Social media platforms must stop the exploitation of child actors. now

STUDIO CITY, CA - SEPTEMBER 30: Claire Rock Smith, 13, curls her sister Reese Rock Smith, 10's hair on Friday September 30, 2022 in Studio City, CA.  (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 “team” who is now embroiled in a lawsuit over poor on-set supervision. (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 against YouTube star Piper Rockelle and her mother Tiffany Smith.

Instagram and TikTok also have child labor issues, as do all social media platforms that children (and their parents) derive income from.

It goes without saying that “social” takes a backseat to “media” when people make money on these platforms.

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

All too often they are not. What started out as a fun little hobby too often becomes a family-supporting business based solely on a child’s ability to produce videos and connect with massive audiences of strangers.

You might think about this the next time you or your children watch content involving children, or when your own child expresses interest in becoming a YouTube star.

Parents of children featured in hundreds of Rockelle’s videos allege that none of the child labor law criteria were met by Smith, who oversaw the production of the content. The lawsuit also alleges that 11 members of Rockelle’s squad “were frequently exposed to an emotionally, physically, and sometimes sexually abusive environment.”

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

Since no licensed teacher or social worker was present during filming, the case boils down to she says/she says. This is one of many reasons California state law requires an approved third party on set.

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

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But according to the plaintiffs in the lawsuit and additional reports, Smith staffed the group, developed scenarios for the videos, oversaw production and kept the children on a tight schedule. Since there was a lot of money at stake, that sounds awful like the actions of an employer.

Additionally, in this increasingly gig-based economy, work is not defined by traditional salary. 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 has been making up to $625,000 a month through her YouTube channel. When asked, Smith told the Times that she set up an account for her daughter under the Coogan Act. Named after Jackie Coogan, the child actor whose parents are known to have spent all the money he earned before he became an adult, this law requires a parent or guardian to put 15% of a child’s income into a separate account for the child.

By setting up a Coogan account, Smith himself seems to be acknowledging that what Rockelle does is the same as what any child actor does — i.e., work. Despite this, Smith’s attorney argues that what she and the other children did while filming endless hours of semi-planned pranks does not fit under the legal definition of work.

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

This is certainly what people who watch these types of videos want to believe, and what many of the adults who produce them argue: the kids choose to do it, they enjoy it. How does this work?

Well, many adults, myself included, have chosen the jobs they do, and have even been known to enjoy 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.

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

(In light of the lawsuit, YouTube demolished Rockelle’s channel for “off-site activity.”)

The defense “We are not employers” is ridiculous; YouTube and other platforms are not non-profit agencies; neither do the companies that advertise on them. They make a lot of money by having stars of all ages. If platforms and advertisers want to benefit from content involving children, they must ensure that this content is created 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 building and nurturing a popular brand. That means producing creative and well-edited content, releasing it regularly, sharing it on other platforms, and engaging with your audience and platform.

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

In response to the allegations set out 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 compliance with child labor laws.

Without doubt. Former Squad parents allowed their children to spend days filming at Smith’s home without a licensed teacher or social worker on site. They claim Smith banned them from the set, but they let their kids participate anyway.

Though the parents say their kids eventually left the squad because of a toxic environment, their initial concern was reduced viewership for their kids’ separate channels (and the allegation of sabotage is part of the lawsuit). It was only when she and her children met with a lawyer about the financial problems that allegations of abuse came to light.

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

Regardless of whether their lawsuit is successful or settled, their existence should draw attention to a very real and much larger problem. Millions are made and spent on 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 deal with young social media stars.

You need to find out, and fast. The successful child social media star has become the new American dream, and why not? It seems so easy. A child makes thousands of dollars or even millions by opening toy boxes or fooling around with friends – what a great performance. It seems easier than finding acting classes and getting an agent.

It’s a lot cheaper for platforms like YouTube to generate profitable stars if you don’t have to deal with all the applicable child performer rules. It’s a cost-effective way for advertisers to find potential consumers.

For these consumers, the enforced myth that these are just kids hanging around and not artists who could be working 40+ hours a week without certified supervision allows us to enjoy and share the content without a second thought. You are having so much fun!

And if your own child wants to try (or even if they don’t, but you do), then maybe they will be so successful that you can quit your job and manage your 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 do it full-time, that child is working. And in California there are laws to protect them.

These laws must be enforced. started yesterday.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.