By Ivy Luders
Child stars have been a common fixture in the American entertainment industry since their start in 1920s Hollywood. Their pioneer, Jackie Coogan, became the first to illuminate the unsavory truth that, for as long child stars have existed, so has their exploitation, even, and especially by, their parents.
Once Jackie Coogan, having reached global stardom from his roles during the silent film era, turned 21, the nation discovered that Coogan’s 3-4 million dollar fortune (around 45-60 million by 2023 standards) had been squandered by his mother and step-father. A couple of years later, Coogan sued his parents and won. However, the victory was somewhat hollow as, after legal fees, he was left with only 126,000 dollars.
Coogan’s situation spurred the creation of the 1939 law protecting child actors, aptly named the Coogan Act. The main function of the Coogan Act was that it required a portion of the child’s earnings to be saved in a trust (called a Coogan Account) to be accessed by the child once they turned 18. However, loopholes in the state law left leeway for parents to unfairly take their child’s hard earned money. In eventual response to this, 61 years after the law’s enactment, the Coogan Act was modified in 2000. It was then mandated that at least 15% of the child’s income would be set aside, safeguarding their property from the hands of greedy parents.
The very need for the Coogan Act demonstrates that child stars are often exploited by those who are supposed to be their staunchest allies and protectors. The Coogan Act also lies testament to the years of experience the film industry —although it is still nowhere near void of corruption– has had to adapt towards creating laws that protect their youngest actors from the aforementioned danger.
Both of these observations are critical to understanding a new phenomenon: children who rose to fame on social media, as a product of family vlogging, primarily on the platform YouTube.
The family vlogging industry, already lucrative, is undeniably new. YouTube was launched in 2005, and family vlogging soon followed, beginning in 2008. The recent nature of this industry means that there are not yet many laws designed specifically to financially protect underage influencers. Furthermore, while the child protection laws of the entertainment industry should apply to underage internet stars –as they are in a strikingly similar position to their child actor counterparts– they are not protected by them. These laws don’t extend to child influencers because they were designed for child performers in traditional media, therefore overlooking the idiosyncrasies of social media.
For example, the Coogan Act does not yet apply to child internet stars. In 2018, California lawmakers created a bill that would function like the Coogan Act but for child social media stars. While the bill was passed, it was very diluted and led to no significant change. The state of Washington is also attempting to pass a law based on the Coogan Act, in order to financially protect the children of family vloggers, but it is yet to be enacted.
Currently, the Coogan Act doesn’t protect kid influencers because it stipulates that contracts must be between a minor and an outside employer, such as a production company. Because child influencers’ accounts are parent-owned, parents are not considered to be a third party employer. Therefore, while the children are in a parallel work relationship to child actors, they do not receive any of the same financial protections, allowing their parents the ability to exploit them. In family vlogging channels, not only are parents using their child for content, but all the revenue generated is considered the parents’ property. This means that there is no legal obligation for the child to receive any monetary compensation for their work.
Furthermore, there are currently no concrete child labor laws extended towards underage influencers. The waters of these labor laws are made even murkier regarding the children of family vlog channels, as their workplace is their home, and their hours are indeterminable, due to their job being so closely intertwined with their personal lives.
This prompts debates over the ethics of whether or not these children should be featured in family vlog channels in the first place. Many parents’ harmless recordings of heartwarming snippets from their child’s lives are vastly different from these vlog channels that revolve around their children and monetize a consistent broadcast of their child’s private life to the public. The parents of these accounts post their children to their large following for profit before the child can truly consent to be on screen, understand the ramifications of fame, or comprehend the permanent digital footprint they are leaving.
Numerous successful family vlog channels have become regularly embroiled in various scandals, mainly pertaining to the treatment of their children. These channels have come under fire for uploading videos containing deeply personal aspects of their child’s lives. This content oftentimes relates to puberty, the child’s medical history, and their love life. In many of these videos, the children are visibly uncomfortable and sometimes even ask their parents to turn off the camera. Furthermore, these vlogger parents have a history of continuing to film their child even after the child is crying, having a meltdown, or showing other signs of being generally distraught.
Finally, because of the newness of the family vlog industry, there has been no way to discern the long term effects this lifestyle has had on the children involved, as they have not yet grown up. Only time will tell whether these children will face some of the same difficulties that commonly plague child stars as they transition into adulthood. Furthermore, the public has yet to see whether some of these children will sue their parents, possibly prompting a Coogan Act of their own. Nevertheless, until proper legal protections are guaranteed to child influencers, they will remain financially and psychologically at risk.
I’ve always wondered what an in-depth writing on child exploitation would look like, I hope I can get off the waitlist and be able to write in the Beacon paper.
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