Hiding at home during the pandemic lockdown three years ago, 13-year-old Shreya Nallamothu was scrolling through social media when she noticed a pattern: Kids even younger than her were the stars: they danced, said one-liners and were generally adorable.
“At first it seemed innocuous to me,” Nallamothu said.
But as she saw more and more posts of kids promoting products or their mishaps going viral, she began to wonder: Who’s looking out for them?
“I realized that there is a lot of exploitation that can happen within the world of child influence,” Nallamothu said, referring to the monetization of social media content that features children. “And I realized that there was absolutely no legislation in place to protect them. .”
Illinois lawmakers aim to change that by making their state the first in the country to create protections for child social media influencers. Nallamothu, now 15, raised her concerns with Illinois state Sen. David Koehler of Peoria, who then launched the legislation.
The Illinois bill would entitle influential kids under the age of 16 to a percentage of earnings based on how often they appear on video blogs or online content that generates at least 10 cents per view. To qualify, content must be created in Illinois and children must appear in at least 30% of the content in a 30-day period.
Video bloggers, or vloggers, would be responsible for keeping records of the children’s appearances and must reserve the gross earnings for the child in a trust account by the time they turn 18, otherwise the child can sue.
The bill passed unanimously in the state Senate in March and is scheduled to be considered by the House this week. If it wins approval, the bill will go back to the Senate for a final vote before going to Gov. JB Pritzker, who said he intends to sign it into law in the coming months.
Family-style vlogs can feature children from birth and recount family milestones and events – the wholesome videos that Nallamothu had initially been watching.
But experts say the commercialized “participation” industry, which can net content creators tens of thousands of dollars per brand deal, is unregulated and can even cause harm.
“As we see influencers and content creators increasingly become a viable career path for young people, we need to remember that this is a place where the law hasn’t caught up with the practice,” he said. Jessica Maddox, a professor at the University of Alabama. that she studies social media platforms.
He added that influential children “desperately need the same protections that have been afforded to other working children and artists.”
The Illinois bill draws heavily on California’s Jackie Coogan law of 1939, named for the silent-era child actor who sued his parents for squandering his earnings. Coogan’s laws now exist in several states and require parents to reserve a portion of the earnings of child artists for when they reach adulthood.
Other states have tried to pass laws to regulate against the possible exploitation of children in social networks without success. A 2018 California child labor bill included a social media advertising provision that was removed when it passed, and the 2023 Washington bill stalled in committee.
On the other side of the Atlantic, France passed a law in 2020 that entitles influential children under the age of 16 to a share of their earnings, as well as the “right to forget,” meaning video platforms must withdraw images of the child at the request of the minor. Parental consent is not required.
The Illinois bill itself underwent several changes during the legislative session that watered down its scope, including removing a provision that allows influential kids to request removal of content once they turn 18 and requiring family vloggers to register their channels.
Still, Chicago-based Tyler Diers, chief executive of the Midwestern technology trade association Technet, who opposed the bill before the changes but is now neutral, said that when a state legislature addresses a subject, others tend to follow it, “and many times perfect”. what the first state did”.
Nallamothu stressed that the Illinois bill does not aim for “parents to post their children on Facebook for their close family and friends,” or even a funny clip that went viral.
“This is for families who make their income from child vlogging and family vlogging,” he said.
Many social media platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok, do not allow children to have accounts until they are at least 13 years old. But that hasn’t stopped them from appearing on social media. And the internet is littered with examples of children being paraded for financial gain, and the damage that has been caused as a result.
In 2019, an Arizona mother was accused of torturing her seven adopted children for poor performances on her popular YouTube series, Fantastic Adventures; A Maryland couple who posted “prank” videos of themselves yelling at their children and smashing their toys have lost custody and been sentenced to five years of probation for child neglect.
Another YouTube couple filmed every step of their family’s process of adopting a toddler with autism from China, only to ultimately place him in a new home.
Chris McCarty, an 18-year-old college student who founded Quit Clicking Kids, an advocacy organization focused on protecting minors who monetize online, and who was the force behind the bill in Washington, noted that “this issue is not It is going away”.
“Once these children start to grow up, you will realize the true extent of the damage inflicted by monetized family channels,” McCarty said at a hearing on the Washington bill in February.
TikToker Bobbi Althoff is the mother of two little girls whom she affectionately refers to as “Richard” and “Concrete” to her 3.7 million followers. Althoff used to share her eldest daughter’s face and real name online, but stopped after people made rude comments about her.
“I kept thinking about my daughter growing up to read this stuff, and it really bothered me because I hate reading stuff like that about myself,” she said.
When she shared her decision on Instagram, she lost thousands of followers and received backlash.
“A lot of people were supportive of me, but there were definitely a lot of people who felt very weird about it,” Althoff said, describing how some viewers seemed to feel like they “had a relationship with my daughter…and wanted to keep it.” watch her grow.”
While TikTok’s little celebs aren’t old enough to reflect on their experiences, child reality TV stars from the past decade can offer comparable insight into what it’s like to be on the other side of the camera.
Ohio-based Jason Welage enjoyed his time as a tween on TruTV’s 2015 reality show Kart Life, which followed families in the world of go-kart racing. Welage, now 20, says some of the less pleasant aspects have followed him into adulthood.
“When you google the show, the first clip that pops up on YouTube is me walking off the track and crying,” he said. “I still hear about it to this day.”
His parents funneled the $10,000 he earned on the show back into their careers, which can cost families up to $150,000 a year, according to his mother, Meghan, who, like her son, supports child influence legislation. in Illinois and awaits similar laws. be implemented in other states or even at the federal level.
For kids who are featured on social media or on TV, “it definitely works for them,” he said. Her son “wanted to go play, but instead he had to go sit on a stool in our trailer and do interviews.”
“There has to be something to make up to the child for what they are going through or what they have to do,” he said.
AP Staff Writer Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed to this report.
Savage is a staff member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on covert issues.