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Expansion of influencer culture places children at risk of exploitation

The rapid expansion in influencer culture online has put child influencers at risk of exploitation and where child viewers are placed in an environment where not everything is always as it seems, a committee of MPs has warned.

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The Digital, Media, Culture and Sport Committee says that regulation and employment protection has failed to keep pace with the growth of online influencer culture, leaving those working in the industry with a lack of support, child influencers at risk of exploitation, and unacceptably low rates of compliance with advertising rules.

DCMS Committee Chair Julian Knight MP said: “The rise of influencer culture online has brought significant new opportunities for those working in the creative industries and a boost to the UK economy. However, as is so often the case where social media is involved, if you dig below the shiny surface of what you see on screen you will discover an altogether murkier world where both the influencers and their followers are at risk of exploitation and harm online.”

In influencer culture, where content creators build relationships with audiences on platforms such as YouTube, TikTok and Instagram. However, the DMCS committee warns that the growth in the market has exposed a number of regulatory gaps, particularly around advertising disclosure and protection for children, both as influencers and viewers, and calls on the government to strengthen both employment law and advertising regulations.

Children as viewers

Up to half of children said they watched vloggers or YouTube influencers in 2021, according to Ofcom.

Influencer culture can offer benefits to children by giving a platform to diverse voices and communities. However, it can also leave young people at risk of disinformation and harmful messages, for example around body image.

There is also evidence that children are more vulnerable to native or embedded advertising as they find it particularly difficult to distinguish and identify.

Children as influencers

The committee highlights that the child influencer market is booming, with children featuring in online content across social media platforms, earning income through sponsorship and partnerships with brands, with many accounts being managed by their parents.

The committee says that it heard evidence that some children in the influencer economy are being used by parents and family members seeking to capitalise on the lucrative market. Posting content about children can also affect their privacy and bring security risks.

Behind the camera

Of the 511 British children surveyed as part of the inquiry, more than 32% said they would consider becoming an influencer, demonstrating how social media influencing is becoming a popular career choice.

Yet despite the industry’s rapid rise in popularity, earning a living from influencing remains challenging.

Influencers also face a range of challenges including hacking, impersonation, algorithmic unpredictability, mental health issues, online abuse and harassment.

Advertising

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) told the inquiry that influencer compliance rates with UK advertising regulations are still unacceptably low. A monitoring exercise by the Advertising Standards Agency in 2020 found that just 35% of 24,000 marketing posts on the Instagram accounts of 122 UK-based influencers were clearly labelled as adverts.

The report calls for:

  • Children, parents and schools to be given more support in developing young people’s media literacy, while the Advertising Standards Agency should strengthen disclosure standards for adverts online targeting at children.
  • The government must urgently address the gap in UK child labour and performance regulation that is leaving child influences without protection. New legislation should include provisions on working hours and conditions, mandate the protection of the child’s earnings and ensure a right to erasure.
  • The Online Safety Bill should ensure that reporting and complaints mechanism are tailored to meet the specific nature of harms faced by influencers. There should also be a comprehensive study into the UK’s influencer ecosystem, so the government can more effectively regulate the industry as it grows.
  • A code of conduct for influencer marketing should be commissioned by the government, as an example of best practice for deals between influencers and brands or talent agencies.
  • The non-broadcast Advertising Code (CAP code) should be extended by removing the requirement for editorial ‘control’ to determine whether content constitutes an advert to close a loophole for some influencer content. Both the CMA and ASA should be given more powers to enforce the law.

DCMS Committee Chair Julian Knight MP said: “Child viewers, who are still developing digital literacy, are in particular danger in an environment where not everything is always as it seems, while there is a woeful lack of protection for young influencers who often spend long hours producing financially lucrative content at the direction of others.

“The explosion in influencer activity has left the authorities playing catch-up and exposed the impotence of advertising rules and employment protections designed for a time before social media was the all-encompassing behemoth it has become today.

“This report has held a mirror up to the problems which beset the industry, where for too long it has been a case of lights, camera, inaction. It is now up to the government to reshape the rules to keep pace with the changing digital landscape and ensure proper protections for all,” he concluded.

Influencer culture: Lights camera, inaction?

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