YouTube has become an essential part of everyday life thanks to the relentless commitment of its creators, audiences, and advertisers, as well as its sprawling, unstoppable, ever-growing global network. And young audiences have always been an important part of the equation, for better or for worse.
There’s an endless stream of very young influencers, many still in diapers, strutting their stuff and lining their parents’ pockets on YouTube. EthanGamer (1.7 million subscribers), Babyteeth4 (1.6 million subscribers), B2cuteCupcakes (1.6 million subscribers), Hulyan Maya (1.4 million subscribers), Hailey’s Magical Playhouse (1.2 million subscribers), Naiah and Elli Toys Show (1.2 million subscribers) and others too numerous to mention. Of course, massive numbers like these and the massive swarms lured to Instagram and TikTok open the door to potential ethical abuse like never before.
Underage influencers a goldmine for parents
In covering such basic things as opening gifts (“unboxing”), birthday parties, trips to amusement parks, or even local fast-food restaurants, the popularity of the family vlogging diary has grown by leaps and bounds on YouTube. The genre reaches millions of loyal followers and generates hefty payoffs from blue-chip advertisers. These, and videos featuring their kids only, have turned parents into directors, producers, and very ambitious stage mothers and fathers.
You can be sure YouTube star power of this magnitude has also caught the eye of influencer agencies, many of them now specializing in taking budding little stars to ever greater heights. It comes as no surprise that two underage influencers were among the Top 3 YouTube money spinners from June 1, 2018 to June 1, 2019. Coming in at No. 1 is Ryan Guan, who launched his own YouTube channel in 2015 at the tender age of three. He now has more than 22.9 million subscribers and the money to prove it. Ryan earned US$26 million in 2019, according to Forbes, and has racked up more than 35 billion views since day one. Five-year-old Russian Anastasia Radzinskaya came in at No. 3 by providing her 70 million subscribers with childish content in Russian, English, and Spanish. She pulled a not-too-shabby US$18 million for her trilingual efforts in 2019.
While numbers like these bring smiles to the faces of the lucky parents, the phenomenon of child influencers is no laughing matter for healthcare professionals, lawyers, and lawmakers.
In February 2020, France’s National Assembly unanimously passed a law regulating the professional online activities of children and to protect them from possible misappropriation of funds or non-compliance with labour standards. The regulations stemming from this law deal with, among other factors, the compatibility of the child’s online activities with his or her schooling, the remittance of 90 percent of the income generated to the Caisse des dépôts et consignations, a public authority that will manage the funds until the child reaches the age of majority, and the definition by future decree of authorized filming times.
Such provisions specifically targeting young influencers have not yet been enacted in North America. There have been scandals, in recent years, that did heighten the apprehensions of experts and that led to a number of YouTube channels being removed. One example is DaddyOFive, a YouTube channel where the parents played violent and humiliating tricks on their five children to boost viewership. In this case, the parents lost custody of two of their children and were sentenced to five years of supervised probation.
Moving towards platform accountability
With such excesses and a growing number of parental concerns, YouTube announced an end to monetizing children’s videos at the beginning of 2020. The decision has little to do with the video giant’s ethical considerations, but rather with an investigation by US authorities into the platform itself, leading to a US$170 million financial settlement. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has had YouTube in its sights since 2018. The FTC determined that YouTube did not comply with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act passed in 1998 (and updated in 2013 to be more in line with current standards), especially in regard to the collection of personal data.
In order to comply with the law, YouTube has removed all monetization features based on personal viewer information for videos directed at children 13 and under. First items affected: personalized ads, Super Chat, which allowed children to make donations, and finally, the Merch Shelf, a small drop-down menu featuring products for sale. Comments, notifications, live chat, and playlist options have also been removed from children’s videos. However, contextualized advertising based on the video itself is still allowed.
YouTube posted a blog on January 6, 2020 outlining what they considered to be children’s videos: The subject matter of the video, or videos featuring children’s characters, themes, toys, or games will be the criteria used in determining the target audience. So, it would appear that gaming or animated videos could fall through the cracks ― not to mention that YouTube relies on the creators themselves to determine whether or not their videos are aimed at children.
What it amounts to is minimal accountability, putting the responsibility on the vigilance of individual advertisers, and a major disappointment to concerned parents.