Social Media Influencers, Advertising, and Your Kids

At the end of 2019, research showed that near­ly 3.5 bil­lion peo­ple around the world use some form of social media. By the end of 2020, that num­ber is expect­ed to climb to over four bil­lion. Social media is the ulti­mate plat­form for mar­keters and adver­tis­ers from vir­tu­al­ly every industry. 

While many use social media to sim­ply share pho­tos and videos with­in their per­son­al net­works, the user demo­graph­ics are begin­ning to shift to include an increas­ing num­ber of influ­encers. Sim­ply defined, an influ­encer is Some­one who has the pow­er to affect the pur­chas­ing deci­sions of oth­ers because of his or her author­i­ty, knowl­edge, posi­tion, or rela­tion­ship with his or her audi­ence” and who also has a fol­low­ing in a dis­tinct niche, with whom he or she active­ly engages.”

While you may be pic­tur­ing a twen­ty or thir­ty-some­thing fash­ion­ista or online gamer when you think of an influ­encer,” there is a grow­ing trend of child influ­encers infil­trat­ing social media plat­forms today. 

In an age where most par­ents are acute­ly aware of online preda­tors and the impor­tance of pro­tect­ing their child’s dig­i­tal foot­print, it begs the ques­tion, Why would any­one open their child’s life up to the lack of pri­va­cy that comes with being an influencer?” 

In short, it’s a business.

Instead of mak­ing a few dol­lars at a lemon­ade stand, these kid influ­encers” are mak­ing mil­lions of dol­lars in some cas­es, by shar­ing their lives with their cult of online fol­low­ers. And even if your child is not doing the influ­enc­ing — you can be sure that they are still being influ­enced. Let’s dig deep­er into both sides of social media adver­tis­ing and influ­encer mar­ket — and the impact it could have on your child.

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A lucrative enterprise

Influ­encer mar­ket­ing has proven to be more and more prof­itable as the years go by and as social media con­tin­ues to gain users and pop­u­lar­i­ty. One of the first stud­ies on influ­encer mar­ket­ing showed that every 1,000 views a post receives could be equat­ed to near­ly $300 in rev­enue. That may not seem like a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber until you con­sid­er that it’s rough­ly eleven times the return on invest­ment of tra­di­tion­al mar­ket­ing tac­tics.

Because it has proven such a lucra­tive ROI, the num­ber of child influ­encers” on the Inter­net has con­tin­ued to rise steadi­ly. In most cas­es, these chil­dren are too young and not tech-savvy enough to man­age their own accounts (often times their age vio­lates the Terms of Ser­vice of the sites they’re post­ing on), so their enter­pris­es are born and man­aged at their par­ents’ behest. For exam­ple, on Insta­gram and YouTube in par­tic­u­lar, par­ents nego­ti­ate brand part­ner­ships and spon­sor­ship deals for their kids in exchange for large sums of mon­ey. One such young influ­encer, Ryan of the pop­u­lar YouTube chan­nel Ryan’s World,” earned an aston­ish­ing $26 mil­lion in 2019 (an increase of $4 mil­lion from 2018). He tops the list of the high­est earn­ers on the plat­form, and he’s under ten years old.

While YouTube is a pop­u­lar plat­form for brand spon­sor­ship deals, they recent­ly enact­ed COP­PA-relat­ed changes to their poli­cies relat­ed to Made for Kids” con­tent. The changes among oth­er things, include stricter reg­u­la­tions for any tar­get­ed adver­tis­ing attached to videos that are specif­i­cal­ly cre­at­ed for con­sump­tion by chil­dren. The Child­hood Online Pri­va­cy Pro­tec­tion Act (COP­PA), cre­at­ed to pre­vent web­sites from col­lect­ing infor­ma­tion from chil­dren with­out parental per­mis­sion, only works one way when it comes to pro­tect­ing pri­va­cy. Par­ents are still free to cre­ate pro­files for their chil­dren and post about them as they see fit. From fash­ion to prod­uct unbox­ings, kids are pro­mot­ing prod­ucts at a very young age — launched into social media star­dom years before they are even old enough to be on the plat­forms in the first place.

