The pitfalls of being the child of a parenting influencer
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We’re so used to it by now — people sharing every little detail of their lives online.
And when it comes to content about parenting, it’s basically a whole industry. You can find “momfluencers” and family channels for any style of parenting or worldview you can think of, to the point that there’s now a generation of kids who have grown up in the social media eye.
As you might imagine, not all of them are thrilled about it.
Marketplace’s Meghan McCarty Carino spoke to Fortesa Latifi, features reporter for Teen Vogue, who recently dove into this culture and its effect on the children involved.
The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Fortesa Latifi: There are kids nearing adulthood now, nearing the age of 18, whose entire lives have been documented and in some cases monetized from birth or even in some cases from before birth.
Meghan McCarty Carino: And you spoke to one such child influencer who is now a teenager. In your piece, you refer to her as Claire. What has her experience been like?
Latifi: Sure. So Claire went viral for the first time when she was just a few years old, and she has lived her entire life on YouTube. YouTube has become the family business. Neither of her parents work outside of the home. And she has basically lived her entire life online through no choice of her own.
McCarty Carino: And she has some plans for when she turns 18, right?
Latifi: She does. She wants to come out with her actual name and tell the world about what it’s like to have a childhood that’s turned into content at every turn.
McCarty Carino: What has been difficult for her about this?
Latifi: I mean, as long as she can remember and since she was a young child, she’s been YouTube famous. And so that has followed her around at school. And she told me that when she was younger, kids would want to be friends with her because of her YouTube clout. But once they realized that her parents never featured other kids outside of their family in their videos, then they weren’t interested in being her friend anymore. I mean, that just was so painful to me to hear because it’s hard enough to grow up and make friends and make mistakes. But it’s so much harder when it’s all online.
McCarty Carino: And how has this affected her relationships with her parents?
Latifi: She said that she feels like her family is more friends than family and that when they’re all together, they’re often talking about the YouTube page or about content or the plans. At one point, her dad said to her, I might be your dad, but I’m your boss too. So that’s just a very different dynamic than I think you would find in most families.
McCarty Carino: As you reported, we are starting to hear more voices like Claire speaking up about their experience. You cited an anonymous letter that was sent to a comedy creator named Caroline Easom, and she read it in a video. Here’s the clip.
Caroline Easom: To any parents that are considering starting a family blog or monetizing your children’s lives on the public internet, here’s my advice: You shouldn’t do it. Any money you get will be greatly overshadowed by years of suffering and very hard work for you and your child to keep up with trends and media. And if you do manage to do it, your child will never be normal. You will be their boss, and they will be your employee, which is a horrible relationship to have with your kid. It’ll be hard for them to go out in public without getting noticed. You’ll constantly be harassed by brands online and networks. And worst of all, your children will be sent inappropriate messages and videos.
McCarty Carino: Wow. I mean, that sense of kind of never being able to escape this, without ever having made, you know, any decision to put themselves out there. I mean, I think anyone who has experienced any kind of shame or going viral on social media of any magnitude has felt that, but to have your entire life out there and really no say in it, it’s pretty striking.
Latifi: It is, yeah. And I don’t think that the power dynamics between parent and child can be ignored, right? Because the child is dependent on the parent just by the nature of their relationship. So the parent gets to make these decisions. And like this person said, they’re stuck.
McCarty Carino: And you point out in the piece that there really aren’t any legal protections for kids in these situations, right?
Latifi: No, there are no legal protections for children of influencers, for children who are even featured on reality shows — which I thought was incredible because we’re, like, over two decades into reality TV. But any of the money that’s made from the content featuring these kids, there is no legal repercussions to the parent not saving any of that money or giving the child any of that money. There aren’t any protections on how much they can work versus how much they need to go to school like there are with child actors, so it’s really astonishing.
McCarty Carino: You brought up the issue of child actors, which seems sort of like the closest analog here. But as you noted, there are laws that do dictate kind of how money earned by child actors can be allocated. Right?
Latifi: Right. In this research, I was looking for the thing that’s the closest, which is child actors. And we have the Coogan Law, which is named after Jackie Coogan, who was a child film star in silent films. And when he reached 18, he had made millions of dollars, and almost none of it was left. And in California, you have to save 15% of what the child earns in a trust that the child can access when they’re 18. But there’s nothing like that for influencer kids. And there’s no precedent legally for suing your parents for this kind of thing. And I do think that that’s going to change in the future. But in the meantime, we’ve let go of an entire generation of kids who’ve kind of slipped through the cracks here.
McCarty Carino: You do note in your piece that there is kind of an emerging movement of kid-oriented influencers, who are turning away from showing their kids or featuring their kids’ faces or names in their content, you know, maybe going back and deleting older content that did feature their children. Why do you think we’re seeing some of this backlash now?
Latifi: I think part of it is just the natural swing of the pendulum of culture, like we swung into oversharing and “sharenting,” and then now we’re kind of swinging back into, oh, maybe kids do deserve some amount of privacy. And then I think, also, there’s just this growing feeling — and I talked to one of the influencers who made this decision, who has over 2 million followers on TikTok. And she is a mom influencer. She doesn’t show her kids, she doesn’t share their names. And she just said, “I started to get all these negative comments about my kid. And I didn’t want them to be able to grow up and read them. And I want them to be able to forge their own identity.” But it is really fascinating because in the last year or so you’ve had three huge influencers with millions of followers on TikTok decide, OK, I’m done or I’m really changing the way that I do this.
McCarty Carino: In many cases, it seems to be happening among a somewhat younger set of parents, I would imagine a generation with maybe a bit more, kind of, native experience on social media.
Latifi: Yeah, and I wonder if that’s why they were sharing so much in the first place, because they were born and raised on social media.
McCarty Carino: They sort of went through the full cycle.
Latifi: Yeah, so it was like natural to them to like, OK, well, now I’m a mom. And now I’m going to share about that and now I’m going to share my kids. And then, all of a sudden kind of realizing like, oh, wait, maybe I don’t want to do this.
Related links: More insight from Meghan McCarty Carino
In our conversation, we touched on the Coogan Law — the one named for the child actor actually from the silent film era. The law was passed in 1939 in California, and similar laws have been adopted in other states guaranteeing child actors get 15% of their earnings put into a trust.
There is a federal law — COPPA, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act — which deals with online data collection of children under 13 but doesn’t have anything to say about a child’s rights when their parents are posting the content.
The idea that kids could have a right to online privacy exclusive of their parents is an emerging area of discussion in legal circles.
And there is an effort in Washington state right now to modernize laws for child influencers. House Bill 1627 would ensure child content creators some financial compensation for their work and the right to delete or take down their content when they become legal adults.
Though, as Fortesa Latifi points out, you can’t really ever take something back on the internet.
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