Welcome to the collision of Gen Z child actors, advertising and Kardashian-esque reality content. It’s a strange new world of kids’ personal brands, stage moms and social media.
We’re navigating the gray area between entrepreneurship and exploitation, in which parents and talent agents drive hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars in revenue from children.
It’s a weird situation.
Child actors have existed since the days of Charlie Chaplin discovering Jackie Coogan (which, subsequently led to protective measures like the Coogan Law preventing parents from entirely hoarding their actor kids’ earnings).
Today, kidfluencers look like this: a 7 year old earning $22M on YouTube reviewing toys and launching a line of toys with Walmart, 3 year old twins with 4M Instagram followers levying their fame to a clothing line at Target, a 7 year old promoting dancewear to nearly 5M followers.
They are branded as influencers, actors, and celebrities with the help of entrepreneurial, digitally-savvy parents and agents.
The feti$hization of Gen Z and Gen Alpha
Some of these kidfluencers are so young, they fall outside the marketing industry’s most obsessed-over generation: Gen Z (those born between 1995 - 2010ish). Many are in Gen Alpha at 10 or younger with birth dates starting in 2010.
Gen Z (also known as the “social media native” generation) is up to 24 years old and consume the majority of video content (59%) through social channels, spend 2X as much time on social as they do on streaming services, and 5X as much time as traditional media.
And, most of this activity is happening on one channel: 85% use YouTube.
79 percent of parents let their kids under 11 watch YouTube and 56 percent of kids have social media accounts by the time they turn 12, though research has proven children now start surfing the web at as early as age two. (Social Media Week)
Marketers are fascinated by sub-24 consumers, as well as mystified by them.
And, so, as we are prone to do, we’re eagerly experimenting with new ways of engaging these buyers, earning their trust, and breaking through the noise of whichever channel they’re using. We’re striking deals with the new stage-moms, the parents of the kidfluencers. We’re paying $10,000 per post for those accounts with 1M followers (or more.)
Across all age groups, we’re expected to spend $5-10B paying influencers for sponsored content this year.
We know that massive business opportunities lie here. The digital media market around children is currently seeing explosive year-on-year growth. Over 40% of total new internet users globally in 2018 were children, and over 170,000 kids go online for the first time every single day.
Overall, the global kids digital advertising market will be worth $1.7bn by 2021 (PWC).
These market conditions have given rise to a new ecosystem of those looking to capitalize on the opportunity to engage the child and teen generations with trusted peers. Because YouTube and Instagram won’t allow an account by anyone under 13, kidfluencer account management is up to the parents and publicists, talent agencies and PR professionals.
A number of Kris Jenner-esque entrepreneurs are interviewed in this episode of CBSN Originals “Kid influencers: Few rules, big money.”
Those who have built a career as influencers themselves, like Madison and Kyler Fisher, have expanded their content creation to include their family. Self-described “family Youtubers,” they have fully embraced the modern concept of the multi-hyphenate career.
“We are family YouTubers / actors / producers / baby makers / and influencers.”
This is not to say the children involved are unwilling participants. I was struck by this interview with 12 year old Gavin Magnus who started creating for YouTube at 9 and “after a closer look at the KPIs of his channel, he made the decision to expand into the week and post on Wednesdays, which has resulted in greater ad revenue from his videos.”
Key performance indicators? At 12? Believe it.
Kidfluencers may be “just kids,” but it’s hard to discredit their hard work and content creator experience…. [They] are not mere sources of talent — they are capable and committed to understanding the marketing tactics behind their content success and harnessing the insights to improve their strategies and processes.
But, do they understand the implications?
The moral implications of child-influencers
Let’s unpack this a bit.
Is it advertising? Definitely. Brands working with this category of influencers strike deals paying thousands per sponsored post, or through collaborations (e.g. their own category of clothes or toys.)
Can kid consumers tell the difference? No. Watchdog group Truth in Advertising argues that preschoolers can’t tell the difference between advertising and organic content. In their complaint filed with the FTC, they illustrate the magnitude:
Nearly 90% of the Ryan Toys Review videos have at least one paid product recommendation for children under the age of 5, TINA argued in its complaint. (TODAY)
As noted in the TODAY article, even when a Youtuber discloses paid sponsorships, it’s often written.
