How Instagram and YouTube disrupted child labor laws
April 25, 2019 6:28 AM   Subscribe

'“I don’t care if it’s simply unboxing presents, that’s work,” said Sheila James Kuehl, a former child star and co-author of the 1999 law that overhauled California’s labor protections for child performers. “It is not play if you’re making money off it.”' [Note: some mentions of child abuse in the article.]
posted by Catseye (46 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
 
"Uber but for..." is going to be up there with "I was just following orders" some day.
posted by Etrigan at 6:36 AM on April 25 [37 favorites]


By the way, Sheila James Kuehl's wiki page is worth reading. She has an amazing list of accomplishments and is an impressive person worth taking notice of.
posted by Fizz at 6:37 AM on April 25 [9 favorites]


Bee Fisher, the mother of three Instagram-famous boys, told Wired, “If there’re days they’re totally not into it, they don’t have to be … Unless it’s paid work. Then they have to be there. We always have lollipops on those days.”

Whew, that is uncomfortable. And that's one of the less terrible stories!

I've always thought about child stardom as being yet another place where having the cushion of extra money can really save a family -- that is, when parents of a would-be child star have or make enough money of their own that they can walk away from their child's income without blinking. Internet fame might be a bit more insidious, though. People want to monetize the attention they have, sure, but it almost seems like a secondary consideration after being famous. (I don't think it's bad to want attention, but when your means of gathering that attention is to share pics of your kids with thousands of strangers...again, that's uncomfortable. I don't know what these people are thinking.)
posted by grandiloquiet at 7:08 AM on April 25 [18 favorites]


One of my kids is OBSESSED with starting his own YouTube channel (where he would play video games), and we have tried to explain to him, in an age-appropriate way, why not (internet bullying, monetizing your childhood, the temptation of parents to use their kids for cash), but he really doesn't understand the dangers of it at all, and only hears that we're being super-unfair and saying no for "no reason."

Which in and of itself tells me elementary-school children are way too young to be making money on social media; they simply don't have the capacity to understand what they're exposing themselves to, and the ways in which it will warp their childhood and their relationship with their parents. And that once it's on the internet, they will never have control of it again.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:17 AM on April 25 [51 favorites]


I am here for anything involving Sheila James Kuehl. She is so badass. I second the suggestion to read her Wiki page.
posted by Ruki at 7:18 AM on April 25 [2 favorites]


This is a good article that brings up important ethical questions about child labor in the entertainment and youtube industry, how we define and protect children from child labor. I think it's impossible to evaluate this issue without facing the even deeper uncomfortable questions of why we count child labor as innately abusive in almost every industry but the film and farming industry. I know these are not pleasant things to think about because of how all of us have simply accepted as default these practices in our lives and profit from them, but I think it's important to grapple with. Certainly we need to do our best to understand how these experiences impact children and listen to the voices of those who have been through it as well as doing research on long term impact on children as they grow.
posted by xarnop at 7:20 AM on April 25 [7 favorites]


I also do feel like there's something of a difference -- and maybe someone else can express this more eloquently or clearly, my thoughts are muddled -- between making money as an actor, where you're playing a role, and making money by monetizing YOURSELF. The latter seems a lot more dangerous to a child's healthy psychological growth, when your self-worth is measured by likes. Acting at least is a job -- you might be good or bad at it, but it's a job that you do, and you can choose to do a different one -- and we know that child stardom can fuck kids up pretty bad as it is. It seems a lot worse to be monetizing who you are as a person, where your self-worth and income isn't measured by how well you do something or how good a person you are, but by how popular you are. It's like taking the most toxic parts of junior high school cliques and turning them into a totalizing measure of worth.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:22 AM on April 25 [48 favorites]


Seeing what happens to a lot (most?) child actors who come up through Hollywood and TV I don't know if we can really definitively say the social media stuff is more dangerous, Eyebrows.
posted by ODiV at 7:38 AM on April 25 [2 favorites]


I once waited in line to vote at my neighborhood polling place behind Sheila Kuehl! In decades of living in LA it's probably the most exciting "famous person run-in" I've ever had. She gave the impression of having more energy in her little finger than most of us manage to muster up in a good week.
posted by potrzebie at 7:46 AM on April 25


