In 2016, Madison and Kyler Fisher hit rock bottom. After a business venture gone bust, the Los Angeles-based couple was left penniless, with twin infant girls.
Today their 2-year-old daughters, Taytum and Oakley, have 2.2 million followers on Instagram, and command five-figure sums for a single branded photo. They’ve been in national commercials, a feature film, and had a repeat role on the soap opera Days of Our Lives. Their parents, both actors, are now producing their own movies and running a family YouTube channel, which has 2.7 million subscribers. Both parents are influencers in their own right, getting branded deals from the likes of Olay and Hyundai on their personal Instagram pages.
It’s the kind of rags-to-riches story that could only happen in the social media age, which has turned pranksters, fashionistas, and personalities into bona fide internet celebrities. The influencer marketing industry is on track to be worth $5 billion to $10 billion by 2020, and children are a growing part of Instagram’s influencer economy. These kids typically hawk children’s clothes and toys, but can also appeal to other kinds of companies trying to reach their future consumer base. Millennials are accustomed to shopping on Instagram, making it a perfectly natural place for brands trying to reach young parents. It’s also one of gen Z’s favored social media networks, along with YouTube. Of Instagram’s 800 million users, as of September 2017, 80% of them follow a business, and the company reports that more than 60% of these people say they discover new products on Instagram.
“More people are looking at kid influencers for product recommendations,” says Zoe Marans, vice president at the influencer marketing agency MediaKix, which helps companies find influencers to work with. “It’s definitely a long-term play. It’s building brand awareness and affinity through generations.”
Though Instagram influencing has exploded over the past five years, Marans estimates that the platform’s biggest kid stars, like the twins Mila and Emma Stauffer, have popped up only in the last few years. Marans says that the Stauffer twins’ follower count grew from about 150,000 followers in early 2017 to 4.1 million by the end of 2018. The kind of explosion kid influencers have seen tracks with the growth of the industry in general.
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What does it mean to have a child who’s an Instagram influencer? On the surface, it might look just like being a regular influencer, where companies pay for product placement in photos. But there are also crucial differences, starting with the fact that the kid might be the pretty face in the pictures, but it’s their parents managing everything in the background, not unlike the child stars of yesteryear. Many parents of child influencers started using Instagram after their children already had popular YouTube followings or traditional modeling careers.
There’s also big money to be had on Instagram. A kid influencer can command about $100 per 1,000 followers per post, according to Kyle Hjelmeseth, the founder of the influencer management company God and Beauty. A child with 500,000 followers would earn about $5,000 for a single image. It only goes up from there, especially if a brand buys a campaign, which could include multiple posts, Instagram Story updates, and even an event appearance. Some influencers ask for even more per post.
This story is part of our series The Instagram Economy. Read the rest of the stories as they’re published this week here.
Twins Taytum and Oakley, with their 2.2 million followers, command between $15,000 and $25,000 for a single post. Yet the Fishers say they still don’t get many brand deals yet, because the girls can’t really follow directions. Once they’re old enough to repeat what their parents (and the brands paying them) want, they could be making even more. When the Instagram money is combined with cash from traditional modeling, commercials, and movies, these kids start to look like the next generation of child stars.
For young kids under the age of 13–Instagram’s minimum age requirement to open an account–this big business is largely the domain of their parents. Many of the parents I spoke to say their kids have either no awareness of Instagram, or think of it mostly as taking fun pictures with Mom. While some are too young to talk yet, I asked the parents of some of the older kids to ask them about their roles in this process. Mai Nguyen-Miyoshi, whose 6-year-old daughter Zooey has 146,000 followers on Instagram, described her response: “‘It feels great!!!’ And then she threw her arms up and out like she was going to give a big hug.” Jaqi Clements, the mother of 8-year-old twins Ava and Leah, whose account has 869,000 followers, described a recent conversation: “They actually got into the car a few weeks ago from school and said, ‘Mommy . . . are we famous? . . . One of our friends at school said we were.'”
“It would be different if I was always in front of the camera,” says Dana Bennett, mom of Stella (age 9) and Blaise (age 7), who have 68,200 followers on a fashion-focused Instagram account. “It’s different when you have two littles. I’m having fun with them. I don’t want to put a lot of pressure. It’s more like, here’s a fun product, we’re going to take some pictures while we’re doing this and that. And they’re cool with it.”
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Bennett, who used to work as a recruiter, now spends all her time managing Stella and Blaise’s Instagram account, as well as managing their conventional modeling careers. She has worked with brands like Target, Gap, and DSW, and recently did a Got Milk? ad. But her kids don’t see much of this behind-the-scenes work. Instead, she manages shooting photos around school and sports practice. Fisher, the mom of twins Taytum and Oakley, takes all the photos herself and tries to post consistently, as she’s learned that constantly producing “content” helps to grow their audience. With such young kids, that’s a bigger challenge than she expected. “It’s hard, because they’re wriggly, and they get away,” she says.
