Look at that five-year-old in the rolled-up chinos and straw boater. I mean, isn't he adorable? To post or not to post – that is the conundrum. Back-to-school is the perfect time to talk about setting privacy boundaries for techobsessed kids, but what about their social media-maven parents?
In the past decade, a generation of parenting bloggers has grappled with the question of how much online information-sharing about their kids – both the details of their daily lives and how they look in those moments – is too much. How much of their lives belong to parents to share? And more, are kids entitled to a piece of the profits when their cute-as-heck mug is used to hock a brand-building parent's lifestyle?
Take the role kids play on the street-stylish blog and Instagram feed of Fashion– Kids.nu, which invites parents to submit "authorized" photographs of their coolly dressed children. One presumes that part of the appeal for parents (and presumably agents) is gaining access to FashionKids' 3.3 million followers in order to drive traffic to their own lucrative mini-mes and lifestyle brands.
There, anyone can follow three-year– old Rylee on the feed of her mother, Kelli Murray, who owns the clothing line Rylee and Cru. Or Vancouver's winsome @JeTaimeKyan (age three, 16,000-plus followers).
Kyan plugs sippy cups and pacifier clips for his stylish mom's account and is also part of a campaign for unisex kids clothing line Whistle & Flute, a nice line that's made in Victoria, B.C., and run by couple Ryan McCullagh and Miranda Crane, whose own kids, Archer and Aki, sometimes appear on their Instagram feed.
Then there's Nashville-based blogger James Kicinski-McCoy (@bleubird), a strategic marketing and branding specialist and cofounder of the online magazine Mother. Independent blogging was an aside that turned into a full-time career before her first child was born, and now it's an explicitly for-profit endeavour with various components, including a shop. Her kids appear regularly in her Instagram feed, a quarter of a million followers strong (as do cat Bijou and bunny Bubble), so by the nature of the beast, brand collaborations necessarily involve stylized depictions of her family life, through sponsored posts or original content.
When stumbling upon a cute toddler (with dimples, especially), it's almost hard not to make a Gerber Baby joke, noting how easy it would be to capitalize on those dimples. Because who wouldn't want to see that face on a box of cereal, right? But what about when it's a kid whose mother is a lifestyle brand? It gets thornier as social channels increasingly become de facto advertorial spaces.
The owners of these accounts may be well-intentioned, but the child-performer business, if we dared to call it what it is, doesn't run on good faith. Just ask Hollywood.
Despite a century's head start, the entertainment industry hasn't done a great job of protecting its minors. But it did help to crystallize the issue and implement some basic reforms to the lax child labour laws during the golden age of Hollywood, thanks to Jackie Coogan. The juvenile vaudevillian was in Charlie Chaplin's The Kid in 1921, starred in Tom Sawyer and other kid-centric films and went on to play Uncle Fester in the original Addams Family television series. But by the time he was an adult in the 1930s, his mother and stepfather had already squandered some $4-million of his earnings, so he took them to court (he only recovered a fraction of the funds). At the time, his mother said, "No promises were ever made to give Jackie anything."
That set the precedent for the California Child Actor's Bill (a.k.a. the Coogan Act) of 1939 (and around the same time, the similar American Humane Society measures that began the "No Animals Were Harmed" disclaimer for animal performers like Flipper, Lassie and Rin Tin Tin). It made earnings subject to the Coogan Act, stipulating that a mandatory percentage (anywhere from 30 per cent and up) must be deposited into a blocked trust account. In Canada, a minor's trust is also required (Bill 71 in Canada protects child performers). The children who appear in GOOP-y lifestyle marketing, however, aren't yet considered professional performers. That's the loophole – so-called amateur status. Wherever kids posing or acting is involved and money is changing hands, shouldn't there be some oversight?
Reality TV offers a reasonable parallel to the content genres that are hard to classify. One argument suggests that reality TV is documentary-style programming and doesn't necessitate a work permit because the child involved is a participant, not an employee. It's a divisive topic in the entertainment industry, however, because a number of states have no child labour laws in place that cover reality TV. (The state of Georgia, where Honey Boo Boo was filmed, doesn't even require trust accounts for child stars; and that show earned the family a reported $20,000 per episode.) Paul Petersen (the original Mouseketeer who played Jeff on The Donna Reed Show) has been working for reform to and education about the issue through the non-profit foundation A Minor Consideration since 1991. We've all raised an eyebrow about the kids in Dance Moms. And there's even worse, red-flag stuff like Jon & Kate Plus 8's potty-training episode. (According to an e-mail exchange the Duggars had with A Minor Consideration, Jon and Kate didn't consider kids appearing on a reality show about their family to be work.)
What does this have to do with the stage parents of Instagram? Everything. When showcasing one's kids as a marketing extension, whether it's documenting them reality-style or actually dressing and posing them like catalogue models (and with all the improbable gloss of Vine and Instagram prep), there's a fine line between parental pride and potential exploitation. It's yet more proof that social media is a wild west – nobody knows how to classify it, let alone govern it.
"What's the harm?" is the wellintentioned, GOOP-loving parental reply. Whether it's a cute line of children's hats or a site promoting healthy family meals, you could argue that if it's a child who's doing the marketing that triggers profits for the family business, they're entitled to a share of those profits. They're undeniably working, or their image is. Not to be sinister, but this is something no one's talking about. To my mind, if it's a photo that contributes to the bottom line, it's all the same whether it's seen on Vine by a few thousand people or a reality show watched by millions.
As for how to introduce reasonable protections, looking to the fashion world is a good place to start: In 2013, the New York legislature approved laws put forth by groups such as Model Alliance and widened protective measures: Print and runway fashion models – classified as those who render creative or artistic services – who are below the age of 18 are now subject to the same labour laws that cover child dancers. They're now classified as child performers, and laws govern the hours they can work and require that trust accounts be created to protect a portion of their earnings. The distinction between an amateur performance that generates income by accidentally becoming a YouTube sensation and tapping the creative, artistic modelling services of a ridiculously cute toddler to further Mom and Dad's social brand ambitions hardly seems any shade of grey to me.