The number of child influencers (or “kidfluencers”), and the money they make, is on the rise, as it’s become an increasingly popular way to market to other children.
For Dr Catherine Archer, a senior lecturer at Edith Cowan University, this is cause for some caution.
“There are definitely some positives for kids around using digital technology, and they incorporate it in their play. But we also need to think about the potential for the negatives, without being too alarmist about it,” she says.
The global toy industry is worth hundreds of billions of dollars, and kidfluencers are an increasingly lucrative way to advertise toys – particularly through “stealth” advertising, such as advertorials framed as reviews.
“These guys wouldn’t be making the money they’re making if there wasn’t a big audience for their content,” says Archer.
Kidfluencers typically have their social media accounts run by their parents, who can be influencers themselves. They’re particularly active on Youtube and Instagram, both of which are highly trafficked by children.
Archer is co-author on a recent paper in M/C Journal, examining how kidfluencers market toys via a case study of two Australian child influencers.
The case study showed that toy marketing was highly gendered, and also regularly featured adult ‘toys’.
“The children promote a variety of high-end, aspirational tween, teen, and adult ‘toys’, including clothes, make-up, skincare and expensive cars,” says Archer.
“Gender stereotyping has been found in adult influencer content and researchers have also pointed to sexualisation of young girl influencers on Instagram. Our research with these case studies potentially echoes these findings.”
In future research, Archer is interested in asking children how they perceive kidfluencers.
“I think it’d be really interesting, number one, to see who they’re watching, and why they’re watching it, and also to find out if they’ve actually purchased anything as a result of looking at these influencers,” she says.
Beyond unregulated marketing, there are potential risks to the child influencers themselves.
Archer points out that the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s most recent digital platforms services report highlighted concerns for child influencers.
These concerns included risks to privacy, psychological risk from online harassment, and a lack of legal protections for their work or the money they earn.
“In Australia, there are very few laws around children and social media influencers. So that’s why the law academics are starting to look at it. France is really the only country that’s brought in laws around this, particularly to do with labour,” says Archer.
France introduced laws in 2020 to protect the income and privacy of influencers under 16, as well as regulations on the time they can spend working.
“It might be seen as a form of play, but it is also a form of labour for these kids,” says Archer.
“Some kids get enjoyment out of it, I’m sure. But that line, is how much enjoyment are they getting if they’re doing it for six hours a day?”