California enacted the Coogan Act in 1939 to protect child actors. In 2023, state lawmakers in Illinois and Washington State want to protect the children of vloggers — parents who document their lives on video and share it to platforms such as YouTube and TikTok to earn money.
Like the Coogan Act, named after child actor Jackie Coogan of Charlie Chaplin fame, the vlogger bills introduced in both states would require that parents carve off a portion of their earnings for their children. The measures would also give the children of vloggers the right, when they turn 18, to request that video of them be taken offline.
“There’s a reason why we have child labor laws … we just need to make sure that they apply to family vlogs,” said state Rep. Kristine Reeves (D), the prime sponsor of the Washington State bill.
By one estimate, a Florida vlogging family known as “That YouTub3 Family,” with 3.62 million subscribers and more than 2 billion views, earns upwards of $600,000 a year. A seven-year-old vlogger known as “Nastya” earned the No. 6 slot on Forbes’s 2022 list of highest paid YouTube stars with estimated earnings of $28 million.
Under Reeves’s bill, parents would have to place in trust a percentage of their gross income from the videos for their children’s future. The requirement would kick in if certain thresholds were met, including that the videos were earning at least 10 cents per view and the children or their likeness — including name or photograph — appeared in 30% of the videos over a 30-day period.
The idea for the law, which was first introduced last year, came from Chris McCarty, a Seattle college student.
McCarty became interested in the issue after reading about YouTuber Myka Stauffer and her husband James who chronicled their adoption of a special needs child from China and then later gave him up.
McCarty launched an advocacy effort called “Quit Clicking Kids” as part of their Girl Scouts Gold Award project. That included contacting state lawmakers in Washington and Oregon to see if they would sponsor legislation.
“Gen Z is the first generation to really grow up with such invasive technology and pervasive technology, and I think it’s really important that Gen Z have a voice in tech policy for that reason,” McCarty told Pluribus News.
State Rep. Emily Wicks (D) sponsored a bill last year, but it failed to get a hearing. Wicks did not run for re-election and Reeves picked up the torch this year.
“The problem that we are trying to solve here is making sure that we are centering our children’s rights in how they get to own their presence online,” Reeves said at a recent hearing on the bill.
Members of the House Civil Rights and Judiciary Committee also heard from “Cam” who described having “intimate details” about her first period and bikini photos shared online by her mother. “Cam” testified that she had been stalked and bullied at school as a result of the online posts.
“I plead [for] you to be the voice for this generation of children,” she tearfully told the committee. “Because I know firsthand what it’s like to not have a choice, in which a digital footprint you did not create follows you around for the rest of your life with no option for it to be removed.”
Despite the emotional testimony and no opposition, the Washington State bill has since stalled. Reeves said she plans to work on the issue over the legislative interim and try again next year. Her pitch to her colleagues is that this is a rare opportunity for lawmakers to be proactive rather than reactive to an emerging tech-related issue.
“Let’s do it before these kids turn 18,” Reeves said.
While the Washington bill appears dead for now, a virtually identical bill in Illinois, sponsored by Sens. David Koehler (D) and Linda Holmes (D), is still in play.
Koehler said he got the idea from a 15-year-old constituent who contacted his office concerned about the potential for youth who grow up in a vlogging household to be exploited. The bill is modeled on the Washington legislation.
“It’s … logical that this would come from somebody who is in [that] age group and who has seen things from that perspective,” Koehler said. “I was very happy to pursue this as a legislative issue. It’s obviously needed and very timely.”
Koehler called it a “pretty simple piece of legislation” but acknowledged there could be enforcement challenges, especially around the requirement that platforms remove content.
“What kind of teeth do we have,” Koehler said. “What if it’s Google and they don’t have a presence here?”
Both the Illinois and Washington bills say an online platform would have to take “all reasonable steps” to delete videos.
So far, the tech industry has not formally weighed in on either the Illinois or Washington bill. But Stephen Balkam, founder and CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute, a tech-industry supported nonprofit, said he welcomed state legislators’ interest in what he termed the “digital coming of age.”
“For many kids it’s a pretty horrifying realization that they have basically been in their own form of the Truman Show, and not just on television but on a global network … which is what social media sites are,” Balkam said, referring to the 1998 movie about a man whose entire life is broadcast by hidden cameras.
Balkam said he wasn’t prepared to comment on the details of the legislation, but said FOSI supports the “philosophical position” that kids should be compensated for appearing in videos that are earning money and should have the right to request that platforms remove videos.
“We talk about parental rights and parental responsibilities, but we seem to ignore that children have their own rights to privacy and safety,” Balkam said.