I was 5 years old when Dobie Gillis first came on TV, and Sheila played my second favorite character on the show (forgive me, world, because Bob Denver's Maynard was the first). The smart-but-plain (NOT ugly) girl who was attracted to the title character while he was going after (or pining after) every pretty girl was a role model for smart kids, female or male. It was interesting how she - and all the other "teenagers" on the show - were older than the characters they played. And any time they did a Dobie Gillis reunion show, they depicted Dobie and Zelda married. When she later got into politics, it seemed so perfect for the woman who'd played one of the smartest girls on TV. And how the network rejected a Zelda spin-off... CBS has a long history of misogynistic executives...
posted by oneswellfoop at 7:49 AM on April 25 [5 favorites]


I agree, Eyebrows McGee -- I think the difference is the lack of boundaries between work and life; you are always on, always working, always thinking about your own life as a performance. It's a huge issue for social media in general, but particularly for kids, who aren't setting the schedule or making the decisions on what content they're going to provide. The "Fantastic Adventures" nightmare scenario is the worst example of this -- kids pulled from school, forced to 'have fun' for the camera all day every day, and starved, beaten and tortured if they refused.
posted by jrochest at 8:05 AM on April 25 [4 favorites]


Zelda! I've been watching Dobie Gillis on Amazon, and any episode with Zelda is immediately more fun.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:08 AM on April 25


I also do feel like there's something of a difference -- and maybe someone else can express this more eloquently or clearly, my thoughts are muddled -- between making money as an actor, where you're playing a role, and making money by monetizing YOURSELF. The latter seems a lot more dangerous to a child's healthy psychological growth, when your self-worth is measured by likes.

Part of the thing with child actors isn't that the job itself is the problem so much as the fame and isolation that comes with celebrity and its weird form of power and vulnerability. Hollywood did a fair enough job of insulating their kid stars from much of the wider world back in the studio era and the failure rate seemed a bit less dramatic for keeping the kids with peers in the industry or children of other actors. Once the old style studio system ended, things changed and star kids seemed to be left more to fend for themselves, with families that often relied on them for their lifestyles. That's a pretty toxic mix, kids as breadwinners with all that pressure, and unable to bond fully with those that should be their peers in the "real world".

We won't know how the instagram/youtube kids will fare, but some of the same dynamics seem to be in place for many, where you can hear them talking about taking care of their families and speaking in depth about how to work the system for views/likes/clicks/whatever. Their fame will be without much guidance in most cases save for the parents that are encouraging or not discouraging their monetizing of their lives. The level of fame/notoriety will vary enormously and have as many different shades as one could imagine.

The sheer amount of kids trying to make themselves into stars and/or idolizing other kids, teens and young adults that have made it makes the nature of this kind of fame different than old school stardom. Since anyone can theoretically join in to video stardom it becomes something more attainable seeming, closer perhaps to league sports from earlier generations than movies in some ways.

I've heard kids talking knowledgeably about the metrics for monetizing videos, the use of bots and other "insider" info on how to get followers and heard them discussing strategies for engagement. Plans for a persona/attitude to use that they think would work best in drawing fans and money. That leads to someplace other than real self in a way, but at the same time creates a new kind of real identity based on being a product and consumption. There's no way that isn't going to have an impact even beyond those kids who do try and hit the big time sponsorships. It changes the nature of how kids relate to the world and each other. In what ways only time will tell.
posted by gusottertrout at 8:09 AM on April 25 [16 favorites]


I remember reading an article written by Sarah Polley (did a quick search and can’t find it right now) where she talked about the pressures on her as a child actor and how inadequate she found some of the protections. The one I remember is about filming the ‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen’ and a scene where she was in the water and cold all day.she talked about Terry Gilliam, the director, reminding her that she could always say ‘no’ or that she needed a break. But she would look around and see the crew, if she said ‘stop’ then they didn’t get the scene, and they would go off schedule, or people would be sent home and not get paid. Gilliam said it was okay to take a break, but he would get angry, upset and yell when things didn’t well and she was scared of that anger. Scared of not really understanding what was going on but knowing it was her fault.

