Social media platforms must stop the exploitation of child performers. Now

Social media platforms must stop the exploitation of child performers. Now

STUDIO CITY, CA - SEPTEMBER 30: Claire Rock Smith, 13, curls the hair of her sisters, Reese Rock Smith, 10, at their home on Friday, September 30, 2022 in Studio City, California.  (Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

Claire Rock Smith, 13, styles her sister, Reese Rock Smith, 10, in Studio City. Claire is a former member of a YouTube “Squad” who is now embroiled in a lawsuit over poor supervision on set. (Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

YouTube has a big problem with child labor. Just read Amy Kaufman and Jessica Gelt’s recent Times investigation into the lawsuit facing YouTube star Piper Rockelle and her mother, Tiffany Smith.

Instagram and TikTok also have child labor problems, as do any social media platforms from which children (and their parents) earn income.

As should go without saying, when people are making money on these platforms, “social” takes a backseat to “media.”

When children make money producing content for a media company in California, they are — or should be — protected by state laws, which mandate limited hours, on-site education and a state-licensed teacher or social worker, among other things. . present at all times on set.

Too often they are not. Too often, what may have started as a fun hobby turns into a family-supporting business that relies entirely on a child’s ability to pull out videos and connect with a large audience of strangers.

It’s something you might want to think about the next time you or your children see content involving children, or if your own child shows interest in becoming a YouTube star.

Parents of children who appeared in hundreds of Rockelle’s videos claim that Smith, who oversaw the content’s production, did not meet any of the criteria required by child labor laws. The suit also alleges that 11 members of Rockelle’s Squad were “frequently subjected to an emotionally, physically and sometimes sexually abusive environment.”

Allegations also include pressure to engage in orchestrated “crushes” and sexually inappropriate behavior. Smith denies this and all the claims in the suit, which she says were filed out of jealousy over her daughter’s success.

Since no state-licensed teacher or social worker was present during filming, the case boils down to “they say/she says”. This is one of many reasons why a credentialed third party is required by California state law.

Smith claims that although she oversaw the filming of videos involving the Squad that resulted in her daughter making money, she was not an employer; Group members were indirectly compensated through increased visibility for their own YouTube accounts.

But according to the plaintiffs in the suit and in additional reporting, Smith assembled the group, came up with scenarios for the videos, oversaw production and kept the kids on a tight schedule. Since there was a lot of money at stake, this sounds an awful lot like the actions of an employer.

Moreover, work is not defined by traditional salary in this increasingly performance-based economy. Four years ago, the “Child Performers’ Act – Social Media Influencers” became law, legally extending California’s child labor laws to artists like Rockelle and the Squad.

Rockelle earned up to $625,000 a month through her YouTube channel. When contacted, Smith told The Times that she had set up an account for her daughter under the Coogan Act. Named after Jackie Coogan, the child actor whose parents spent all the money he earned before he reached adulthood, this law requires parents or guardians to put 15% of a child’s earnings into a separate account for the child farm.

By setting up a Coogan account, Smith himself seems to admit that what Rockelle does is the same as any child actor does – ie work. Even so, Smith’s attorney argues that what she and the other kids did while filming endless hours of semi-scripted pranks doesn’t fit the legal definition of work.

It was just a bunch of friends – some of them discovered through casting calls – hanging out and having fun while filming it on their phones.

That’s certainly what people who watch these kinds of videos want to believe, and what many of the adults who produce them argue: The kids choose to do it, enjoy doing it. So how does it work?

Well, many adults, myself included, have chosen the work they do and are even known to have fun while doing it. That doesn’t mean it’s not work. Work is defined by payment for services. If you pay income tax, you have income. From work.

YouTube and other social media platforms avoid responsibility for enforcing child labor laws by arguing that they are not employers. Stars of popular accounts do not get paid salaries, they are “monetized”, which means they can run ads for which they receive money from the advertisers. Some stars, including Rockelle, have additional product placement agreements with companies, which they also claim do not count as employment.

(In light of the matter, YouTube demonetized Rockelle’s channel for “off-site activities.”)

The “we are not employers” defense is ridiculous; YouTube and other platforms are not non-profit agencies; nor the companies that advertise on them. They make a lot of money by having stars of all ages. If platforms and advertisers are going to profit from content involving children, they need to ensure that that content is made under the protection of child labor laws.

As many successful social media stars and influencers will tell you, the only way to make money on YouTube and other platforms is by creating and maintaining a popular brand. This means producing creative and well-edited content, posting it consistently, sharing it on other platforms, connecting with your audience and your platform.

In other words, what most professionals of all media do, which is a lot of work. Even if it’s done in the backyard on a phone. In fact, many social media stars use much more sophisticated equipment than other media professionals.

In response to the allegations outlined in Kaufman and Gelt’s report, Smith’s attorney argued that the plaintiff’s parents, not Smith, were responsible for their children’s education and abiding by child labor laws.

No doubt. Former team parents allowed their children to film entire days at Smith’s home without a qualified teacher or social worker on site. They claim Smith banned them from the set, but they allowed their children to participate nonetheless.

Although the parents say their children eventually left the group because of a toxic environment, their initial concern was reduced viewership for their children’s separate channels (and the accusation of sabotage is part of the case). It wasn’t until they and their children met with a lawyer about the financial issues that allegations of abuse came out.

Child labor laws were enacted in part to protect children from exploitation by their own parents.

Whether their case succeeds or not, its existence should bring attention to a very real and much larger problem. Millions are made and spent for the services of child laborers with little or no regulation. As The Times revealed, many of the agencies tasked with enforcing child labor laws don’t know how to handle young social media stars.

They need to figure it out fast. The successful child star on social media has become the new American dream, and why not? It seems so simple. Some kid earns thousands of dollars, or even millions, by opening toy boxes or goofing around with friends – what a great gig. It seems easier than finding acting classes and getting an agent.

For platforms like YouTube, it’s much cheaper to generate profitable stars if you don’t have to deal with all the rules for child performers. For advertisers, this is a low-cost way to identify potential consumers.

For those consumers, the enforced myth that it’s just kids hanging out, instead of artists who can work 40+ hours a week without any qualified supervision, allows us to enjoy and share the content without thinking. They have so much fun!

And if your own child wants to try (or even if they don’t, but you do), well, maybe they’ll be so successful that you can quit your job and manage their career. Maybe you can finally buy a big house in LA, or get your own reality show.

But here’s the thing: Putting a kid to work isn’t supposed to be easy, at least not in California. If a child has a career, especially one that requires a parent to manage it full-time, that child is working. And in California there are laws to protect them.

Those laws must be enforced. Started yesterday.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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