There are no laws protecting children from exploitation on YouTube – a teenager wants to change that – TechCrunch

At only 17 years old, Chris McCarty is taking matters into her own hands to protect children from being exploited for money in family vlogs.

As part of their project for the Girl Scouts Gold Award, the program’s highest honor, the Seattle teenager spent months researching child influencers: kids who make big money for their appearances in YouTube vlogs , which are often managed by their parents. They were so fascinated and appalled by the lack of regulation on child labor and social media that they used their high school’s independent study program to phone their neighbors to gauge community interest in the question.

In January, McCarty emailed a number of local lawmakers, including Washington State Rep. Emily Wicks, who serves on the Children, Youth and Families Committee. McCarty presented their research, convincing the Rep why she should work with a teenage girl to craft a new bill at the very end of the legislative session.

“I randomly got an email from Chris, and they said, ‘Here’s the problem, and here’s the potential fix,'” Wicks told TechCrunch. “I really wanted to give them the opportunity to help them understand exactly how the legislative process works, no matter how far we might go with the bill.”

With a 20-year age difference, McCarty and Wicks have very different experiences growing up on social media, but they’ve worked together to come up with Internal Bill 2023.

“Children generate interest and revenue for the content, but receive no financial compensation for their participation,” the bill says. “Unlike children’s play, these children do not play a role and lack legal protections.”

If passed by the Washington state legislature, the bill would apply to content that earns at least 10 cents per view and has a minor featured more than 30% of the time. In this case, a percentage of the vlog’s revenue would be set aside in a trust to be given to the child when he turns 18. At that time, the individual could also request that the content in which they appear be removed from the technology platform. .

The bill was introduced at the end of the legislative session, so it has not yet been heard in the House.

“Actually, I’m not running for re-election…but I want to hand this bill over to the right people to keep working on it,” Wicks said. She stressed the value of intergenerational collaboration on the legislature, especially when it comes to topics such as the impact of social media on children. “That’s what it means to be in the Legislative Assembly – teaching people, helping and being the director of these great ideas that people have.”

At all levels of government, the journey from a proposed bill to law is difficult, especially when it comes to legislation like HB2023, which would require the direct cooperation of tech companies like YouTube or Instagram. . But as social media stars continue to make their way into the entertainment industry, the lack of regulation for children in this line of business is becoming a growing concern.

The problem with family vlogging

Life was good for Myka Stauffer, a family vlogger who has amassed a combined million YouTube subscribers across two channels. She rose to prominence after producing a series of 27 videos chronicling her family’s journey as they went through the emotional and arduous process of adopting a Chinese child, Huxley. Stauffer was swimming in endorsements from brands like Glossier and Fabletics, and she was well-known enough that People Magazine announcement the birth of his next son, Onyx.

But in 2020, three years after 5-year-old Huxley was adopted, fans realized he suddenly wasn’t appearing in any of her videos anymore. At the request of their public, Stauffer and her husband revealed that they had rehoused Huxley because they felt they could not properly care for an autistic child.

Of course, YouTube commentators and armchair Twitter pundits exploded in an uproar of discourse: Was it just a couple in over their heads, helping a child find caretakers who could feed him better? Or did they build their fame and wealth on the story of an oblivious toddler, making his life story public to millions of viewers, only to cast him out when the going got too tough?

McCarty became interested in the ethics of family vlogging when they learned of Huxley’s story.

“If Myka Stauffer is doing it, there’s probably a lot of other families doing it too,” McCarty told TechCrunch. “These kids, often they’re not even old enough to understand what’s going on, let alone fully consent to it.”

As early as 2010, amateur YouTubers realized that “cute kid does stuff” is a genre prone to virality. David DeVore, then 7, became an internet sensation when his father posted a YouTube video of his reaction to anesthesia titled “David after the dentist.” David’s father turned the public interest in his son into a small business, earning around $150,000 in five months through advertising revenue, merchandising sales, and a licensing agreement with Vizio. He told the Wall Street Journal at the time that he would save money for his children’s school fees, as well as for charitable donations. Meanwhile, the family behind the “Charlie bit my finger” video made enough money to buy a new house.

