Child and family influencers on social media in the Netherlands: an exploratory research

Effective oversight of new sector still in infancy

Popular YouTube channel 'The Bellinga's': New Year's Eve on Curaçao

Worldwide, underage child influencers have become increasingly popular on the internet in recent years. Success stories – such as of 3-year-old Wren Eleanor from the United States with more than 17 million followers on an account managed by her mother, as well as the Bellinga's in the Netherlands – may lead parents to try this revenue model themselves. In various ways, they as 'family influencers' (and with them social media platforms and companies) can try to earn money from the content they post on social media. But the risks for children are high, such as child labour and exploitation, violation of their right to privacy and (mental) health. Children for whom the content is intended are also exposed to risks. For instance, they are vulnerable to hidden advertising – not infrequently for unhealthy products – in the content served to them. The importance of adequate policies, laws and regulations and oversight is therefore vital. Catalina Goanta and Margje Camps – both attached to Utrecht University – are breaking the ground with their research on identifying child and family influencers and their earning models.

Not transparent and legally unclear

Mapping both the risks and the extent of the child and family influencer phenomenon is complex. Just determining the number of commercially active influencers is very difficult, Goanta and Camps note in their recently published report 'Child and family influencers on social media in the Netherlands'. Social media platforms (Instagram, YouTube and TikTok) are not transparent about this, nor do they offer transparency about their revenue models (content monetization): "Content monetization is complex and business practices change rapidly, and it is very difficult to estimate the size of this economy and understand who is participating in it." In addition, it is very unclear which Dutch and European legal standards apply here. For children, for example, where is the line between work and hobby? And who owns the money earned from content monetisation – the children themselves or their parents?

    With our research, we are trying to understand how to identify this type of influencer so that we can better evaluate their commercial activities on platforms. Unlike for traditional media such as music, film and TV, there is still very little legislation and policy. Our research represents a first, necessary step to this end.

    Influencer platform Heepsy offers help

    To still get an overview of Dutch child and family influencers – despite the lack of transparency of social media platforms and the inadequate registration of these activities kept by regulators such as the Chamber of Commerce and Media Authority (Commissariaat voor de Media) – the researchers used the influencer platform Heepsy. Companies use this platform to find the right influencers for their campaigns, but in this case it served as an entry point for scientific research. In this way, they identified 59 child and family influencers. They then observed some of these accounts for a month to find out exactly what business and revenue models are behind them, and what role children play in content monetisation, for instance as 'main characters' or in a 'supporting role' on social media channels (see the overview of revenue models further down the page).  

    Besides this highly labour-intensive research method, the researchers also used a larger-scale, automated method for the 14 selected YouTube accounts to uncover data. This is because YouTube's so-called Application Programming Interface (API) allows the descriptions of thousands of videos to be analysed at once, for example for the occurrence of advertising- or sales-oriented hashtags and URLs. Other social media, unfortunately, do not offer this API access for researchers, or less so.

    ‘Sharenting’ and other influencing-related terms

    The inescapable Bellinga's with their much-visited YouTube channel are now on the map of the Netherlands' regulatory bodies (such as the Media Authority and the Advertising Code Committee (Reclame Code Commissie). But besides a few mega-influencers, there are many micro-influencers – with up to 500 thousand followers – who are not yet in the picture. An overview of definitions in the world of influencing: 

    • Influencers: Content creators with a commercial purpose who build a relationship based on trust and authenticity with their audience (mainly on social media platforms) and engage with commercial actors online for content monetisation purposes.
    • Family influencers: parents or guardians of child influencers who play a role in their children's content and/or are influencers themselves. These are usually the parents or guardians, but can also be other family members.
    • Child influencers: Influencers who are minors (under 18).
    • Content monetization: Obtaining revenues from creating content (such as photos and videos) on social media platforms.
    • Sharenting: The practice of parents over-sharing their children on social media, even without commercial intentions.

    Overview of influencer revenue models (from the report)

    Click to enlarge

    Towards effective supervision

    The research was, for an important part, a test to see how and with what (alternative) tools policymakers and legislators can gain an overview and insight into the playing field of child and family influencers. But at the same time it also leads to specific recommendations for regulators for whom influencers are a relevant target group, such as the Tax Admnistration (Belastingdienst), the Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (NVWA) and the Netherlands Labour Authority (Arbeidsinspectie). For instance, regulators should gain more market knowledge and become more familiar with the use of social media monitoring.

    In the field of child protection, the researchers' analysis of revenue models shows that the methodology followed can be useful in understanding the role of children in content monetization. "The registration of child influencers is even more important in this context, as it allows more transparency on how money earned by children should be managed. However, legal certainty in this area is very low," the report states. Another recommendation is to educate parents about their legal responsibilities under product liability laws – after all, many accounts advertise children's toys that may pose product safety risks.

    They also make five specific methodological recommendations for the development of enforcement of rules and regulations regarding social media. Here, the most important is that regulators should cooperate and share their information and practices to harmonise standards applicable to influencers.

    Background of the report

    The study was conducted by Catalina Goanta and Margje Camps – both lecturers and researchers at the School of Law at the Faculty of Law, Economics and Governance (Utrecht University) – at the request of the programma Handhaving en Gedrag (Enforcement and Behaviour programme), an interdepartmental partnership including the Health and Youth Care Inspectorate, Netherlands Labour Inspectorate, the Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority and the Tax Administratrion.

    The report highlights the complexity of the subject and does not offer a comprehensive legal analysis, but focuses on understanding the online dynamics, activities and revenue models of influencers. The legal framework applicable to influencers is very diverse and complex. So far, the Netherlands has no law that explicitly applies to influencers, like the French influencer law. However, this does not mean that there are no rules applicable to influencers, as many different aspects of content monetization are subject to, among others: tax rules, labour law, consumer protection, media law, product safety, data protection and family law.

    See 'Programma Handhaving en Gedrag' for the full report (in Dutch)