Stories of child exploitation steer influencers bill at MN Capitol in new direction

Minnesota lawmakers set out to protect the bank accounts of child influencers this year and stumbled into a worse type of exploitation.

A bill initially designed to make sure kids get paid for contributing to social media content took a sharp turn this week to keep kids out of profitable content altogether if they’re under the age of 14.

Using kids to sell products on social media has become a $1 billion industry. But laws protecting those kids are mostly stuck in the last century, before Instagram, Facebook and Twitter and even MySpace existed.

So across the country, lawmakers are scrambling to close the gaps and protect children from financial exploitation.

Almost as soon as Rep. Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids, introduced his bill to make sure kids get paid when adults use them to create profitable content, he read about something worse and shared it widely.

"There's a lot of really disgusting, concerning things happening online to our kids," said Rep. Harry Niska after reading a story from the New York Times. 

Their team dug into social media accounts where adults got paid to share photos and video of their young children, mostly consumed by older men.

"Photos show a bright, bubbly girl modeling evening dresses, high-end workout gear, and dance leotards," said Stephenson, referring to the article. "She has more than 100,000 followers, some so enthusiastic about her post that they paid $9.99 a month for more photos."

Stephenson changed his bill to keep kids under 14 from being involved in social media for profit.

"Minnesota has a child labor law already that says you can't work under the age of 14, with limited exceptions," he said.

Kids between 14 and 17 could still create content for cash — on their own or with an adult’s help. But legislators seem united in working to push back against exploitation.

"This is a vile, unconscionable situation that has to stop," said Stephenson.

"I hope every parent out there is listening and taking action," Niska said.

"The very least that we can do is include some parameters and allow them a semblance of a childhood before they're thrown out in it, you know, to the wolves of social media," said Rep. Carlie Kotyza-Witthuhn, DFL-Eden Prairie.

None of the stories of exploitation have happened in Minnesota, but legislators believe it’s happened, or it will.

An internal study at Meta found that 500,000 children's Instagram accounts had inappropriate interactions every day.