“Preschoolers can’t read.”
What is the impact on these kidfluencers?
Are there harmful or dangerous effects on these children? Unfortunately, it’s too soon to tell.
We could assume they’ll have the same experience as child actors - some of whom make it to adulthood well-adjusted and safe. Others of course suffer more negative, high-profile fates.
“The difference between traditional child actors and social media influencers is, it’s not a kid pretending to be somebody for a show. Instead, the show is the kid. Where does that send their lives? We don’t know yet” - Karen North, PhD, Director at USC’s Digital Social Media program.
PR executive, Katelyn Holbrook, Vice President at Version 2.0 Communications describes the world of kidfluencer marketing as “still a Wild West”
They are often managed by parents who may not have in-depth business or social media experience, in some cases they are not old enough to consent to what they are doing, and they are not protected by the child labor laws that restrict the numbers of hours they work or ensure access to recreation and education, as child actors are.
Is this exploitation? Most agree there is, at some level, exploitation to all of this. There’s no way for kids as young as 6 or 7 to understand the long-term implications of such public exposure, scrutiny, and pressure to perform and continually create. Critical thinking isn’t developed until age 12 (and, some would argue a skill most adults have yet to develop.)
So, if we are to measure these partnerships on a spectrum between entrepreneurship and exploitation, we must examine both motivations and treatment.
Who can blame a mother’s motivation for wanting to give her children “a piece of a lucrative business” as described by one in the CBS News piece?
As for treatment, we are already seeing extreme cases of abuse, like the horrifying story of the adopted children starved, beaten, and pepper sprayed when they failed to follow direction for videos for the channel “Fantastic Adventures” with over 242 million views.
Are they free? There’s also something strikingly permanent about online content. What happens to a child’s ability to be off the grid when their childhood is documented online? I’m a fervent believer that life is about continual reinvention.
Anyone who maintains a personal brand online has felt the sense of being trapped by the brand they’re now expected to maintain. One example is Jojo Siwa, who, at 16, is edging closer to an age where it will be hard to maintain a personal brand featuring her signature ponytail bows. (Her merchandise is targeted at girls as young as 6 who shop at Claire’s.)
Childhood are pivotal years - are we giving these kids the space and freedom to change if they so choose? What if the brand partnerships demand otherwise?
Impact of a commercialized childhood
Jean Kilbourne describes the impact of advertising on children:
“This can create a lot of anxiety and depression in kids, to feel that everything is for sale, it’s all about what you buy, and what you buy defines who you are.... Consumerism sets up our kids to be disappointed. If you think you’re going to get a basic human need met from a product, you’re going to be disappointed. It will not make you happy in the long run… Kids can end up feeling jaded and even cynical about life.”
Adults barely consider the implications of advertising on themselves.
I believe profiting from kidfluencers is really profiting from a decision to perpetuate a consumerist, materialistic attitude in kids. That, of course, is a freedom and a choice available to you. But, ethically, is it worth it?
So, who is responsible?
The ecosystem is made up of the platforms, the performers, the parents, and the publicists.
I respect the self-made hustle of parents looking to capitalize on the opportunities available to them and their children. But, ultimately this falls on them to protect their kids from exploitation.
As for the platforms themselves who are incentivized by traffic, engagement, and ad revenue, their stances are, naturally, “evolving:”
“Influencer marketing continues to evolve and we’re committed to working with regulators, brands, and influencers on best practices and enforcement.” - Instagram spokesperson to CBS News
We really can’t leave it up to them. But, brands do have the chance - and responsibility - to make an ethical decision. Katelyn offers some advice for brands engaging with kidfluencers:
Ultimately, brands have the onus to ensure the engagement is agreed to and executed in a fair manner for both parties. Remember that consumer loyalty is apt to lie with the influencer, not the brand, making it critical that the relationship—both publicly and contractually—doesn’t compromise the child’s happiness or safety. You may use a child influencer to help market your brand, but at the end of the day, remember that your brand is influencing that child’s upbringing and future in some way. That is not a responsibility that should be taken lightly.
I expect regulation to come that looks similar to child actor labor laws, with pushback from the tech platforms themselves as well as the parents and publicists who are profiting. We may roll our eyes at regulation as marketers under pressure to deliver, but ultimately we have a responsibility to children to protect them.