Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University, is the author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion at CNN.
American kids are three times more likely to aspire to be YouTube stars than astronauts, a Harris Poll commissioned by Lego found recently. Many are already on their way. An astonishing number of children are now featured in viral videos on social media, which, the New York Times noted, now includes subgenres like kid power-eaters, “baby fails” and parents who dress their grown children up as infants.
While starring in such videos may seem cool to kids now, there’s reason to worry that cultivating Internet fame won’t be good for them in the long run – and that they should be protected with the same kinds of laws as child actors in Hollywood.
First, kids don’t necessarily have the cognitive ability to think through how being featured on the Internet today might affect them when they apply to work for, say, JP Morgan at age 40. Research suggests that the parts of the brain that people use to make decisions don’t fully mature until around age 25.
So it’s problematic to consider a child fully competent to evaluate how his or her future reputation might be affected by what he or she shares now.
And some parents, who are fame-seeking all on their own, can’t always be counted on to watch out for the best interests of their own children. An Arizona mom, Machelle Hobson, was accused in March of starving and pepper-spraying her children when they didn’t perform as she wished for YouTube videos. She was charged with child abuse and kidnapping. Hobson pleaded not guilty and denied the allegations against her in a police report.
And the parents behind the YouTube channel DaddyOFive, were charged with neglect and sentenced to probation for their videos of them playing pranks on their kids.
Putting kids in Internet videos also subjects them to the mercy of online trolls and criminals. In February, YouTube announced that it was suspending comments on most videos that feature minors after it became clear that pedophiles were leaving timestamps to mark where children who were engaging in seemingly innocent behavior like gymnastics could be seen in unintentionally revealing or suggestive positions.
Cultivating fame on the Internet is also time-intensive work that can take kids away from other endeavors – like homework and more salutary extracurricular activities. For example, one of the hottest stars on YouTube, 18-year-old Emma Chamberlain, dropped out of high school to become a vlogger (Internet speak for a video blogger). She told the New York Times that churning out a video a week is such tough work that she suffers from back pain, which keeps her in bed, and wears reading glasses”like I’m 85 years old, because my eyes do actually get really strained.”
And as the New York Times recently noted (in, appropriately, an online video), we don’t yet know the effects on a child’s development of doing the “emotional labor” involved in constantly performing to entertain others.
But we can imagine that acting dramatically – and potentially engaging in dangerous activities like eating contests or pranks – in an effort to drive up viewership will often be less beneficial to a kid than spending that time, say, reading a book instead.
The children doing this work need protection. In California, the Child Actor’s bill, popularly known as the Coogan law, sets aside a portion of a young actor’s earnings for when they become adults. Similar laws are on the books in many states, while other state safeguards protect child actors by ensuring that they receive adequate schooling and time off work. What we need now is a federal law mandating that kids who regularly star in YouTube videos still get an education, “work” a limited number of hours per week under safe, healthy conditions and retain at least a portion of the revenue their videos generate.
For a kid today, becoming a YouTube celebrity might not only be more popular than being an astronaut. It might also be more dangerous.