Lawmakers consider protections for children who appear on the internet

LOS ANGELES — Since she was a small child, Cam Barrett, now 24 and a social media strategist in Chicago, had her life documented online.

First on Myspace, then on Facebook, Barrett says, her mother posted relentlessly about her, concocting storylines about highly personal events that resulted in her being bullied and ostracized at school.

“When I was nine years old, the intimate details of my first period were shared online,” she said in February while testifying about her experience to the Illinois Senate. “At 15, I was in a car accident. … Instead of a hand being offered to hold, a camera was shoved in my face.” Eventually, she said, she began hiding out in her room so she wouldn’t have to appear on camera.

“I was told to look sicker for the camera,” she later told The Washington Post. “I was told if I look too happy, I have to take another picture to look like this, or like this. … I was hit by a drunk driver, and she right off the bat put a phone in my face to take pictures to put online,” Barrett said.

The events of her childhood have made Barrett an outspoken public advocate for child privacy online. She speaks frequently about the details of her life in the media and on TikTok, where she has more than 163,000 followers. In her testimony before the Illinois Senate, she detailed her experience growing up in the online spotlight. Her mother did not respond to a voice mail seeking comment.

Barrett is just one voice in a growing movement aimed at compensating and protecting children whose parents use them for content on social media.

Over the past 20 years, as sharing mundane aspects of life on social media has become commonplace, more parents have made money and gained attention by posting about their children online. Whether it’s a parent on Facebook posting photos of her child’s potty training or parents on a family vlogging channel documenting their child’s behavioral challenges, young members of Generation Z are the first generation to have their entire childhoods shared and monetized en masse on social media.

Now, young people and online safety advocates are seeking regulations for the industry and the enactment of labor protections for those under age 18 creating monetized social media content. And while there are growing signs that lawmakers are interested in taking up the issue, only two states, Washington and Illinois, have considered bills in recent months, with one of those efforts failing to advance.

Sarah Adams, a mother of two and an online child-safety advocate, said she hopes Congress will begin regulating the online creator industry soon.

“Right now, children online have zero protections in regard to their privacy, in regard to their labor, in regard to the income they’re generating for their family,” she said. “If people are going to use children this way, these children deserve protections, just the way child stars have. Imagine being one of these kids and having every single day of your life exploited on a family vlog, and getting to be 18 and seeing nothing in your bank account. Or every moment of your life being monetized and commercialized, the invasion of privacy goes so deep.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said he hopes national lawmakers will begin paying attention to the multibillion-dollar unregulated influencing industry, especially when children are involved. “Child labor in the online influencer industry seems fraught with problems,” he said in a statement to The Post. “Involving kids in influencing raises serious risks of exploitation — potential sacrifice of privacy, excessive hours, and lack of fair compensation. They may be providing online content without adequate, or any, protection and oversight.”

Still, there is little national effort to create the same level of restrictions that apply to children’s involvement in the film industry. Those rules often require not only permits, but also dictate how much time children can be away from school and how much of their pay must be set aside in savings.

The online creator economy is enormous. The influencer marketing industry ballooned from $1.7 billion in 2016 to $16.4 billion in 2022, according to a report by Influencer Marketing Hub, a resource platform for content creators, and that doesn’t count the money that social media influencers earn from subscriptions, merchandise and other direct revenue streams. Child influencers in particular can be especially lucrative. Ryan Kaji, an 11-year-old social media influencer who reviews toys, earned over $29.5 million from his YouTube channel in 2020, and an estimated $200 million from branded toys and clothing, according to the Guardian.

What are called family channels, where parents document and share content about their children on platforms including YouTube, Instagram and TikTok, are a popular form of entertainment for millions online. The accounts are often extremely lucrative because so many brands seek to advertise with family-friendly social media influencers, marketing experts say.

However, the channels also have come under scrutiny for going to extreme lengths to attract views, in what some have called child abuse.

In 2017, Heather and Michael Martin, who ran a YouTube account called “FamilyOFive,” were charged and eventually convicted of child neglect and sentenced to five years’ probation after pulling disturbing pranks on their children and verbally abusing them for an online audience. In 2020, more than 17,700 people signed a petition urging child protective services to investigate the parents who run “8 Passengers,” a family YouTube channel, after viewers began questioning the couple’s parenting methods. The channel is now dormant.

In 2020, Myka Stauffer, a YouTube creator who had documented her adoption journey, gave away her adoptive son after creating a slew of content about his medical problems. Stauffer faced huge backlash, and people began questioning the ethics of such content.

That is when Chris McCarty, 18, a freshman at the University of Washington, who uses they/them pronouns, became interested in the issue. McCarty noticed the growing industry and the effect that having their lives documented online was having on their Gen Z peers.

