Samia was an influencer before she could talk.
Her parents, Adam and LaToya Ali, are influencers themselves and began chronicling Samia’s impending arrival on YouTube and Instagram in 2014, once LaToya Ali learned she was pregnant.
“Samia’s birth video is on YouTube, so she’s pretty much been born into social media,” Adam Ali said.
Samia is now 4 and has 143,000 followers on Instagram and 203,000 subscribers on YouTube. Her feeds are mostly populated with posts of her posing and playing, but they also feature paid promotions for brands like Crayola and HomeStyle Harvest chicken nuggets.
There are instances when “Samia can’t verbatim get the message out,” Adam Ali, who lives in the Atlanta area, said of the promotional posts.
“Sometimes, their talking points are not kid talk, so LaToya would need to appear, or myself, to relay those because those are key deliverables that the brands want.”
World of kidfluencers
Welcome to the world of kidfluencers. Brands have flocked to influencers — individuals, famous or not, with large followings on social media — for years, hoping their online popularity will prompt their fans to buy the products they vouch for. Then child influencers started appearing on their parents’ profiles, a surreal but seemingly harmless offshoot of this phenomenon.
Now, advertisers like Walmart, Staples and Mattel are bankrolling lucrative endorsements deals for toddlers and tweens with large followings and their own verified profiles on YouTube and Instagram. As a result, children too young to make their own accounts on the platforms are being turned into tastemakers.
Instagram, owned by Facebook, and YouTube, which is part of Google, are designed for adults in large part because of a federal privacy law that protects children younger than 13. Bios for many of the younger influencers on Instagram note that the pages are “run by parents,” and YouTube channels are presumably registered to their guardians.
Because they say their platforms are 13-and-older zones, technology companies do not have to comply with federal rules that limit targeted advertising and data collection. But Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, said the companies had no incentive to keep children off the sites.
And as TV ratings continue to fall and children spend more time online, advertisers are spending more money to reach them there.
“The fact that brands are using actual children as influencers is a very clear sign that they’re targeting children that they know are on these platforms,” Golin said.
That can mean big money for the families of kidfluencers. Kyler Fisher, the father of 2-year-old identical twins who have more than 2 million followers on Instagram, said a sponsored post on the girls’ account could fetch between $10,000 and $20,000.
The twins, Taytum and Oakley, have promoted car seats and Carnival Cruise Lines on Instagram. They are also central to the success of their parents’ YouTube channel, Kyler & Mad, which has about 3 million subscribers.
Promotions on the family YouTube channel can draw $25,000 to $50,000.
Fans are so interested in the family that their third child, due the first week of March, already has 112,000 Instagram followers.
“My kids complete the package, man,” Fisher said. “If we didn’t have the girls, I can’t imagine being as far as we are.”
The rise of this kind of advertising has raised questions involving fair compensation, oversight and work permits, especially since child labor guidelines vary by state.
Andrea Faville, a YouTube spokeswoman, said the site didn’t allow anyone under 13 to make or own accounts and that it worked “closely with experts, nonprofit organizations and others in our industry to protect families using our services.”
Sravanthi Dev, a spokeswoman for Instagram, said that while the platform prohibited users 12 and under, their parents or representatives could create profiles for them “as long as it is clear in the bio information that the account is run by the parent or representative.”
On YouTube, the much bigger kid influencer destination, there are toy accounts like Ryan ToysReview, whose young star earned $22 million in a year, according to Forbes.
But children, under their parents’ watch, are also building followings on YouTube and Instagram as gamers, video bloggers, fashionistas, mischievous toddlers and personalities who anchor family channels, which are often a cross between reality TV, pranks and random skits.
YouTube accounts can also bring in serious ad dollars without brand deals, which are shared with the site.
Brands want to team up with children for the same reasons they want to work with older social media personalities — their follower counts, the ability to post more quickly than traditional ad agencies, the way the posts feel like recommendations from a friend.
But advocates say these techniques can deceive children, who are in the early stages of understanding and recognizing advertisements.
Children’s television, overseen by the Federal Communications Commission, has rules that separate ads from content and limit product placement and promotions by a program’s host or characters. The internet doesn’t.
YouTube has its own guidelines for children’s advertising, but they are often hard to police.
For example, the YouTube Kids app, designed for children 12 and younger, is not supposed to contain sponsored content, but The New York Times found several paid advertorial videos from influencers there for companies like Walmart, Dreamworks and Claire’s. (YouTube removed the videos after The Times asked about them.)
“It is very manipulative of young children,” said Kathryn Montgomery, a professor emerita at American University’s School of Communications. “With this form of promotion and advertising, there is a purposeful blurring of those lines.”
Social media stars aren’t typically considered actors under the law.
In California, a portion of child actors’ earnings are set aside in a trust based on the decades-old Coogan Law, named for a former child star whose parents spent all his money by the time he turned 21. Similar trusts are required by New York, Louisiana and New Mexico.
For kidfluencers, it’s usually a voluntary decision by parents to create these accounts.