The article was about how protections for child labour in film aren’t enough to protect children emotionally. Now imagine that it’s your family structure with these expectations and emotions you don’t really understand but internalize as your fault. And that the cameras are rolling all the time, at breakfast, bedtime and on vacations. The directors are adults in your life who are supposed to keep you safe, not prank you for views. I think the money sharing rules are a start but are really only the beginning.
posted by five_cents at 8:12 AM on April 25 [27 favorites]


Remember that weird media sensation where there was a flying saucer shaped balloon that was supposed to have a kid in it? Live on TV like the White Bronco of OJ fame? I feel like there is a personality type that has always been around that does that kind of thing and now is the most fertile time for their fevered little schemes.
posted by Pembquist at 8:14 AM on April 25 [3 favorites]


I remember a while back disagreeing with my ex when we were at a bar late one night, and someone had their 9-year-old kid up there playing guitar. He was good, but I was angry, because kids don't belong in bars (and people still smoked in them too then) late on a school night.

My ex was all "But he's talented, and he likes to play!"

But my take was that there were plenty of age-appropriate, non-bar venues for a talented kid to play, and afterschool programs, and so on. If a kid is truly talented, then he will be successful even when he's older.

At the root of our disagreement was really this idea that "talent" is so precious that it's ok to let a kid/pressure a kid to sacrifice their childhood for it, that talented kids will miss out on their life fulfillment/fame if you don't push/allow them to compete/succeed/get famous as kids.

But I don't think it has to be that way. I think kids deserve childhoods, even talented kids, along with opportunities to shine. Childhood is when you build your self and find out who you are. I'm not sure any fame and fortune is worth sacrificing that time.
posted by emjaybee at 8:26 AM on April 25 [14 favorites]


I feel like there is a personality type that has always been around that does that kind of thing and now is the most fertile time for their fevered little schemes.

A foster mother was arrested a couple weeks ago for forcing her children to participate in videos and would abuse them if they didn't get their lines right or follow her direction. It's already a thing.
posted by gusottertrout at 8:28 AM on April 25


Which in and of itself tells me elementary-school children are way too young to be making money on social media; they simply don't have the capacity to understand what they're exposing themselves to, and the ways in which it will warp their childhood and their relationship with their parents.

maybe ten years ago, I showed up at a friend's place just in time to catch their twelve year old son throwing an enormous tantrum. I never actually saw anything, just heard him reverberating up from downstairs for a good half-hour. Turns out his dad had disconnected his internet until he did his chores, but what his dad didn't understand was that he was about to make a pile of money doing ... (something incoherent connected with selling gaming profiles, or something or other, which would be step one in the kid becoming at least as rich and famous as Steve Jobs).

It was one of those moments that forced me to reflect on twelve year old me and the absurdly incomplete grasp I had of the world and how it worked, and how innocent it all was, and completely natural but who in their right f***ing mind could have thought I was mature enough to wander off un-escorted through a multiverse of misfits, loonytunes and squalid criminals!
posted by philip-random at 8:52 AM on April 25


Holy crap. The booking documents linked in that article for Machelle Hobson are deeply harrowing. I hope those kids are in a caring, therapeutic environment right now.
posted by amanda at 8:56 AM on April 25


At the root of our disagreement was really this idea that "talent" is so precious that it's ok to let a kid/pressure a kid to sacrifice their childhood for it, that talented kids will miss out on their life fulfillment/fame if you don't push/allow them to compete/succeed/get famous as kids.

I think this was a distinct factor in the parents' calculation when they let their young children be unsupervised with Michael Jackson. They really felt like their kids were talented and it probably seemed like a real opportunity. And they felt like Michael was safe. The amount of people who have said that Michael was like a "big kid" or a boy who never grew up.... But the world these kids were in was full of adults doing adult things with big, big adult money and influence. You don't want to be the one who kills your kids' dreams.
posted by amanda at 9:01 AM on April 25 [3 favorites]


the laws also need to address the growing crisis of all these goddamn commercials making kids floss robotically
posted by prize bull octorok at 9:04 AM on April 25 [1 favorite]


All these kid influencers (I can't believe this is a thing) drive a lot of money towards fast fashion in children apparel - which combined with the rise in e-commerce means.... lots more demand for child models. Just a couple of weeks ago, this industry came under the spotlight in China when a woman was filmed kicking her 3 year old daughter for not posing for the camera, prompting the fashion retail industry to speak out in favour of more regulation on child labour.

