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Child labor laws never anticipated the YouTube and “influencer” era

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It’s not just children in undeveloped countries forced to mine metals used in smartphone manufacturing, or those in sweatshops assembling hardware devices, that are putting the “unethical” label onto the tech industry.

On the very surface of the Big Tech domain, on platforms like Instagram and YouTube, children are being put to work, too, under dubious legal and ethical circumstances. And now The Guardian is reporting about the practice, describing it as “disruption of child labor laws.”

Some of these underage performers earn millions through platforms themselves or thanks to deals with leading brands. While traditional movie and TV child stars are, at least in Hollywood, i.e., California, protected by strong legislation aimed at preventing exploitation, this is not true of all “new media” stars. That both YouTube and Instagram are based in California makes little difference, the report said.

But these companies don’t appear to be directly breaking any laws either – as the current legislation does not cover the tech industry, former TV child star, now a Los Angeles County supervisor Sheila James Kuehl told the newspaper, and observed that any activity, including “simply unboxing presents,” that involves children and results in profits cannot be viewed as play, but rather work.

Kuehl, who in 1999 co-authored changes to California’s labor protections for child performers, wants these now further amended to include the tech scene. The law makes sure that children perform a limited amount of hours and come into ownership of the money they earn once they become adults.

Some of the parents whose children are making big bucks by performing and promoting products online – thanks to the millions of followers on YouTube and Instagram – are dedicating themselves full-time to these “careers.” One of them, Bee Fisher, shared with Wired that her Instagram celebrity children “don’t have to be into it” every day – that is, “unless it’s paid work.”

“Then they have to be there. We always have lollipops on those days,” she said.

The report also mentions an extreme case of alleged physical and mental abuse of her five adopted children committed by Machelle Hobson. Hobson, who has been arrested, earned $300,000 last year by getting the children to perform for her YouTube channel.

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