More than a decade later, some of YouTube’s biggest stars are kids too young to understand the life-changing responsibility of being an internet celebrity with millions of subscribers. Seven years Nastyawhose parents run her YouTube channel, was the sixth highest-earning YouTube creator in 2022, winning $28 million. Ryan Kaji10-year-old boy who has been playing with toys on YouTube since he was 4 has won $27 million from a variety of licensing and branding agreements.

Just a few days ago, the controversial Longtime YouTuber Trisha Paytas has renamed her channel to the “Paytas-Hacmon Family Channel”, which documents “the lives of Trish, Moses and Baby Paytas-Hacmon (coming September 2022)”. Already, Paytas has posted vlogs about ultrasounds, maternity clothes, and what they eat during pregnancy.

That’s not to say that influential parents are inherently money-hungry and short-sighted. Kaji’s parents, for example, said they had set aside 100% of its income from his Nickelodeon series “Ryan’s Mystery Playdate” for when he comes of age. But there are almost no safeguards to prevent these children from being exploited.

Huxley was adopted by another family, and investigation by local authorities concluded that he was “very happy and well taken care of”. But when he’s old enough, he’ll discover that when he was just a toddler, private details about his intercontinental adoption and disability were the subject of widespread online debate and coverage. media. The Stauffer family took advantage of Huxley’s appearance in their vlogs (although they no longer work as social media personalities, for clear reasons), but Huxley will never be compensated for his unwitting appearances in their vlogs.

“I really think the biggest issue here is the lack of advocacy, because so many people don’t see that as an issue or think about it,” McCarty said. In addition to working on HB2032, they launched a website called Stop clicking on kids raise awareness of issues facing child influencers. “But once you get these really personal stories from specific instances of [child] influencers, I think that’s what changes people’s minds the most.

A lack of existing legislation

In Hollywood, child actors are protected by the Coogan’s Law, which requires parents to pay 15% of a minor’s gross salary into a trust account, called the Coogan account. This protection, enacted in 1939 and updated in 1999, inspired a similar clause in the bill Wicks introduced in Washington state.

“A lot of kids on social media accounts, there’s no protection for them right now,” McCarty told TechCrunch. “They don’t have regulated hours like child actors do now, or Coogan laws to protect them. So I really think we need to offer the same considerations of child actors to child stars in vlogs.

In 2018, California State Assemblyman Kansen Chu tried to pass legislation that would classify “social media advertising” as a form of child labor. This would have required minors to obtain work permits, which would provide them with greater financial protection, since children in California can only obtain a work permit if they have a Coogan account. But before it’s written in straight, the legislation has been considerably weakened. Now, these child labor classifications do not apply if a minor’s online performance is unpaid and less than an hour, exempting much of the work of influential children.

In France, a law came into force in 2021 which required that any income from a child influencer be placed in a bank account which they can only access once they reach the age of 16. Like the proposed bill in Washington state, this law enforces a “right to be forgotten,” which allows the child to request that content in which they appear be removed from the Internet.

Since Frances Haugen’s landmark leaks of internal Facebook documents detailing the negative effect of social media on minors, several bills have been introduced (or reintroduced) in the US Senate aimed at protecting the safety of ordinary children using social media. .

In October, representatives from YouTube, TikTok and Snap all agreed in a hearing that parents should have the ability to erase their children’s or teenagers’ online data, a concept that appears in proposed updates to the historic Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

Another way to regulate the monetization of family vlogging and kids’ influencer content would be for activists like McCarty to run pressure campaigns that urge corporate executives like YouTube or Instagram to put in place guardrails themselves. . But Wicks and McCarty think the legislative route is more likely to be effective.

“I say, work with [tech companies] to see if they can be good players,” Wicks said. “How could we potentially work with them to say, ‘That’s our intention, that’s what we’re trying to do.’ arrive ? “

Even if lawmakers require tech companies to erase a child’s digital footprint, for example, there’s no guarantee the platforms themselves have the technology to honor those requests. US senators have tackled these challenges, questioning reluctant executives from Snapchat, TikTok, YouTube and Meta about how the seemingly opposing forces of Big Tech and government might cooperate.

“There have been hearings, but there hasn’t really been meaningful, concrete action,” McCarty said. “So for me, going through the legislation was a better way to get more people talking about it, to make real change.”

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