SixthTone had a pretty good look at the industry in an article from 2017: "Whenever [5 year old] Miluo says she doesn’t want to model anymore, Tan brushes her complaints away by reminding her of the money she is making. “I don’t want to take photos anymore,” Miluo says at one point, “but my mother told me I can make money from it, and with the money I can buy toys and snacks that I like.”"
posted by hellopanda at 9:12 AM on April 25 [3 favorites]


Yet another reason, as though we needed one, to despise influencer culture. The whole goddamn thing should be killed with fire.
posted by O Sock My Sock at 9:27 AM on April 25 [6 favorites]


I wish I could remember the name of the programme, but I recall a Radio 4 programme about the religious campaign to regulate child actors in England in the 1880s. It was of course couched in the moralistic religious language of the time, with the attendant focus on sinfulness. However, it also showed up the contrast between the life performed by the children, and the life that they actually lived. Most were poor, a large number supporting themselves or their whole family. They would be on stage performing as fairies or adored children - then take a train or walk home alone at midnight, to homes with at best scant heating and food.

I'm not intending to suggest that anything like that is going on with these kids. But the gap between 'childhood performed' and 'childhood experienced' seems still to be there. They perform an idealised childhood, like those Victorian stage children, but that's not the one they experience - the experience is one of business and commerce.
posted by Vortisaur at 9:37 AM on April 25 [5 favorites]


It's like taking the most toxic parts of junior high school cliques and turning them into a totalizing measure of worth.

I award you zero Meow Meow Beenz.
posted by Barack Spinoza at 9:38 AM on April 25 [11 favorites]


Do Alexis and Ava remind anyone else of The Shining?
posted by elphaba at 9:42 AM on April 25 [3 favorites]


This brings to mind the recent 'baby with the good hair' thread. I stand by my 'so much squick' position.
I really hope the kids lawyer up at the earliest possible age, and make sure they get 100% of the money they're making.
I'm not saying this from an anti-tech position or even an overly techno-prudish one, my 11yo has his own youtube channels, instagram account, is publishing songs on souncloud and comics on webtoons. He does all these things because he wants to, with 0 input from us, except for laying down ground rules about privacy and explaining about online predators, etc.
posted by signal at 9:45 AM on April 25 [2 favorites]


I wish we would stop using the word "disrupted" in these kinds of contexts. What is actually happening here is "encouraged the violation of the law."
posted by praemunire at 9:57 AM on April 25 [18 favorites]


See also the All My Pets episode of Reply All, which speaks to the dangers of monetizing yourself that Eyebrows brings up.
posted by ActionPopulated at 10:16 AM on April 25 [6 favorites]


“We ran into the challenge of how do we comply with the Coogan Act … when they are being paid by tickets and toys and clothes and other little things?” Chu said.


If this is a fair quote, then it's stupid as shit. As if there aren't seventy zillion ways to value that stuff. If youtube started paying their employees in clothes and toys would that be baffling and untaxable?
posted by the agents of KAOS at 10:17 AM on April 25 [4 favorites]


I really hope the kids lawyer up at the earliest possible age, and make sure they get 100% of the money they're making.

I also wonder about all this money. One of the things that some child actors and other young people who have had loads of money in their hands at a certain young age have talked about in the past is how detrimentally they used/wasted it. I knew a small handful of young people in college who got windfalls at age 18 due to inheritance and trust funds. The mostly wasted it when they weren't doing very bad things with it (so much drugs) and do not have that money today.
posted by amanda at 11:20 AM on April 25


I remember reading an article written by Sarah Polley

five_cents, was it Sarah Polley's letter to Terry Gilliam, in 2005? It came up in the recent "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote" FPP.
posted by Iris Gambol at 1:10 PM on April 25 [1 favorite]


While I enjoy quite a few Youtubers and spend a lot of time on Instagram and other social media platforms, there's definitely a problem with "influencer" culture. I tend to avoid such people. But it's disturbing how quickly things with kids have gotten out of control. There has to be a better way to do some of this stuff to protect kids, such as national labor laws or stricter rules from the platforms.