But there are larger concerns for these Instagram parents. The internet has a dark side, one teeming with racists, sexists, pedophiles, and trolls. Nguyen-Miyoshi, mother of six-year-old Zooey, has personal experience dealing with trolls online. She worked in social media for 10 years, and during that time she posted a picture of two men who’d refused to give up their seats to pregnant women on Twitter. The post went viral, and Nguyen-Miyoshi had so many trolls come after her that she left the internet for a time.
The experience has made her hyper-conscious of what could happen to her daughter. Nguyen-Miyoshi doesn’t post any photos that she thinks could read as sexual. She combs through all of Zooey’s new followers every day and blocks any that look suspicious, like accounts with no profile picture that follow thousands of other users, or accounts of men who only post selfies. She blocks all negative comments. And along with not posting where Zooey goes to school, where they live, or where they’re hanging out, she has Zooey wear sunglasses in most of the photos she posts. Nguyen-Miyoshi says this is an anti-pedophile tactic. Many years ago, she says she read an article about how pedophiles mostly connect with children through their eyes, so she dresses Zooey with sunglasses as a means of circumventing it.
“To prevent that connection she always wears sunglasses,” Nguyen-Miyoshi says. “It helps prevent the creepy men.” The white sunglasses have become a core part of Zooey’s aesthetic.
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Clements, mother of the 8-year-old twins Ava and Leah, takes a slightly different tack. She removes inappropriate or profane comments, but doesn’t purge her daughters’ account of all negativity. She decided to share some negative comments with the girls as a way to discuss why people are cruel online. “I read the comments to them while making light and laughing about them myself,” she added via email. “We discuss how these people must be having a bad day to write this or maybe they are unhappy in their life.”
“I never know if they’re at a friend’s house on Instagram,” she adds. “They’re not allowed, but I can’t protect them from everything. I wanted to give them a heads-up about what goes on.”
Clements says that now when she reads comments aloud to the twins, they laugh at them. “You can’t shield them forever, so you have to make them aware in some way,” she says.
The twins don’t have access to Instagram or the internet independently, and she shields them from how many likes and followers they have as well. “I don’t think they understand, at 8 years old, how many 800,000 followers is,” she says, and she wants to keep it that way. Ava and Leah both do traditional modeling as well–the duo were recently in Target’s Cyber Monday commercial–so shooting an Instagram post isn’t terribly different from shooting another kind of ad. They started modeling when a family friend asked if they would model a clothing line she had created. Clements started taking them for traditional auditions and, on the recommendation of a friend, started their Instagram page, which blew up after a bunch of beauty influencers shared their photos. Ava and Leah still mostly work with small brands on Instagram, and Clements charges $500 a post–low given their 869,000 followers. Her 10-year-old son, Chase, has 37,000 followers and models along with his sister.
“We don’t talk about the fact he has less [followers]. He doesn’t ask me. I don’t think he knows he has an Instagram account.”
It’s a parenting paradox unique to this cultural moment: On one hand, parents want to teach their children to be humble and value things like kindness and love, but on the other hand, they’re voluntarily exposing them to a digital world where their monetary value as an influencer is measured in likes and comments. Take influencer mom Katie Bower, who recently posted a long comment (now deleted) on her 6-year-old son’s birthday about how he doesn’t get as many likes as her other children from a “statistical point of view.” She also wrote: “I wanted to clarify that I revealed this feeling because I know one day he will see the numbers and have to learn that his value is not in online approval.” The post went viral, with people questioning her parenting.
Fisher, mom of the 2-year-old twins Taytum and Oakley, is similarly worried about how scrolling through Instagram could impact her girls’ perceptions of themselves as they get older–partly due to her own experience. “I find myself getting depressed sometimes over Instagram over likes or comments . . . I don’t want them to think about who’s liking them,” Fisher says. “I think it’s great for business, and social media is an awesome way to connect with people, but it can also ruin people’s lives. I’m not going to give them access until they’re teenagers. I just want to keep them safe from being depressed and not thinking they’re better than others. I want them to be kids, and worrying about playing and learning instead of worrying about social media.”
Indeed, studies have shown that teenagers can suffer from depression as a result of social media. Parents with much smaller followings than Fisher and Bower post images of their children all the time, often without their consent. Some experts argue it constitutes a violation of privacy; others say kids should have the right to decide to create their own digital footprint. Being an influencer or transforming your kid into an influencer–even if it wasn’t intentional–could magnify the harm of posting children’s photos online. It’s not hard to wonder: Why take the risk at all?
