It’s no secret that social media influencers rake in the big bucks. But did you know that an increasing number of young children, with help from their parents, are launching lucrative careers as content creators, too?
That’s right: child stardom, typically associated with child acting, has moved from the big screen to your Apple iPhone, as more youngsters on platforms such as Instagram, TikTok and YouTube achieve Macaulay Culkin-levels of fame for their content.
As a result, many of the young performers, or “kidfluencers,” as they’ve been called, are making millions of dollars from brand deals, sponsorships and online ads in what’s become an all-too accurate—if bizarre—measure of our celebrity- and product-obsessed online culture.
But if the idea of toddlers getting paid to promote Carnival Cruise Lines or Coca-Cola or chicken nuggets makes you nauseous, then you’re not alone. It didn’t sit well with Amber Kolb, a third-year law student at Northeastern, who says the topic touched on some things she was learning in her classes—particularly as it relates to concerns of online privacy, consent and child exploitation.
Earlier this year, Kolb was trying to figure out what to write about for an essay as part of the School of Law curriculum when she stumbled on the kidfluencing phenomenon somewhat by accident—more as a result of a running joke with classmates.
“My friends and I, whenever we’re having a tough time in law school, we say, ‘Oh man, we should have just gone into social media,’” she says. “I mean these influencers make so much money.”
When she started researching the topic, Kolb was shocked to discover just how much money child influencers take home from content under social media profiles run by their parents or guardians. Combine that with the sheer lack of case law addressing questions of the rights of children with respect to the decisions parents make on their behalf on the internet, and Kolb says she thought she found a particularly compelling and timely essay thesis.
“I found that one young girl, who’s eight years old, is estimated to have made $28 million in 2021,” she says. “And this was on the Forbes’ listing. And I was like, wait a minute, that’s an insane amount of money. I need to look into this because how does a child even rise to that level of fame—and how do their parents manage them?”
The result of her inquiry yielded an award-winning 25-page essay: “Influencing a New Generation: Guardians’ Duties to Protect the Interests and Safety of Children on Social Media,” which addresses the potential harms of child stardom by exploring the lack of legal protections for toddlers and tweens using the internet.
The essay recently won the Howard C. Schwab Memorial Essay Contest, an annual competition for second or third-year law school students conducted by the American Bar Association’s Section of Family Law. The essay contest aims “to create greater interest in the field of family law among all law students, and particularly the Law Student Division of the American Bar Association,” according to the ABA’s website.
Another Northeastern law student, Julia Gaffney, placed third for her essay “‘The Gold Standard of Child Welfare’ Under Attack: The Indian Child Welfare Law and Brackeen v. Haaland.”
“My essay looks at the fact that the rights of children are not adequately protected by their parents,” Kolb says. “Parents have a fiduciary duty to protect their children; but when they are making a lot of money, sometimes there’s a conflict of interest.”
In some cases, Kolb argues in her essay, the child’s interest may be antithetical to their parents’ interests. Even when parents are careful, they sometimes aren’t equipped with the knowledge to safeguard their children in an online environment increasingly plagued by deep fakes, insidious data collection practices and other bad actors. Online content is also largely unregulated—and certainly isn’t subject to the kind of child advertising limits television is subject to under the Federal Communications Commission.
Additionally, the government doesn’t readily interfere in family matters, deferring often to parents’ rights to raise their children in whatever ways they see fit, making it even more difficult for courts to recognize harm in situations where it might be occurring, Kolb says.
“And there’s a very high bar of interference unless they can show an aspect of direct harm,” Kolb says. “But here because of social media, we don’t really know until they’re adults. It’s hard to track the mental fallout or other aspects of harm that can affect the child later on.”
Kolb, who is also senior editor of the Northeastern University Law Review, says she was “humbled and surprised” that she placed first in the competition.
“I was really inspired by a lot of the classes I had taken this semester,” she says. “I was in entertainment law, and then information privacy, as well as family law, and it was really interesting to see the convergence of all of these classes during the semester.”
“This is a wonderful and prestigious achievement,” James Hackney, dean of the School of Law, said in an email. “We’re very proud of Amber’s contribution to this important topic and recognition by the American Bar Association Section on Family Law.”