Illinois is soon to be the first state in the nation to provide legal protection for children whose parents make money posting videos of them on social media channels, thanks to the work of a high school student from Normal.
According to the new legislation, parents will be legally required to set aside a portion of the revenue generated by any monetized online video content featuring a child under the age of 16 into a trust that they will be able to access once they turn 18. If parents fail to do so, the child will have a right of action to sue for compensation under the Illinois Child Labor Law.
The idea for the legislation came from Shreya Nallamothu, a 16-year-old girl from Normal who began researching the topic as part of her high school's independent studies program.
"The idea came to me over the pandemic because, like everyone, I was spending a lot more time on social media. I would see content on YouTube and TikTok of these 3- or 4-year-olds dancing or vlogging their morning routines, and it was obvious there was a parent behind the channel," said Nallamothu.
Though most videos seemed innocuous at first, Nallamothu started to notice evidence of abuse, exploitation and mistreatment of the child stars of so-called family vlog channels.
"There are families that would vlog their daughters' first periods and first dates, learning to shave, vlogging them crying – these very intimate moments that nobody really wants to be broadcasted, but they didn't really have a choice in it. Their parents just stuck them in front of the camera," said Nallamothu.
Nallamothu said her project was initially just research, but as she looked deeper into the issue, she realized there was no legislation surrounding child influencers anywhere in the country. It was then that she decided to write to her representatives.
"I started by writing a memo detailing the problem of what these child influencers were experiencing, possible solutions and just cold-emailed the entire Senate Labor Committee. Senator Koehler got back to me and was super receptive of my ideas and was willing to listen to me, which was incredible," said Nallamothu.
Sen. Dave Koehler, D-Peoria, said he and his staff immediately recognized the importance of legal protections for child influencers as an emerging industry and began collaborating with Nallamothu right away to draft the legislation. The bill passed both houses with overwhelming bipartisan support.
"It's quite apparent that children are going viral and their parents are making a lot of money from it. There's nothing wrong with that, but some children who have had that happen to them years ago and weren't in control of their image on the internet later regretted it," said Koehler. "In some cases, parents are making thousands and maybe even millions from their children being used as influencers in terms of product advertisements and things like that. It is quite an industry, and we needed some safeguards and protections there so that we can treat this much like the industry has treated child actors," Koehler said.
Both Koehler and Nallamothu said they hope that Illinois will serve as a catalyst for more states to follow suit with similar laws and continue to strengthen legal protections for child influencers.
"This will continue to evolve over time, I'm quite certain of that. If other states make improvements, we can certainly look at improving the Illinois law," said Koehler.
As Gov. JB Pritzker prepares to sign the bill into law later this summer, Nallamothu says she is proud to have been able to play a role in creating protections for minors online and was pleasantly surprised by the opportunity she was given to work directly with lawmakers, given her age and inexperience.
"When I started my independent study, I wasn't thinking that I could casually pass a bill. I understand that the legislative process takes a lot of time and work, so to see this sort of change happen so fast because someone brought it to the table is really encouraging," said Nallamothu. "The legislation isn't perfect, and I wasn't expecting it to completely solve the problem of child influencers because it's a big issue. There are lots of things that legislators need to continue to look into. But this is a good start."
A spokesperson for Pritzker indicated that he intends to sign the legislation in the coming weeks: "The internet provides more opportunities for children to display their creativity than ever before. In the event that minors are able to profit from that creativity, they deserve to be shielded from parents who would attempt to take advantage of their child's talents and use them for their own financial gain. The governor is thankful for the leadership of Senator Koehler and Representative Chung on this legislation."
Annie Fulgenzi is a freelance writer from the Springfield area and a law student at the University of Illinois College of Law.