Many con­sid­er the young influ­encer mar­ket to be exploita­tion of chil­dren who are not old enough to tru­ly under­stand what they are par­tic­i­pat­ing in and why. We’ve writ­ten before about the dan­gers of post­ing about kids on social media, but chil­dren as influ­encers takes this to a new lev­el. Child influ­encers are often left with­out any say in what’s post­ed about them online. They sim­ply go along with their par­ents’ requests and mar­ket­ing plans with­out the oppor­tu­ni­ty to protest or ques­tion the strat­e­gy. In many cas­es, these chil­dren may not want to be in a forced spot­light, and even if they are amenable now, they are too young to grasp the poten­tial ram­i­fi­ca­tions of their open book” lifestyle on social media. They are also at risk of devel­op­ing a skewed per­spec­tive of the views and val­ues afford­ed to chil­dren in more tra­di­tion­al, non-influ­encer households.

What does the law say?

In short, the laws and reg­u­la­tions around child influ­encers” are loose and have not kept up with the grow­ing indus­try. Child labor laws, includ­ing those that are spe­cif­ic to the enter­tain­ment indus­try, are designed to pro­tect chil­dren by lim­it­ing their work­ing hours and ensur­ing they aren’t robbed of the mon­ey they earn.

Despite the influx of child influ­encers on social media plat­forms, how­ev­er, child labor laws have yet to catch up with mod­ern-day trends. For exam­ple, a pro­posed amend­ment to the Cal­i­for­nia Labor Code in 2018 would have required employ­ers (in this case, par­ents) to acquire a per­mit before engag­ing a child in work on a social media plat­form. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, when the amend­ment passed, the por­tion relat­ed to social media had been struck from it.

When it comes to children’s abil­i­ty to work, the court gen­er­al­ly defers to parental judg­ment and only inter­venes when there is evi­dent harm to the child. In the case of social media and the influ­encer mar­ket, the idea of harm or oppres­sive child labor hasn’t been clear­ly defined by the courts yet.

Until then, the influ­encer mar­ket is free to act with­in the broad stan­dards of Con­gres­sion­al laws like the Fair Labor Stan­dards Act, which address­es child labor laws, but does not apply to chil­dren who are employed by their par­ents, as many child influ­encers are.

Who is being influenced?

While look­ing at the influ­encers who are doing the adver­tis­ing, it’s also impor­tant to look at the audi­ence that con­sumes the con­tent. Just as child influ­encers are employed at a very young age, an increas­ing num­ber of young chil­dren are cre­at­ing and using social media pro­files with min­i­mal super­vi­sion. Though the Terms of Ser­vice for the major­i­ty of social plat­forms require users to be age thir­teen or over, chil­dren of a much younger age are still find­ing their way onto social media.

Many par­ents view social media as a harm­less means for chil­dren to inter­act with their friends. They mis­tak­en­ly believe that if their chil­dren just set their pro­files to pri­vate,” that they are safe from the dan­gers of preda­to­ry behav­ior and tar­get­ed adver­tis­ing. This is sim­ply not the case. Regard­less of the plat­form or pri­va­cy set­tings, our kids are still being tar­get­ed by influ­encer mar­ket­ing and adver­tis­ing, and the impact is startling.

One study, con­duct­ed in 2019 by the Amer­i­can Acad­e­my of Pedi­atrics showed the poten­tial pow­er and neg­a­tive impact that influ­encers can have over our chil­dren. In the study, chil­dren between the ages of nine and eleven were ran­dom­ly asked to view fake Insta­gram pro­files of pop­u­lar vlog­gers” (video blog­gers) and influ­encers. Among the pro­files, chil­dren were shown a mix of pro­mo­tions for both healthy and unhealthy snacks. The chil­dren who viewed influ­encers who pro­mot­ed unhealthy snacks had a sig­nif­i­cant increase in their over­all food intake, as well as a dra­mat­ic increase in the con­sump­tion of unhealthy food.

What seems like inno­cent imagery and mes­sag­ing is actu­al­ly a very slip­pery slope. Chil­dren are the most vul­ner­a­ble and inno­cent con­sumers of con­tent, and like­ly to be unaware that they are even being adver­tised to.

For exam­ple, think of videos that fea­ture toy unbox­ing or toy demon­stra­tions where chil­dren (or adults in some cas­es) receive a new toy or oth­er item and take it out of the pack­ag­ing on film. Chil­dren love toys, and they love the ele­ment of sur­prise. Unbox­ing videos appeal to both. While they may appear harm­less at first glance, they are rife with bla­tant pro­mo­tion and spon­sor­ship mes­sag­ing. As a result, chil­dren are desen­si­tized to com­mer­cial­ism and mate­ri­al­ism, and the con­stant cycle of I want that. Why can’t I have that too?”

