Future Tense

Child Influencing Is Work, but It’s Not Automatically Dangerous

A new French law fails to understand that.

A young girl standing in a kitchen grins at a camera set up on the counter.
Work, play, or somewhere in between? monkeybusinessimages/iStock/Getty Images Plus

French brothers Neo and Swan and sisters Athena and Kalys pull pranks, complete challenges, and go on adventures, vlogging their lives on YouTube. With nearly 5.2 million and 1.7 million subscribers respectively, they are part of the current generation of child influencers. These children can earn up to 150,000 euros (about $177,000) a month, according to French legislator Bruno Studer. He says they occupy a gray area, not quite working but not quite playing, either. In the name of shielding such children from potential exploitation, the French parliament passed a law earlier this month that extends worker protections to children under age 16 who appear in social media videos with the goal of making money. The law makes sense from a labor standpoint. But by framing children’s online activities as inherently risky, the law reflects a deeper anxiety about children’s place on the internet and ignores how social media is embedded in family and other close relationships.

France already regulates children’s work in traditional entertainment industries such as modeling, and the new law extends those policies to children’s online video appearances. It requires children who appear in such videos to have a work permit. It limits the hours children can work and requires that part of their income go into a designated account for when they come of age. It asks platforms to notify users about the risks of children’s online video appearances and to create mechanisms to identify and report such videos. Finally, it extends the right to erasure to child influencers, requiring platforms to remove videos at the child’s request. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation already articulates a right to erasure, but it does not apply to data processed for “a purely personal or household activity,” which encompasses most family social media use.

Video producers who do not get proper work authorization for children face a fine of 75,000 euros (about $88,700) and up to five years in prison, Studer, who proposed the law, told France’s La Tribune newspaper. This includes parents, who often create and post the videos of children. Advertisers who do not deposit children’s earnings into the designated account face a fine of 3,750 euros (about $4,400). Social media platforms, however, face no sanctions, Studer told La Tribune. Studer said lawmakers cannot punish platforms for displaying videos of children who lack work permits because the content in question—child influencer videos—is not illegal.

This law continues France’s active efforts to address the problems that internet platforms exacerbate. French authorities have warned parents that posting pictures of their children on Facebook is risky (though I’ve been writing for years that blaming parents for posting such pictures is not helpful). They’ve tried to push internet companies to extend the right to be forgotten globally. And they’ve fined Google 50 million euros (about $59 million) for violating the GDPR, an important act of corporate accountability even though the penalty equaled just 0.04 percent of Google’s revenue.

In the U.S., California child labor law requires children to have permits to work in the entertainment industry, sets requirements for their schooling, and regulates when and how long they can work. The state’s Coogan Law mandates that 15 percent of the child’s earnings to go into a blocked account that they can access when they become adults; similar laws exist in New York, New Mexico, and Louisiana. California updated its child labor law in 2018 to include “digital exhibitions,” but exempted cases where children’s performances are unpaid, last under an hour, and are visible for free.

Being an influencer is work; it takes effort and it generates income. Regulating the hours children spend on this work and ensuring the money they earn goes to them makes sense. But at what point does a child become an influencer? The new French law is vague on this. It says the legal protections kick in when the number or duration of videos a child appears in exceed a certain threshold or when the money they earn exceeds a certain threshold. The law, however, does not specify these thresholds; it assigns that responsibility to the Conseil d’État, a governmental body that advises the executive branch.

I doubt there’s any right answer as to what those thresholds should be, given that being an influencer is more than an activity—it’s a way of life. Anthropologist Crystal Abidin, an expert in influencer culture, defines influencers as people who make a career out of narrating their personal lives on social media and accumulate large followings on those platforms. Their impact extends beyond social media as mainstream media recirculate viral videos, bringing influencers into more traditional realms of celebrity. Influencing can also be a family affair when the narrations go beyond a single child to encompass parents and siblings. And when influencers get pregnant, some children are born into the job. Abidin notes one girl who had more than 5,500 Instagram followers at birth—her influencer mother had created the account a few months into pregnancy.

As Abidin observes, the emergence of child influencers raises questions about child labor, privacy, and the ethics of exhibiting children’s lives for social media audiences. The French passed the law out of a concern for children’s well-being, questioning the effects of celebrity on children’s psychological development and linking online videos to risks of harassment and child pornography. Extending labor protections to children who make a living through social media is good, but it’s unclear how doing so will combat harms like harassment and child pornography.

This appeal to children’s well-being by invoking psychological development and safety is a tell. Adults have been wringing their hands over children’s media and technology habits for decades. Fears surrounding television, computers, and video games have morphed into panics about screen time and social media, even as these activities have become deeply woven into the fabric of everyday life. Efforts to change or regulate these activities often conflate children’s well-being with protecting children from harm. Like the opposite of rose-tinted glasses, this safety-driven framing views everything children do through the lens of risk. And even though risk is an inherent part of life, any risk to children feels intolerable. Questions about what harms child influencers might encounter betray adult anxieties about whether children belong on the internet at all.

But the internet is an unavoidable place, as I write in a chapter of the newly published book Metaphors of Internet: Ways of Being in the Age of Ubiquity. I contrast the experiences of two new mothers I interviewed: Brianna (a pseudonym), who felt frustrated by the inevitability of her daughter’s pictures ending up on Facebook, and Marina (also a pseudonym), who embraced her son appearing on her influencer best friend’s social media channels.

Brianna wanted to keep her daughter’s pictures off Facebook, but a relative posted one a few weeks after the girl’s birth. After pressure from family and friends, Brianna also posted a few pictures on the platform but remained uncomfortable, feeling that her daughter should one day decide what kind of presence she wanted on Facebook. Marina, in contrast, had no issue posting pictures and videos of her son and letting her influencer friend do the same. “If it gets her more likes by these kids, then I’m going to do it,” Marina said. “Because it’s her career. And, you know, she’s my best friend, so obviously I’m going to help her in any way I can.”

There’s no right or wrong answer here; Brianna and Marina approached their children’s social media presence in a way that aligned with their values. But, like it or not, children exist online, and the way we frame their online presence matters. For Marina, her son’s presence on an influencer’s social media signified the bonds of close friendship. For French lawmakers, children’s presence on monetized social media accounts could not simply remain a labor issue. By linking child influencers to harms like harassment and child pornography, they implied that children who dare to wade into world of online commerce are putting themselves at risk. But as Marina’s experience reminds us, people don’t live their lives based on risk calculations. Yes, it’s important that we consider the implications of our social media activities, but first we need stop shrouding them in a cloud of danger.

Many thanks to Charlee Bezilla for translating portions of the law’s text from French to English.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.