The moral question of “kidfluencers”
Is it first world child exploitation, or babies just having fun?
The New York Times posted a provocative article recently about “kidfluencers”. They’re those babies and kids you see on YouTube or Instagram promoting some new toy or cruise line or breakfast cereal — social media “influencers”, but kids.
In some odd cases, the kids don’t even exist yet. That’s right: they’re in utero, with over 100,000 followers. That baby to the left, Halston Blake, was born just a few days ago, and now has 227,000 fans and only 2 baby pics posted so far. I can’t help but be overcome with a kind of sadness when I look at her beautiful face and know what she’s in for, just for being born. (In related news, who are these people who are following unborn children on Instagram? And who are these kidfluencers supposed to be influencing? Can you spell w-e-i-r-d…but anyway.)
So as you might imagine, becoming a kidfluencer is easy: you just have to be born to parents who are social media whor — umm — megafans. They set up a YouTube and/or Instagram account in your name and fill it up with images and videos of all those wacky, inane things you do as a child. They dress you up, take glamour shots. They push hard to get as many followers as possible; tens if not hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions if they’re good. Sometimes they’ll even tag brands that aren’t paying them, just to get more followers and leads.
When a child’s only concept of self-worth is whether their photo is good enough to garner commercial support, we’re probably heading down a rabbit hole of therapy and suicide.
Then, they wait for a brand like Kraft or Disney to take notice. Once they do, they’ll get you to throw in a one-liner post about how much you love their Honey Maid Graham Crackers.
And that’s a wrap! Seems harmless enough. Or…well, does it? I really don’t know. While 11-year-olds may be able to understand what’s going on when they post their toy reviews, a 3-year old wearing lip gloss is in a different category. And that’s what I’m most concerned about: the kid who really doesn’t know.
So despite the kids looking like they’re having fun, I’d say there are definitely a few things wrong here:
First, these kids aren’t old enough to have their own social media accounts. Moreover, they have no say about what is being posted online about them publicly — they aren’t controlling their own image.
Second, they are being made to endorse things that they may or may not like, sometimes when they’re so young they can’t even talk yet.
Third, it’s a relatively new industry, and large amounts of money are being handled in the child’s name and because of the child’s “work”. Laws don’t yet currently exist to truly protect these children’s interests, and so they are potentially being exploited.
Finally, there’s just something inherently wrong with every instance of a child’s life becoming a lucrative photo op, isn’t there? When a child’s only concept of self-worth is whether their photo is good enough to garner commercial support, we’re probably heading down a rabbit hole of therapy and suicide. The mental load is palpable.
But isn’t it just like acting? Child actors, hello???
Well no, not quite.
The difference between being a “kidfluencer” and being a child actor is that with acting, the child unambiguously takes on a character’s persona. That’s the name of the game: it’s acting. In the case of being a kidfluencer, it may very well be acting, but it’s presented as if it’s not; they are supposed to “be themselves”, but promote some “thing” in particular, in exchange for a monetary sum. In other words, it’s forcing the child to take on a persona that may not be true but that they must pretend is true, sort of like reality TV that is not reality. In other words, it’s forcing a personal identity that can never be separated from the child.
Is it like a commercial, then — a child pretending to enjoy a brand’s product? Again, not really: a social media account is a personal account, and therefore a personal endorsement of some commodity. In commercials, the attribution is the brand. So, if the social media account belonged to Honey Maid and they hired a kid to say “Honey Maid is da bomb!”, that would be like a commercial. What makes the kidfluencer game different is that because the kid is doing this on his or her account, he or she takes on ownership of the endorsement.
And yet the child has no ownership — not even of the social media account he or she is plastered across.
But it’s fun, what’s wrong with that?
Now, what if the child really does like what they’re promoting? What if they’d talk about graham crackers all day if they could?
Truth be told, most of these kidfluencers do look like they’re having a grand ol’ time. It’s not hard work to dress up and memorize some lines while parents and brand managers smile encouragingly. So what’s the big problem?
Well, there’s the money problem. Simply put, babies and kids on social media aren’t protected in the same way child actors are.
What about child labor laws?, you might ask. Interestingly, child labor laws don’t prevent children from working. That’s why child actors are able to exist. Instead, they prevent children from doing hazardous things like working in a chemical factory, or taking on manual labor that might stunt their growth; the labor laws often stipulate how many hours a child can work per day, and how much time they must be able to devote to schoolwork. Generally, they only try to prevent children from exploitation, abuse, or endangerment, but they vary from state to state.
But exploitation is hard to control when the parents are controlling the money, and after all, the parents do have to. A 6-month-old can’t open a bank account or file taxes, unless you know something I don’t know.
Check this out. Way back in 1939, a child actor named Jackie Coogan earned millions before he legally became an adult. But when he turned 18, he found that his parents had spent nearly all his earnings. (Trivia note: Coogan later played Uncle Fester in The Addams Family.)
Because of his case, there’s something called Coogan Law. Today in California, New York, Louisiana, and New Mexico, child performers must have a trust in their name, protecting at least a percentage of their earnings. In California, that percentage is 15%, and the details vary by state.
Yet there are loopholes, and in case you hadn’t noticed, that’s just four states. Last I checked, there were 50. Not to mention it’s now 2019 — 80 years later — and not much has changed since when it comes to protecting child actors.
Kidfluencers are sort of actors, sort of not. They live in an entirely different media space. And because it’s such a new space, there are no such specific laws protecting them, not even Coogan Law.
Which, of course, leaves the space rife for exploitation.
And then there’s basic child (mental) safety
Obviously, the internet isn’t the safest place to be.
We already know about the bullying, shaming, depression, and anxiety caused by living life around views, likes, and comments. As one writer put it, “For those who are under 18, having an adult call you a liar or that you look funny can cause a long-lasting impact, and even developmental delays. Kids don’t have the hardshell casing of adults; they are looking for feedback as a mechanism of growth.”
Seriously. My mom called me “tubby” once — once — and I still remember it, nearly 30 years later. What was probably a comment meant to dissuade me from a third helping of birthday cake turned into an identity of fatness. But this isn’t about me.
Interestingly, YouTube just announced that all videos with children will have comments disabled, in part for this reason (and in part to discourage kiddie porn rings). It may not prevent the babies whose parents start commercializing their image from birth from leading shallow lives, but at least it’s something that’s meant to protect them from the worst of being in the limelight.
At the end of the day, I don’t think parents are going to stop posting pics of their babies and kids on social media any time soon, or creating accounts in their kids’ names, for that matter. But whether or not brands should encourage them to do so by paying them money to use those kids to endorse their brands is another question, and one that I think needs to be taken more seriously than ever before.
Exploitation — and the ramifications of learning only to living life by the vapid indulgences of social media — is simply too easy, and the costs too dire.
Danielle Mund is an art historian by training and moral philosopher by nature. She writes from Puerto Rico, sometimes holed up in a cool dark room and sometimes beachside at the Ritz.