And it's harm coming from using kids themselves to make money off their image, as well as channels that are bringing in child viewers that may have ulterior motives.

I also think there's a fine line between sharing your life, especially normalizing a lot of things that are difficult in parenting as some "mommy bloggers" do and OVERSHARING to a point where your family and privacy is at risk. I mean, constantly vlogging your family's life seems so scary to me.

As a young teen I played a lot of online video games. And yes, the security and privacy was a bit more lax back then, but I still understood my dad telling me to not give out personal information, to use a "voice mask" for a while, to block people that got creepy. At age 13 I understood that strangers online weren't safe. I think part of it is how ubiquitous it has become without these people talking about the dangers and problems they experience.

We don't see all the creepy comments and messages they block or stalkers or any of it. We just see the "fame and fortune" aspect. Therefore kids who want to do it or other families don't really know the reality.

Examples from Buzzfeed - many are distributing
-A YouTuber Who Earned Thousands From Videos Of Her Kids Performing Was Charged With Child Abuse (mentioned in OP)
-YouTubers Cole And Sav Have Pissed People Off With Their April Fools’ Joke On Their 6-Year-Old Daughter (mentioned in OP)
-Here's What It's Like Being "The Most Beautiful Girls In The World" On Instagram
-After The Discovery Of A Pedophile Ring, YouTube Will Disable Comments On Some Videos Featuring Children
-YouTube's Latest Child Exploitation Controversy Has Kick-Started A War Over How To Fix The Platform
-The Dad Of A Popular YouTube Family Channel Is Being Accused Of Sexualizing A Child After Buying Her A Phallic-Shaped Lollipop
-YouTube Star Austin Jones Has Pleaded Guilty To Child Porn Charges
-Kids YouTube Star Blippi “Regrets” The Viral Video In Which He Poops All Over His Friend
-A Mom Found Almost A Dozen YouTube Kids Videos Showing Suicide, School Shootings, And Abuse
posted by Crystalinne at 1:15 PM on April 25 [4 favorites]


I mean, if it helps, Blippi is a grown man.
posted by grandiloquiet at 1:22 PM on April 25


I have 12 and 14 year olds who are super into YouTube, which is fine. But we have a lot of this sort of conversation:

Kids: PoopyPie is a huge YouTuber! I wanna have a channel someday!
Me: Being a YouTuber is not a real job.
Kids: Dad, some of these people make way more money than you.
Me: Being a YouTuber is still not a real job.
Spouse: Listen to your dad. Being a YouTuber is ridiculous and not a real job.

Old, crusty, and proud. And fully aware that this may not have the desired effect.
posted by freecellwizard at 1:27 PM on April 25 [1 favorite]


PoopyPie is a huge YouTuber! I wanna have a channel someday!

If it's just an example, that's fine, but: if your kids really are into PewDiePie, maybe shut that shit down considering that he's a well-known useful idiot* for nazis and seen in the nazi community as a great on-ramp for providing kids to radicalize.

* At best a useful idiot, possibly a straight up nazi who's pretending to only be a useful idiot
posted by tocts at 1:36 PM on April 25 [10 favorites]


five_cents, was it Sarah Polley's letter to Terry Gilliam, in 2005?

