Jackie Coogan, America’s first major child star, shot to fame in 1921 as Charlie Chaplin’s adopted son in The Kid. But at the age of 21, after earning upward of $4 million through years of unforgiving hours on set, he learned his hard-earned fortune had already been squandered by his mother and stepfather. Coogan sued his parents, and was awarded just $126,000 of the paltry amount that remained. But his case led his home state to pass the California Child Actor’s Bill, also known as the Coogan Act, which stipulates that the money earned by child entertainers must be safeguarded for their use as adults.
Regrettably, however, the exploitation of child entertainers is far from being a shameful relic of the past. Children can now enter the public gaze of millions with as little as their first ultrasound scan. 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 deeply Kafkaesque about a child’s day-to-day existence becoming a vessel for logo-embroidered merch and licensing contracts. But whilst Jackie Coogan may have been able to take back at least a fraction of the money made from peanut butter tins with his face on them, the prospects seem bleak for today’s hashtag babies.
Parent-managed social media accounts are now more popular than ever, in some cases even resulting in lucrative sponsorship deals and income from advertising revenue. Anthropologist Crystal Abidin refers to this new wave of celebutantes as “micro-microcelebrities,” experiencing online stardom by virtue of their “influencer mothers.” Wren Eleanor, for instance, is a 3-year-old TikTok star who boasts more than 17 million followers on an account managed by her mother Jacquelyn. The videos mostly consist of Wren doing what many children of her age get up to—dressing up, enjoying trips to local carnivals, and trying out new activities such as ice skating and bike riding. Alongside those are sponsored videos for clothing brands such as Shein and Jamie Kay, as well as a recent unboxing video to promote the release of Minions.
But a prepackaged media empire courtesy of mommy’s blog isn’t necessarily compulsory for this line of business. Since the family vlogging boom of the 2010s, adults have been kickstarting influencer careers with their existing kids via YouTube. Families such as The Shaytards, Not Enough Nelsons, and The Ace Family have amassed millions of subscribers, chronicling their children’s morning routines, holiday traditions, and even visits to the emergency room.
Unfortunately, there are very few labor and privacy laws in place to prevent these children from having their digital destinies commence as soon as they land on the operating table, or even from securing rightful ownership over the fortune their online fame may bring. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, a landmark law which covered the prevention of minors being employed in “excessive child labor,” still has yet to be amended to address child influencers; the same applies for the aforementioned Coogan Act. This is perhaps due to the home-grown, self-employed status of the vlogging market. Calculating the work hours, and therefore the salary distribution, of an edited toy review video hosted by a 5-year-old is dependent on mere guesswork, making for a flimsy case to take to court.
Similarly, the California Consumer Privacy Act, which addresses autonomy over personal data, still requires guardian consent for children’s data sharing, making it powerless to protect infant influencers from parents thrusting a camera in their face to model the latest haul from Baby Gap. Adding insult to injury, the platforms hosting this content do little to mitigate the risk of child exploitation. While users under 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 loophole of parental consent can inadvertently exploit a child, save for disabling comments on videos involving children (this isn’t foolproof either; upon checking a recent video from the hugely popular Ace Family, the comments remain active).