Children’s Online Privacy in the Age of Influencers
By Gabrielle Maginn
It is perhaps beyond cliché at this point to make observations about the sheer quantity of content about people’s children on social media. Pictures of newborn babies, monthly milestones, funny videos, first days of school, and everyday snapshots dominate Facebook, Instagram, and specially-dedicated child-themed sites like the privacy-minded Tinybeans. It is clear that this kind of sharing by parents is an attempt to connect with family members and friends who may live far away. The community that can be built online has been particularly valuable for mothers who, because of gendered expectations, can find parenting to be more isolating than fathers. Parents share information about their children online in varying amounts and with varying privacy settings. As a result, most children have a digital footprint well before they are able to consent to or understand any of the information being shared about them online, or the possible impacts it could have on their futures. Even given this limited understanding, children as young as five or six have expressed concerns about what their parents share about them online.
Online privacy affects all parents and children, but perhaps the most concerning dynamic arises outside of the sharing of content with friends and family and within the realm of “influencer” parents who profit off of sharing their children’s images and lives with strangers. Not only do these parents often share content about their kids on their own accounts, but they also create social media accounts for their children and amass large followings. For example, former Bachelor star Arie Luyendyk and his wife Lauren created Instagram accounts for their three children before they were even born. Six days after her birth, their daughter Alessi had almost 300,000 followers on Instagram. While the Luyendyks were fairly well-known before their children were born, other influencers derive any fame they have from their kids. Family “vloggers” post videos with varying frequency (sometimes daily, usually at least two or three times per week), detailing their lives. The content of these videos varies widely—they are often mundane “day in the life” chronicles of park visits, shopping trips, or family vacations. Part of the appeal of these kinds of videos is the feeling that viewers know the families on an intimate level. Many family vloggers express that they want to share “everything” with their viewers, and show the tough side of parenting. As a result, these parents share a shocking amount of information about their young children, often detailing their medical histories, struggles in school, and even their toilet training. The children of family vloggers are often on-screen from the moment they are born—“birth vlogs” are a popular subgenre. Pregnancy is chronicled in excruciating detail, often with a focus on “gender reveals” and a highly anticipated buildup to the reveal of the child’s name. What is most clear from family vloggers’ content is that the channels would not be profitable without the existence of the children—all the videos revolve around the lives of the kids.
The law gives parents a huge amount of discretionary power over their children. While this makes sense in that we defer to parents to know what is best for their kids, this line of thinking does not comport with the potentially drastic (and largely unknown) long-term effects that could result from having your every move broadcast to millions of people since the moment of your birth. The law has recognized that kids have some control over their image, or at least the money earned from it. Passed in 1939 by the California legislature, the Coogan Act requires that 15% of the earnings of child actors be set aside in a trust, and also sets out rules for working hours, schooling, and time off for children in the entertainment industry. No such regulations exist for children in the influencer space, which means both that their parents can potentially spend all their earnings before they reach the age of maturity, and that there is no limit on how much they “work” by being filmed or posted about daily.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the uncertainty around the psychological impacts on developing children of their lives being posted for public consumption, it’s clear that some kind of regulation of the influencer industry is needed. A Coogan Act-type law for the children of influencers could ensure that young people have access to a percentage of the earnings their parents make from posting content of their lives once they reach eighteen. Like the Coogan Act, this kind of law could also establish regulations around how long and under what conditions children can be filmed or posted online for profit. A complication in constructing this kind of law specifically for online influencers is that, unlike the film industry, vloggers operate exclusively as independent contractors, and are usually the children’s parents as well as their “employers.” Therefore, enforcement of any kind of standards could prove to be very complicated. The European Union has made far more progress than the United States in regulating online privacy, passing a “right to be forgotten.” This regulation allows citizens to request that online organizations such as search engines delete their personal data (although there is no requirement that the organization must comply with the request). The U.S. seems loath to regulate powerful tech companies, but a law that allows young people to delete any content about themselves published before they reached the age of majority could go a long way towards allowing children who grow up online to regain control of their image and privacy. Ultimately, regulation of these industries and kid-focused content merely scratches the surface. Real change in children’s privacy and digital rights in the public sphere will only come from encouraging a more nuanced discussion of what it means for young people to have no agency over the information that is posted about them from birth onwards. It’s possible that this kind of discussion will only occur with an awareness of the impact of this kind of exposure on children, which will probably become apparent in the coming years as influencer children grow up and are able to speak for themselves.