Growing up is about establishing your own identity, including on the internet, McCarty said, but when a parent has already set a narrative about their child online through extensive social media posts or profiles, it can hurt the child’s career prospects or lead to real-world harm.

So, last year, after sending dozens of cold emails, McCarty began working with Washington state lawmakers to do something about the issue. In January, state Rep. Emily Wicks (D) introduced a bill that would financially compensate minors whose images are monetized on social media by their parents and would give them the option to have any content featuring them deleted once they turn 18. The bill did not make it out of committee, but McCarty hopes it can be reintroduced in the next legislative session.

Similar efforts are gathering momentum in other states. A bill was passed unanimously in the Illinois Senate and is headed to the House of Representatives there.

The bill ensures that a portion of any revenue generated by a child influencer is set aside in a dedicated trust fund until the creator reaches adulthood.

However, while the failed Washington state bill and the advancing Illinois bill originally included language ensuring that child influencers whose likeness was monetized on social media could request the permanent deletion of content in which they are featured, that protection was deleted from the Illinois bill.

One of the sponsors of the Illinois bill, state Sen. David Koehler (D), said he hoped the legislation would be a blueprint for broader efforts to protect child influencers’ labor rights and privacy, citing “the same parameters that they did for child actors.”

Koehler emphasized that the legislation was not aimed at “grandmas sending Facebook pictures” but rather at parents who build businesses off their children’s images or overshare to an extreme degree in hopes of amassing large online followings. If passed, the law would apply only to creators whose content generates at least 10 cents per view or features their children in at least 30 percent of monetized content.

“It’s aimed at people who use the activities of their children to make money on the internet,” Koehler said.

“The problem of children being monetized on family social media accounts is a real and serious problem and will only gain more traction as time goes by and children who grew up on family vlogs share their stories,” said McCarty, the University of Washington student. “We can take action and protect these children through legislation that provides financial compensation and restores privacy.”

One 15-year-old child who performs on a YouTube family channel that her parents set up to document her life and her sibling’s said the legislation is desperately needed. She spoke on the condition of anonymity because, she said, her parents have threatened to force her to sign a nondisclosure agreement and punish her for speaking out.

She began performing on YouTube when she was a toddler, and while the social media accounts her parents run for her and her sibling have amassed millions of followers and generated huge revenue, it is her parents who manage the pages and collect the money.

She said that often the scripted content that she and her sibling are required to film is upsetting and that they are forced to fake reactions. The online presence her parents have defined for her has led to her being bullied by peers and has caused her emotional damage, she said.

“It’s been hard to make friends because of YouTube. I’ve been stalked because of my online image, and we had to report the stalker to the police,” she said. “The whole time, we never acknowledged the situation online or slowed down making videos, because that was never an option for us. My parents know I’m concerned about people online and that I don’t like making videos, but they just say that people watching our videos aren’t really creepy guys.”

Barrett said: “These kids, when they’re [the] subject of family bloggers or vloggers, they’re essentially working the second they wake up to the moment they go to sleep. Their life and their home is their stage. If this is going to continue to be a thing, there should be laws to protect the child’s labor. A lot of these kids, their lives are constantly overshared, and they have to put on a performance for a camera.”

Catie Reay, an online-safety advocate who is based in Wyoming and has amassed more than 1.3 million followers on TikTok under the handle @thetiktokadvocate, said parents need to start reconsidering the ways they post about their children online. “I’d ask parents to listen to the testimonies of children who were raised in the birth of YouTube family vlogging,” she said. “I’d encourage you to ask your children how they feel that their most intimate, private and traumatic moments are being commented on by strangers.”

Last month, the social media influencer Laura Fritz, whose daughter garnered a huge online following after she posted videos of her on TikTok and Instagram, announced that she would stop posting videos of her children on social media, citing privacy concerns.

“This is the end of our TikTok account as it was,” she wrote. “It’s going to be hard to give it up, as it has been a big part of our lives for almost 2 years, but this is what’s best for our family. I want my kids to have a regular life growing up, without the pressures of social media.”

Reay and other advocates said that while it is good that individual parents are taking action, without laws, the online creator industry and the tech platforms that enable it will continue to facilitate the exploitation of children. “We absolutely need legislation, because these platforms financially benefit from the exploitation and abuse of children,” she said. “Legislation is imperative to holding Big Tech accountable for the places they have failed.”

Caroline Easom, 28, a comedian in Chicago, has created content satirizing family content channels to bring attention to the issue. “I think before it was, like, these outlier YouTube families. Now, with TikTok, you’ve got so many more people trying their hand at becoming social media famous via their children, and so many more people seeking social media validation via their children.”

Easom said lawmakers desperately need to regulate the multibillion-dollar online creator industry. “The more we recognize influencing and content creation as a job,” she said, “the more we see what these kids are doing as work.”

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