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Applying Emancipation to Working Minors and “Kidfluencers”

By Mallory Scott

Although the issue of emancipation versus parental involvement has evolved to include a new set of circumstances in the social media influencing space, the core issue is the same: If a minor can work in the same capacity as an adult, then how many adult freedoms are they entitled to outside of the workplace? With the proliferation of social media content targeted toward young users, many children seek to profit from their internet use in the same capacity as adults. Whether their intention to be an influencer is a side hustle or a full-time career choice, children who have grown up viewing online figures as role models are ready to emulate their enviable lives. The practice of the most visible signs of wealth being displayed across platforms may cause children to become falsely assured that a luxurious lifestyle is within reach, if only through sponsored posts and paid partnerships. Additionally, young adults fearful of being “trapped” in a traditional 9-5 job may see the influencing lifestyle as an escape from an uninspired life, even as prospective influencers across platforms continue to become overconcentrated.

Children as influencers have not previously been subject to the industry regulations that minors working as actors and in similar capacities have been previously. Compared to other entertainment industry factions (namely, television and movie production), social media platforms involving children as working participants have been largely unregulated, leaving many decisions regarding their work and well-being up to parental figures to decide. The earning potential for children in this industry can reach unbelievable levels – toy reviewer Ryan Kaji’s yearly income (often surpassing twenty million dollars) is one of the most well-known and shocking examples of a kidfluencer reaching new heights of profit. This lack of regulation has opened the door to these parents being allowed unfettered access to their children’s earnings, providing adults with opportunities to exploit children for increased profits and viewership.

The move toward greater regulation of child influencers is a promising start toward ensuring protection. The children who work for this money may want to take personal steps toward having more control over their finances and autonomy; however, emancipation is likely to be opposed by parents who rely on this income. They will advocate for their children to be under their care and control for as long as possible, and to have access to their child as a source of income and further opportunity. The Illinois state legislature has the most recent move toward protecting minors with the passage of SB1782 [2]. This bill would amend the current state child labor laws to require that children who appear in paid social media content on a particular channel receive compensation of 30% of the monthly income generated from this channel.

With this measure in place, it may be less likely that children impacted by this legislation will have fewer obstacles to accessing money made through their influencer careers. If these working minors have greater control over their finances, one of the main obstacles that lead them to pursue emancipation (namely, the lack of financial control or exploitation from parents) will become less impactful. Financially focused measures like this bill may not fully eliminate a minor’s desire to emancipate but will likely lessen the familial strife that contributes to this goal.

The use of emancipation to remove parental influence starkly contrasts with another issue, wherein parents may encourage emancipation to control their children with the appearance of being more removed from their affairs. Whether using emancipation as a tool to subvert family court, accelerate a child’s status change to that of a legal adult, or avoid an existing custody agreement, existing emancipation processes can be manipulated in favor of the parent. However, the rise of children as participants within the influencer industry demonstrates how emancipation may still be a valid concern for parents, especially those financially entangled with their children’s careers.  

Looking to the future of emancipation use, how might a relationship be complicated if a child who is the breadwinner seeks financial freedom from the rest of their family? Children who provide for their families have the burden of supporting themselves, but also the family members they leave behind after emancipation. Therefore, transitioning to life as an emancipated minor may be far more difficult than simply demonstrating financial independence. Arizona currently has no laws protecting children who work as online influencers or other entertainers. The statutory requirements for child labor generally are outlined in A.R.S. Title 23. In Arizona, children cannot work in physically demanding industries like construction and have requirements outlining which hours they can work during various times of the year (for example, not after 7 pm during the school year versus 9 pm during summer months). Also significant is that these statutory requirements only apply to working minors under sixteen, the same age when these individuals would be able to seek emancipation [3].

As quoted in a 2022 article from The Guardian, the argument that children are simply participating in the “hobby” of influencing is no longer a suitable excuse for depriving working children of their earnings, as “it is not play [when they] are making money off of it.” [4]. The constant need to perform, the complexities of online relationships with the audience, and the continuous presence of cameras all have the potential to impact mental health and demonstrate the need for greater oversight of children with an online presence in any capacity. State-specific legislation may be a solution for protecting children from being exploited online, by creating guidelines for ensuring that those who work as influencers are subject to the same safety standards as any other industry. The first means of defending children from any unsafe online activity should continue to be parental supervision and open conversation surrounding safe internet use.

[1] Child social media stars have few protections. Illinois aims to fix that (msn.com)

[2] Id.

[3] Arizona’s minimum wage and working age are set at the federal minimum levels, with some exceptions relating to the sector of employment. (Full list of age & wage minimums: The Legal Working Age in Each State | Info.com

[4] ‘It’s not play if you’re making money’: how Instagram and YouTube disrupted child labor laws | Social media | The Guardian

Mallory Scott is a law clerk at Woodnick Law and a 2L at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law.

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