The Challenges of Regulating the Sometimes-Nasty Business of Child Influencers

June 26, 2024 By Jane Kelly, Jane Kelly,

In Illinois, a new law is coming to protect children on social media. 

Beginning July 1, any adult who makes money sharing information online about children under 16 will have to place a certain percentage of the profits into a blocked trust for that child, based on the amount of time that child is on screen.

The amendment to the state’s Child Labor Law also allows minors to sue their parents or other adults who profited from such content and did not adequately safeguard the earnings.

“It looks like what happened is truly grassroots,” said Naomi Cahn, co-director of the University of Virginia’s Family Law Center and a professor in the School of Law. Teenager Shreya Nallamothu was so upset by what she was seeing happen to kid influencers that she wrote to her state senator asking for protection for them.

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Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed the new measure last August after both houses of the state’s legislature passed it, including a full sweep in the Senate.

“It’s currently the first such law,” Cahn said. “Other states have considered such legislation, including California and Washington state.”

Breaking the Rules

Most social media platforms require users to be at least 13, but some parents take matters into their own hands to circumvent the rule.

A portrait of Naomi Cahn

Naomi Cahn is co-director of the University of Virginia’s Family Law Center and a professor in the School of Law. (Photo by Julia Davis)

A case in point involved the parents of Ryan Kaji, a YouTube megastar with nearly 37 million subscribers. He was 6 when his parents created a channel, “Ryan’s World.” Now 12, his toy-testing videos are a massive hit. Vanguard news ranks him the No. 4 richest YouTuber, with an estimated net worth of $100 million.

“Kidfluencers” videos can be big business.

Anthony Palomba, an expert in media and entertainment in the Darden School of Business, explains.

“You’ve had a generation of millennial and maybe Gen X parents getting used to filming their children and monetizing it. And frankly, why wouldn’t you? It’s super easy to do,” he said. “There’s basically no overhead and the risk is minimal. If nobody likes seeing your baby spill spaghetti on her head and you using Clorox wipes to clean up the child, that’s fine. It didn't work.”

Traditional advertising and production are erased in the new equation. Enter mom, dad or some other adult.

Portrait of Anthony Palomba

Anthony Palomba is an expert in media and entertainment in the UVA Darden School of Business.

Cahn points out there is no government enforcement of the new Illinois law and has written about the need to strengthen child labor laws more generally.

“That being said, it clearly sends a message that you should not be exploiting children in this way,” she said. “And it brings a lot more attention to this issue. It’s an amazing example of civics in action. It  was a high school student who said, ‘This is something that needs to be regulated.’”

Is the law overdue? “Definitely,” Cahn said. And more protections are needed. 

“For example, consider privacy issues,” she said. “Future legislation might permit a child to have content, earlier videos or earlier social media, removed from platforms. Once this is out there on social media, anybody can see it essentially forever.”

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Jane Kelly

University News Senior Associate Office of University Communications