As a result, Instagram parents face their own share of haters, mostly people who criticize them for making money off of their children’s photos. Ava and Leah’s mom, Clements, says she gets comments accusing her of not letting them have a childhood. Stella and Blaise’s mom, Bennett, says people accuse of her taking them out of school, but protests that they are in school. For Fisher, the girls’ popularity has nothing to do with exploitation. As she puts it, “Their lives are so blessed and they have everything they want because we’re able to afford everything now and give them a beautiful life because of it.”
Many of the parents I spoke to claim that participating in Instagram is an active choice by their children. “They model because they like to model, like some kids like to play a sport,” Clements says. “If at some point they have enough, that’s cool.”
Clements says that doing shoots for Instagram is actually better for her girls than doing traditional modeling. She says regular print advertisement auditions require her to pull the twins out of school and then drive several hours each way for a job they might not even get. For Instagram ads, she can schedule a photographer to come shoot them close to where they live, and be finished far quicker. “It doesn’t even compare,” she says. “They’re making four times the amount for a third of the amount of work and time.”
Still, the question–of whether these young kids are being exploited–looms. Hjelmeseth, who represents Zooey through God and Beauty, thinks it’s a necessary question to ask as a manager. He wasn’t comfortable sharing any specific stories of parents who are pushing their kids to take photos for Instagram, but he suggests that it does happen. “There are definitely times when I look at people’s feeds who are featuring their children, and I think, that doesn’t quite look like something [the children are] having a lot of fun with,” he says, though he realizes he can’t make any assumptions without knowing each person’s stories firsthand.
The question of whether kids are truly choosing to participate or not is complicated by the fact that some are still only toddlers. Fisher’s twins are too young to have any kind of active choice. She says she made the account primarily as an outlet for her desire to share pics of her girls, so she wouldn’t become one of those moms who only post pics of their kids on their accounts. “I wanted to keep my image as an influencer, too,” she says unironically. When I asked Fisher and her husband, Kyler, about their decision to make the account, Kyler says, “I think we just did it because it was trendy at the time.” Neither expected the account to become as popular as it is.
But they’re certainly taking advantage of the popularity now. Fisher is expecting another baby–who already has an Instagram account with 46,300 followers. “She doesn’t even have any pictures on there, she’s not even born,” Fisher says. But already she’s a player in the family business.
There are child labor laws in place to safeguard against exploitation of children in the entertainment industry. For instance, the so-called “Coogan law” was instituted in 1939 to prevent parents from taking their children’s money before they reach adulthood.
But according to Amanda Schreyer, a lawyer at Morse Barnes-Brown Pendleton who specializes in the influencer marketing world, those laws don’t necessarily apply to kid influencers. “If kid is performing in typical ad, we know what laws apply. That’s because that kid is going to a set, missing school, and that’s where the child’s welfare comes in,” she says. “But when were talking about kid influencers, they’re not on a set, they’re probably at home, it might be after school, or on the weekends. It’s not even clear that these kid influencers are performers. It’s a very gray area right now.”
The legal waters are muddy: Some of the parents I spoke with for this story say they actively set aside all the money their kids make for college funds. Bennett says that some of Stella and Blaise’s earnings go into a Coogan account, as if they were child actors. When they’re working with an agent, the checks come in their names. But other times, companies write checks directly to their mom. Then where the money goes is up to her. She says she puts all of it in a college account for them, but other parents of kid influencers may not. As Schreyer points out, kid influencers don’t necessarily have the same kind of protection as other child performers do.
After all, kid influencers are inextricably tied to their parents–something that the parents can leverage to jump-start their own businesses. That’s certainly what happened with the Fishers and their popular YouTube channel, and it’s happening for the Clementses as well. The Clements family is planning to launch a branded subscription box company called Kaveah in early 2019 with a focus on hypoallergenic, essential oil-based products for kids, as well as clothing and other lifestyle products.
This move toward diversifying on other platforms and through new businesses is partially due to the fact that no one knows whether Instagram will remain the hot platform–chances are, the money will move elsewhere, as it did with Snapchat. Hjelmeseth, of God and Beauty, urges all of his influencers to diversify as much as possible for this very reason, and has even forced some of his clients to start blogs, because at least they own them.
Fisher has bigger plans for her daughters than Instagram and YouTube. They might already be social media starlets that can bring home the bacon at age 2, but Fisher hopes that they’ll make it on bigger screens, too. They’re already famous, after all–she says that people stop her girls on the street all the time, asking for photos.
“I love this whole social media stuff, but I feel like they could be the next Mary Kate and Ashley,” she says. “My goal is for them to be in huge movies or TV shows. That would be my dream for them.” If they want to, she adds.
Read more from our series, The Instagram Economy: