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Federal Trade Commission regulations on children's television programming and advertisements that run during those shows have yet to be applied to internet-based kids' entertainment.
This means that children watching young influencers, aka "kidfluencers," are consuming content with less advertisement oversight. Public health officials fear that it may make them obese.
A study published by the journal Pediatrics says that 90% of the food in content featuring kidfluencers is unhealthy. Other studies have similarly found a link between childhood obesity and the marketing of junk foods.
According to the New York Times, "Studies show that children are unable to distinguish between commercials and cartoons until they are 8 or 9 years old, and they are more likely to prefer unhealthy foods and beverages after seeing advertisements for them."
Public health officials are concerned that levels of childhood obesity, which have risen dramatically since the 1970s, may continue to increase thanks to unhealthy influences and influencers.
The impact that these kidfluencers have can be huge — as evidenced by their massive audiences. Nine-year-old Ryan Kaji, the star of "Ryan's World" (a YouTube toy review channel run by his parents), has an audience of over 27 million subscribers. Last year he made $26 million through his channel, making him YouTube's top earner of 2019.
Kaji has done paid promotion for fast food companies, including McDonald's, Carl's Jr., and Hardee's. Other content featuring known kidfluencers features them taste-testing other unhealthy foods like Oreos and Pop-Tarts.
In 2019 an FTC complaint was filed against Kaji's channel, alleging that it had not properly disclosed which of its content involved paid advertising, which would be misleading to young children.
Thanks to a lack of clear regulations or federal laws, individual platforms often are left to create and enforce content guidelines themselves. The YouTube Kids app, for example, does not permit any paid promotional content, though kidfluencer videos can also be viewed without these restrictions on the YouTube site and app.
A pair of Democratic U.S. senators have introduced legislation that would extend some of those television protections to children online, including by limiting the use of "manipulative" ads. Experts say that the FTC regulations on children's television could be easily stretched to also cover kid-facing internet content if the Commission chose to do so.
With the internet rapidly changing the ways in which people consume content, regulations do not always follow as quickly. With influencers growing to become formidable forces on the internet, new legal challenges and questions are bound to occur.