Jackie Coogan, from the United States first major child star, rose to fame in 1921 as the adopted son of Charlie Chaplin The kid. But at age 21, after earning more than $4 million through years of relentless hours on set, he learned that his mother and stepfather had already squandered their fortune. Coogan sued his parents and was awarded only $126,000 of the tiny amount that was left. But his case led his home state to pass California’s child actor law, also known as the Coogan Act, which stipulates that money earned by child entertainers must be safeguarded for use as adults.
Sadly, however, the exploitation of child entertainers is far from a shameful relic of the past. Children can now enter the public eye of millions with just their first ultrasound. As early as 2010, studies indicated that a quarter of children had an online presence before their birth, curated by expectant parents. There is something profoundly Kafkaesque about a child’s daily existence becoming a vessel for logo-embroidered merchandise and license agreements. But while Jackie Coogan might have been able to recoup at least a fraction of the money made from face-up cans of peanut butter, the outlook looks bleak for today’s hashtag babies.
Parent-run social media accounts are now more popular than ever, and in some cases even generate lucrative sponsorship deals and ad revenue. Anthropologist Crystal Abidin refers to this new wave of celebrities as “micro-microcelebrities,” who experience online stardom by virtue of their “influential mothers.” Wren Eleanor, for example, is a 3-year-old TikTok star who has more than 17 million followers on an account managed by her mother Jacquelyn. The videos mostly consist of Wren doing what many kids his age do: dressing up, enjoying trips to local carnivals, and trying new activities like ice skating and biking. Alongside these are sponsored videos for clothing brands such as Shein and Jamie Kay, as well as a recent unboxing video to promote the launch of minions.
But a prepackaged media empire courtesy of mom’s blog isn’t necessarily a must for this line of business. Since the family vlogging boom of the 2010s, adults have been launching influencer careers with their existing children through YouTube. Families like The Shaytards, Not Enough Nelsons and The Ace Family have amassed millions of subscribers, chronicling their children’s morning routines, holiday traditions and even emergency room visits.
Unfortunately, there are very few labor and privacy laws in place to prevent these children from starting their digital destinies as soon as they reach the operating table, or even to ensure rightful ownership of the fortunes that the your online fame. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, a landmark law that covered the prevention of the employment of minors in “excessive child labor,” has yet to be amended to address influencing children; the same applies to the aforementioned Coogan Act. Perhaps it’s due to the vlogging market’s freelance and freelance status. Calculating the hours worked, and thus the wage distribution, of an edited toy review video hosted by a 5-year-old depends on mere guesswork, making for a fragile case to take to court.
Similarly, California’s Consumer Privacy Act, which addresses autonomy over personal data, still requires guardian consent to share children’s data, making it powerless to protect influential children from parents who stick a camera in their face to model Baby Gap’s latest traction. Adding insult to injury, the platforms that host this content do little to mitigate the risk of child exploitation. While users under the age of 13 are prohibited from setting up a YouTube account, no such guidelines exist to prevent parents from featuring their children in vlogs. YouTube has yet to address how the parental consent loophole can inadvertently exploit a child, short of turning off comments on videos involving children (this isn’t foolproof either; after checking out a recent video from the wildly popular Ace Family , comments remain active). .