In anoth­er shock­ing exam­ple of influ­encer mar­ket­ing that direct­ly tar­gets our chil­dren, the tobac­co indus­try recent­ly launched a cam­paign to hone in on young audi­ences through social media cam­paigns that fea­tured micro-influ­encers” and brand ambas­sadors.” In the cam­paign (which was ille­gal, inci­den­tal­ly), glam­orous and pop­u­lar social media per­son­al­i­ties were shown using tobac­co prod­ucts as if it were part of their nor­mal, rou­tine lives. This attempt to lure poten­tial new tobac­co users is inex­cus­able. Chil­dren look up to and emu­late the influ­encers they fol­low online. 

To date, over 120 hash­tags relat­ed to brand­ed tobac­co prod­ucts have been viewed near­ly nine bil­lion times in the Unit­ed States alone (over 25 bil­lion times across the world). While orga­ni­za­tions like the Cam­paign for Tobac­co-Free Kids, the Amer­i­can Can­cer Soci­ety Can­cer Action Net­work, and the Amer­i­can Lung Asso­ci­a­tion are peti­tion­ing the FTC to demand an imme­di­ate halt to these under­hand­ed influ­encer cam­paigns, bil­lions of kids have already been exposed to the agen­da of the tobac­co companies.

In a bit of good news, Insta­gram and Face­book announced in Decem­ber of 2019 that the plat­forms will no longer allow influ­encers to get paid for brand­ed con­tent or posts that pro­mote tobac­co, vap­ing, or firearms. It’s a step for­ward in the fight to reg­u­late an indus­try that often val­ues com­pen­sa­tion over com­mon sense when it comes to the con­tent that our chil­dren are exposed to.

While some adver­tis­ers argue that their con­tent is intend­ed for old­er audi­ences, the fact remains that chil­dren have easy access to masked” spon­sored posts. The fastest way to exact real change in reg­u­lat­ing what influ­encers show our chil­dren is to attack care­less adver­tis­ers where it hurts most — in their wallets.

How to protect your kids

An open dia­logue is the first line of defense in pro­tect­ing our kids against tar­get­ed adver­tis­ing and poten­tial­ly harm­ful influ­encer cam­paigns. Most chil­dren are com­plete­ly unaware that adver­tis­ers are tar­get­ing them in the first place. They see inter­est­ing con­tent, and they click on it. They hear about a new influ­encer, and they fol­low them. Our job as par­ents is to inform our chil­dren about how the adver­tis­ing world works and proac­tive­ly show­ing them exam­ples of what to watch out for. As we edu­cate our chil­dren and help them iden­ti­fy inap­pro­pri­ate con­tent, they become more accus­tomed to rec­og­niz­ing and reject­ing it on their own.

Ask your chil­dren about con­tent they’ve already seen. Make your­self avail­able to answer their ques­tions with­out judg­ment or emo­tion. The goal is for your chil­dren to feel as if they can come to you when they aren’t sure if they should fol­low some­one or sub­scribe to a par­tic­u­lar Inter­net per­son­al­i­ty. It also helps to take an inter­est in what inter­ests your child. The next time they want to talk to you about their favorite gamer or a new toy they saw online — lis­ten to them. Ask ques­tions. Ask to see the videos and posts your chil­dren are look­ing at. It can be tempt­ing for par­ents to dis­miss con­ver­sa­tions about video games or toys that sim­ply don’t inter­est us, but we must take an active part in know­ing what our kids are view­ing. Minecraft and Fort­nite may not inter­est you, but the well­be­ing and online safe­ty of your child cer­tain­ly does. 

Last, but cer­tain­ly not least, know what parental con­trols are avail­able to you, and use them. Whether you have an Android or iOS device, there are con­trols you can put in place to lim­it the amount of screen time your chil­dren have, as well as when they are allowed to be online. Oth­er con­trols place lim­its on the type of con­tent your chil­dren can view and the apps they are allowed to down­load with­out your approval. 

Above all, engage in con­ver­sa­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion with your chil­dren about what they can and can’t watch and why. Instead of lay­ing down a blan­ket man­date that some­thing is bad” or inap­pro­pri­ate,” tell your chil­dren why. Open com­mu­ni­ca­tion and care­ful mon­i­tor­ing of what our chil­dren are view­ing, are the most pow­er­ful weapons in pro­tect­ing our kids from online harm.