

But even with the progress being made, she finds her heart breaking a little when she sees videos of children online. She knows what that performance is like and how it can bleed into your actual life. She describes one video of a child with more than 5 million followers in which the young social media star jokes with her parents: “It’s like she’s playing a character.” Right before the video ends, the mask of the performance seems to slip: The child’s face drops, and she looks blankly into the camera. Barrett recognizes that dissociation, and she hopes that, through further legislative protection, she can keep other children from knowing it, too.

Source: https://www.washingtonpost.com/