Jackie Coogan, USA First major child star, rose to fame in 1921 as Charlie Chaplin’s adopted son childBut at the age of 21, after earning more than $4 million through years of relentless on-set work, he learned that his hard-earned wealth had been squandered by his mother and stepfather. Coogan sued his parents for only the remaining $126,000. But his case led to the passage of the California Child Actors Act, also known as the Coogan Act, in his home state, which mandates that money earned by child entertainers must be protected for use in adulthood.
Sadly, however, the exploitation of child entertainers is far from a shameful past. Now, kids can enter the public eye of millions with just their first ultrasound scan. Back in 2010, research showed that one in four children had an online presence before birth, curated by expectant parents. There is a deep Kafkaesque to the everyday life of a child that becomes a container of embroidered merchandise and licensing contracts. But while Jackie Coogan may have been able to recoup at least a fraction of the money he made from canning peanut butter, the outlook looks bleak for today’s label babies.
Parent-managed social media accounts are now more popular than ever, and in some cases even lead to lucrative sponsorship deals and advertising dollars. Anthropologist Crystal Abidin has dubbed this new stream of celebrities “micro-celebrities,” who experience internet stars by virtue of their “mothers of influence.” For example, Wren Eleanor is a 3-year-old TikTok star with more than 17 million followers on an account managed by her mother, Jacquelyn. The videos feature Wren doing what many kids her age do—dressing up, enjoying a trip to the local carnival, and trying new activities like ice skating and biking.In addition to this, there are sponsored videos for clothing brands such as Shein and Jamie Kay, and a recent unboxing video to promote minions.
But a prepackaged media empire powered by mom’s blog isn’t necessarily a necessity in the industry. Since the family vlogging boom of the 2010s, adults have been launching influencer careers with their existing kids through YouTube. Families like The Shaytards, Not Enough Nelsons, and The Ace Family have amassed millions of subscribers, documenting their kids’ morning activities, holiday traditions, and even emergency room visits.
Unfortunately, there are few labor and privacy laws to prevent these kids from starting their digital fortunes as soon as they step on the operating table, or even from gaining legal ownership of the wealth their online fame can bring. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 was a landmark law covering the prevention of “excessive child labor” by minors, but has yet to be amended to address issues affecting children; the same applies to the aforementioned Coogan bill. This may be due to the local, self-employed state of the vlogging market. Calculating hours worked and salary distribution for editing a toy review video hosted by a 5-year-old relies on mere guesswork, making it an untenable case to go to court.
Likewise, the California Consumer Privacy Act, which addresses personal data autonomy, still requires guardian consent to share children’s data, making it impossible to protect baby influencers from parents pointing cameras at their faces to simulate Baby Gap’s latest gain. . To make matters worse, the platforms hosting this content can do little to reduce the risk of child exploitation. While users under the age of 13 are prohibited from setting up YouTube accounts, there are no such guidelines that prevent parents from showing their kids on vlogs. YouTube has yet to address how a parental consent loophole could inadvertently exploit children, other than disabling comments on videos involving children (which isn’t foolproof either; comments are still active when looking at the latest videos from the wildly popular Ace Family).