And here's the MetaFilter FPP about it.
posted by ODiV at 1:56 PM on April 25 [1 favorite]


Wow some of the comments on that old fpp are... something huh.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 2:49 PM on April 25 [3 favorites]


They always are, yeah.
posted by ODiV at 2:50 PM on April 25


hellopanda, I was thinking of the same child model story from Hangzhou when I saw this post. What struck a lot of people was that the mom boasted that her kid's record was 119 outfit changes during a single day. Given the going rate is 100RMB per outfit change, in 4 days the kid can earn about 40,000RMB -- a great monthly salary for most white-collar workers 10 times her age. There are also reports that some parents intentionally use sleep-deprivation and malnutrition to make their kids grow slower, so that they can stay within kid clothing sizes for longer.
It's obscene.
posted by of strange foe at 3:16 PM on April 25 [3 favorites]


I'm not saying this from an anti-tech position or even an overly techno-prudish one, my 11yo has his own youtube channels, instagram account, is publishing songs on souncloud and comics on webtoons. He does all these things because he wants to, with 0 input from us, except for laying down ground rules about privacy and explaining about online predators, etc.

Yeah, this is my sticking point with discussions like these, where "don't capitalise on and exploit your children" becomes "don't let them online at all".

Social media is called "social" for a reason. There have always been kids (I was one of them in the 90s/2000s) for whom the Internet is their main social outlet, especially if we're a minority of some fashion and we had nowhere else to express ourselves or see ourselves represented. The Internet was a lifesaver to me during a rough childhood and adolescence, and this was way before anybody took Internet trolls seriously as a harmful threat even though they were just as dangerous back then.

I think there also needs to be some examination of who exactly is profiting off their image and who gets to determine that image for them. A queer youth getting some money and attention for sharing pictures of their own out and proud style mainly because that's their main outlet for self-expression and income while in a conservative environment (and thus having a sense of control over their life that was previously denied) is a very different thing to abusive YouTube stage moms.
posted by divabat at 1:42 AM on April 26 [2 favorites]


If a kid is truly talented, then he will be successful even when he's older.

Let me state up-front that I'm not at all in-favor of parents pushing little kids into the entertainment meat-grinder. Ever.

That said, this statement is as far from reality as can be. talent≠success. Ever.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:19 AM on April 26 [9 favorites]


Regarding Polley's letter, it feels sorta obvious that the only way to have minors in film productions without her kind of outcome being likely is for the person who is responsible for the minor's well being to be someone who has no financial incentive in the process. I'm imagining something like an official government office that provides randomly selected unrelated guardians for minors working in entertainment, whose only job is the well-being of the minor.
posted by tocts at 6:50 AM on April 26 [2 favorites]


I have a child who, at 8, really wants his own channel. I’m tempted to let him because the vast, vast majority of kids are not going to be monetizing and dealing with dozens of #sponsors. But, I say no anyway. I like this framework for discussion...maybe a recreational channel at some point will be ok, but no child labour.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:58 AM on April 26


It's weird as a parent - letting your kids monetize themselves on social is iffy, but pay hundreds of dollars a month to be on serious competing teams at the same age is totally socially acceptable. I figure kids get one childhood and both groups can stuff it. Fortunately I make enough money where I can make choices like this.

Many I know personally can't and many more have no desire to do so. In my daughter's 2nd grade alone, there is 1 kid who is essentially becoming a pro hockey player, one girl on track for Olympics gymnastics, and one whose dad is a pro-rock climber and he takes his kid on weekends to practice too (of the 3 this one practices the least We live nowhere near mountains, so this a plane flight). Are any of these kids actually going to make it in their professions chosen before age 8? Statistics says no....and siting in your room making YouTube videos seems almost quaint compared to this.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:12 AM on April 26


I'm imagining something like an official government office that provides randomly selected unrelated guardians for minors working in entertainment, whose only job is the well-being of the minor.

Given how poorly minority kids are treated by Government officials (disabled, PoC, queer, etc), I REAAAAALLLLLYYYY wouldn't trust them to be any better than the parents on this. Every adult that is entrusted with this control is also vulnerable to exploiting it.

I feel like so much of the focus here is "well kids shouldn't be allowed online then" when it should really be "there are exploitative adults in the world that will take any opportunity to mistreat their child and social media is a very convenient outlet". If it's not social media, it's sports (like aforementioned) or academics (esp if the kid is a "prodigy" but honestly entire national educational systems are based on this) or disability (Munchausen by proxy) or really ANYTHING. and it shouldn't be the kids' responsibility to manage their parents.
posted by divabat at 8:52 PM on April 26 [2 favorites]


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