At VidCon, Southern California’s annual gathering of digital creators, the most successful influencers crowd into exclusive lounges, receive free giveaways and pose for shoots on backdrops or rotating platforms.
Jabria, Laurie, and Zan are no different from the other contestants in terms of their huge online presence. But unlike the others, who are mostly teenagers and in their early twenties, these three – whose video performances have racked up millions of views – are only five or six years old and come with their daycare owner. became a Katrina chaperone.
They are part of the new generation of so-called child creators – or “kidfluencers” – who are rising to viral stardom on platforms such as TikTok, Instagram and YouTube at increasingly younger ages.
The branding deals and “creator funds” of these social media platforms have made influencer a viable, even celebrated, career. According to a Survey 2019 Per the Harris Poll and Lego, out of 3,000 kids aged 8-12 in the US, UK and China, nearly 30% said they aspired to be YouTubers when they grew up, surpassing other popular professions such as astronaut or musician.
Some children create videos with easy-to-use editing tools developed by the platforms. Others are thrown into the freewheeling online world by parents sharing their content – “sharing”. At the extreme of sharing, mom bloggers can carve out careers for themselves as social media personalities before reporting on or for their children, sometimes while they’re still in the womb.
And there are parents who run “family channels,” usually featuring domestic life or intergenerational comedy. The Bucket List family, who share weekly YouTube videos of their travels and ‘family life adventures at home’, have 2.6 million Instagram followers, while the Kabs parents quit their jobs to run a channel YouTube family and have 1.2 million Instagram followers.
Alternatively, a stranger can be the main character. Jabria, Laurie and Zan present with Katrina’s son, La’Ron Hines, 20, on a TikTok show, “Are you smarter than a preschooler?” He asks them questions they are unlikely to understand; they give naive and fantastic answers. “They have fun with it, they love making the videos,” Katrina tells me, adding that they now have endorsement deals with brands like Puma, money for their future, and lots of free merchandise.
Comforting viewing, perhaps. But children face the same security risks as any social media user – the potential for cyberbullying, predators or privacy breaches.
As Brooke Erin Duffy, an associate professor in Cornell University’s Department of Communication, says, these kids have young minds with evolving digital literacy. “I don’t know if they fully understand the implications of having everything you do magnified and having a digital footprint that will follow you around for who knows how long.”
Watching some of the kids at VidCon in June, too shy to look an adult in the eye but encouraged to be in the spotlight by their parents, I wondered about the risk of exploitation.
Some parents rely on their child’s influencer accounts or family pages as their primary income. Others may use a child to bolster their own fame. But can a child distinguish between work and leisure. Do they understand the meaning of fair wages? Will the money they earn find its way into their own pockets? “When parents are involved, there’s a lack of agency,” Duffy says.
Both the UK and US have strong labor and performer laws to protect child actors and musicians – but they don’t extend to the Wild West of user-generated content, which remains a gray area legal. In Britain, a parliamentary committee recently called for more controls to fill this “legislative void”. Similar calls were made by American scholars.
Parents and guardians should bear the main responsibility for their children. But talent agencies and advertisers could step up and create new standards. They have long courted children as a powerful sales force that researchers say may be more effective than adults at selling toys, games and services to other children.
Agencies are largely reluctant to act because of the potential cost or disruption to business, says Crystal Abidin, a digital anthropologist and associate professor at Australia’s Curtin University. “When you talk about commercializing childhoods. . . brands are really the gatekeepers that shape and accelerate the industry,” she adds.