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.
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.