For child influencers, who are afforded few protections for their work on social media platforms, the internet has sometimes been likened to the Wild West.
But 2024 could mark a new chapter for young creators, as more states consider legislation to protect minors who appear in online content.
In August, Illinois became the first state to pass a law that would ensure financial compensation for minors, defined as children under 16 years old, who are featured in vlogs, or video blogs. In California, state Sen. Steve Padilla introduced a similar bill this month. Maryland state Del. Jazz Lewis' office confirmed that he plans to propose legislation in January. (Teen Vogue first reported the news.) Pennsylvania state Rep. Torren Ecker said in August he planned to introduce legislation about online child labor. In an email to NBC News, he said he is “working to finalize a bill that will receive bipartisan support and plan to introduce it in the new year.”
Some experts say the legislative action — while welcome — is long overdue, especially given that many children have already suffered from the lack of regulation. Neither the Fair Labor Standards Act, a 1938 law addressing “excessive child labor,” nor California’s Coogan Act, which protects child actors, have been updated to include child influencers.
“I don’t want to say too little, too late, but it’s such a slow path toward regulating and having oversight over things that happen online that it’s kind of shocking,” said Karen North, clinical professor of communication at the University of Southern California.
The ramped-up efforts come amid a time of reckoning for several prominent family vloggers and parents of child influencers. The popular YouTube family channel genre — which has been considered a lucrative business due to ad revenue and brand collaboration opportunities — has been widely criticized in recent years for relying on children to create monetized content. YouTube has not weighed in on recent legislation. A spokesperson for the Google-owned video platform did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Last week, former Utah family vlogger Ruby Franke, who was known for the now-removed “8 Passengers” family channel, pleaded guilty to four felony counts of second-degree aggravated child abuse. Franke was arrested after one of her children was found emaciated with his extremities bound with tape.
In January 2022, Tiffany Smith, the mother of YouTube star Piper Rockelle, was sued for claims of emotional, physical and sexual abuse by the parents of 11 teen content creators who were featured on her daughter’s channel. A trial in the case is scheduled to begin in May 2024, an attorney for the plaintiffs confirmed to NBC News. An attorney for Smith did not respond to a request for comment. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times published in December 2022, Smith said she didn’t consider herself the plaintiffs’ employer at the time the videos were filmed with Rockelle. Smith has since acquired a permit to work with minors, she told the Times.
These cases have also been eye-opening for some teens, who themselves are hoping to help push change at the legislative level.
“I think older teens, like high school and above, really understand the not-so-glamorous parts of being an influencer,” said Shreya Nallamothu, 16, who spearheaded the Illinois law.
Nallamothu, now a junior in high school, came up with the idea while working on a research project last year. She intended for the bill, which was later picked up by state Sen. Dave Koehler before it was passed, to protect child influencers in a similar way to the Coogan Act.
Moving legislation forward has been difficult in the past. In states like New York and New Jersey, bills to protect child influencers were introduced but never gained traction. A proposed law in Washington state also failed to move forward.
But some experts hope the momentum from Illinois, as well as high-profile cases like Franke’s, can help push lawmakers.
“We believe the parents have the right to protect their kids. Absolutely. We believe in parental controls, particularly for the younger kids,” said Stephen Balkam, CEO and founder of the Family Online Safety Institute, a nonprofit group advocating for safety policies that protect children and families. “But when kids get to middle school, certainly into high school, we also believe that kids start to have some rights.”
Nallamothu said young people can help to craft meaningful legislation that prioritizes their needs both financially and psychologically.
“We’re the first generation that has grown up completely online. Everybody wants to be an influencer,” Nallamothu said. “So social media is a really big part of our lives, and I feel like we can offer a super important perspective and voice in this discussion.”