When is it okay to turn a kid into a brand?

Social media careers are a top aspiration for Gen Z kids. And some - urged on by a new generation of ‘stage’ parents - are pursuing their dreams of digital fame and fortune before they can tie their own shoes.

But what is the life of a kidfluencer really like?

A 2019 poll found the number-one career goal for today’s kids isn’t astronaut, sports star or inventor. It’s YouTuber. Today, it might well be TikTok-er.

But at what age, if any, is it healthy to turn a child into a brand? Because that, of course, is what social media fame is all about - attracting those lucrative ads, freebies and sponsorship deals. 

In fact, the influencer industry is currently worth in the neighbourhood of US$13.8 billion.

36-year-old Colette Wixom created the family and lifestyle account MiniStyleHacker in 2014, now featuring her three small sons and husband. Son Ryker, then aged 4, was an instant viral hit modelling kid versions of adult fashion. 

disappearanceNeil Postman's classic work on the impact of technology on childhood was published in 1982, decades before the dawning of the Age of Social Media. Yet its insights are stunningly accurate for today's digital world. 

And that’s when the offers started rolling in. Wixom has since pocketed deals with Disney, Walmart and Target, among others. She says she’s saving the profits for her children’s college funds.

She hasn’t revealed any figures, but another kidfluencer with a major following, toddler Vada Foos, earns anywhere from $100 to $5000 per post. Her mum told The Atlantic she always asked her daughter’s permission before snapping a photo. The child was 5 at the time.

Saving for college is a laudable goal. But what’s in it for kids like Vada and Ryker and his brothers in the meantime? 

Some experts say the skills they are learning are invaluable internships in entrepreneurship. But for kindergarteners?

There are also studies show social media can develop kids’ collaboration skills, spark their creativity and foster a sense of connection with a wider world. 

vadaCan a five-year-old give informed consent?

And of course, an even greater weight of research points to a link between social media and mental health risks ranging from mood disorders to sleep deprivation to cyberbullying and harassment.

But none of this research has looked at child influencers, only child consumers.

As a result, very little is known about the impact of internet fame on children.

Crystal Abidin, a digital anthropologist at Deakin University, is one of the few researchers who has studied family influencers in depth. Among her conclusions? Kids get “reduced to props” in the staging of a money-spinning fantasy of family life.

Some experts say the skills they are learning are invaluable internships in entrepreneurship. But for kindergarteners?

One thing we do know is that the influencer world is completely unregulated. So kidfluencers, unlike say child actors, have no protections under established labour laws.

And there’s the issue of children acquiring “a massive digital footprint, which will presumably follow them their entire lives,” points out Cornell communications professor Brooke Erin Duffy.

“Are they going to be held accountable for something 10 or 20 years down the road that was shared under their social media account? You know, how are they going to be protected from the hate and harassment that is so rife on these sites?” Duffy said.

Ryker’s mum admits she was “kind of freaked out” when her Instagram featuring her heavily styled pre-schooler started to go viral. “We don’t need a Macaulay Culkin situation on our hands later, you know?” Wixom said.

Whether Wixom and other influencer parents like her are substantially different to the stereotypical “stage mothers” of previous times is open to debate. But in the case of young social media stars, their parents - not third parties - have complete creative control over content.

She maintains the companies her family’s brand partners with accurately represent their family values.

In the end, Wixmon and her husband decided to regard the attention her little boy was getting online as an “opportunity.” She quit her job and now manages her family’s online profile full-time.

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Topics: Cyber Bullying, Parental Controls, Screen time, Mobile Apps, Excessive Device Usage, Social Media, influencer, kidfluencer

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