Sharenthood: Turning Childhood Into Lucrative Content

In the 1920s, Jackie Coogan became one of Hollywood’s first child stars after playing the titular role of “The Kid” alongside Charlie Chaplin. Having starred in several box office successes, Coogan’s childhood career had earned him an estimated $4 million (roughly $62 million today). When Coogan tried to access his earnings in his 20’s, however, he discovered that his mother had spent nearly his entire fortune. In response to public outcry, California passed the Coogan Act, which aimed to safeguard a portion of child actors’ earnings until they reached adulthood and to protect them from abuse and exploitation. The Coogan Act contained several loopholes that permitted continued exploitation (see the money troubles of Shirley Temple, Macaulay Culkin and Gary Coleman), which were partially addressed by revisions made in 2000. While there are laws in both Canada and the United States that aim to prevent the financial exploitation of child actors, little has been done to protect their privacy or prevent other forms of abuse. And in the context of children in the emerging online entertainment industry, there are almost no protections offered.

Making Children Earn Their Keep (And Then Some…)

Children have become increasingly present—and popular—in online content. According to Forbes, two out of the top ten highest paid YouTubers in 2021 were under the age of 13 (10-year-old Nastya earned $28 million, while 12-year-old Ryan earned a paltry $27 million). But given the fact that most large social media platforms (including TikTok, YouTube and Instagram) prohibit children under 13 from making an account, how are young children making it big online? In most cases, these accounts are run by their parents. Such accounts create content that usually falls under two major categories: “Kidfluencing” and “Sharenting”. In general, kidfluencing videos star children and are targeted towards other children. Such videos can feature toy reviews, unboxing gifts, or playing games. “Sharenting” videos, on the other hand, are usually centered on the parent (called a “mommy vlogger” or “family vlogger”) while still featuring their children and are geared towards a broader audience. These videos focus more on parenting advice, recipes, and documenting the family’s daily life.

Ryan’s World, “Christmas Morning 2015 Opening Presents Surprise Toys Ryan ToysReview” (25 December 2015). Ryan, now 12, has been making YouTube videos since he was 3. Note that I blurred the child’s face from the original thumbnail.

An Industry Based on Exploitation

If you think this kind of manager-talent relationship between parents and children sounds ripe for abuse, you would be correct. While abuse is a broad term, it usually takes one of four main forms: emotional, physical, sexual or economic. Now, I think that it’s important to more clearly define emotional abuse before throwing the term around willy nilly. While the definitions of other forms of abuse may seem more clear cut, emotional abuse can seem nebulous to some. The Canadian government specifically recognizes acts that would take away an individual’s self-respect (including humiliation and name calling) as a form of emotional abuse. Child influencers are particularly vulnerable to this type of emotional abuse by their parents, who have complete control over their lives. One former kidfluencer whose entire childhood was made into content, shared how humiliated she felt when her mother forced her to do sponsored posts for sanitary pads when she reached puberty and began menstruating. In another example, a former family vlogger was seen in a since-deleted video coaching her already distressed child on how to cry for the thumbnail after learning their puppy was dying. In some cases, emotionally abusive or otherwise exploitative behavior online can be indicative of physical abuse behind the camera. In February of 2024, former family vlogger Ruby Franke was sentenced up to 60 years based on four counts of aggravated child abuse. While her strict parenting style on camera led some to believe Franke was abusive (e.g., threatening to destroy her children’s toys, withholding food, etc.) she was not arrested until her 12-year-old son escaped to request aid from neighbors. Upon investigation, the police found her children had severe signs of malnourishment and abuse.

Today, “YouTube mom Ruby Franke and counselor Jodi Hildebrandt sentenced to 4-30 years for child abuse” Ruby Franke, left, in a video on her YouTube channel, and appearing in court in December on child abuse charges.

In some cases, parents may—intentionally or otherwise—expose their children to sexual abuse. A recent New York Times article shed light on a major risk of posting your children publicly: pedophiles. While some of the child-centered accounts that they investigated posted predominantly innocuous content, the review found that many mom-run accounts heavily featured images of their young daughters in tight or revealing clothing, sometimes in suggestive poses. While some parents interviewed claimed to delete inappropriate comments and block abusive users, other parents seemingly encouraged commenters and sold special photo sets or exclusive Q&As to “fans” of their children. This provides parents with a lucrative opportunity to exploit their children with the plausible deniability that they were naive to the fact that most of their children’s followers were adult men. Regardless of the stated intention of the parents, however, children are being exploited for money through online content. So, what should be done to prevent this from happening?

Removing the Financial Incentives

Just as in the case of child actors, child influencers can make big money. Through brand deals, ad revenue, merchandising, and donations, children with larger accounts can rake in huge earnings—for their parents. Throughout all of Canada and most of the US, child influencers are afforded no protection from the financial exploitation of their parents. In other words, it is up to the parents to decide whether they want to save for their child’s future education or follow in the footsteps of Jackie Coogan’s mom and blow it all on diamonds and fur coats. In August 2024, Illinois became the first North American jurisdiction to pass a law specifically requiring adults who use a child’s likeness, name or photograph in paid online content to set aside a portion of those earnings in a trust. This law represents a positive step in legislative progression. Illinois has recognized the changing face of children’s labour in entertainment and has taken action to address the real ongoing harms in the online content industry.

While protecting a child from certain forms of exploitation may be difficult to legislate (though the Canadian government has recently recognized the need to protect children online in the Online Harms Bill), there is a clear path forward to preventing financial exploitation. Canadian provinces should follow the lead of Illinois and adopt legislation to protect children’s earnings from online content. Currently, Ontario’s Protecting Child Performers Act, 2015 requires 25% of a child performer’s earnings to be held in trust if they earn over $2000. These protections are not extended to child performers in online content. Other provinces have similar legislation. Canadian labour law must be updated to meet the realities of the modern entertainment industry and address the challenges therein. And who knows, maybe Canadian provinces could even let children keep an even greater percentage of their earnings. 25% sounds a little meager to me. Let’s allow the kids to enjoy the fruits of their labour and raise it to say…50%. And if you’re a former child performer reading this 10 years in the future and your provincial government took my advice… I have PayPal and am currently awaiting your generous donation.

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