By: Matt Williamson
The Story of Jackie Coogan
A Star is Born
Jackie Coogan may not be a household name today, but in 1924 he was on top of the world.
A movie star with countless credits and awards to his name, Coogan was raking in nearly $22,000 a week, had a massive contract with MGM, and was one of the most famous people in America. Oh, and to top it all off – he was only nine years old.
After being plucked from relative obscurity by Charlie Chaplin, Coogan became an almost instant sensation and Hollywood’s first child movie star. As his star rose his fame and riches seemed both immeasurable and unending.
Sadly, they were far from either. As Coogan grew and matured, opportunities started to dry up and he soon needed to dip into the vast sums he had made in his youth. The only problem – legally, they weren’t his.
The Fair Labor Standards Act and Child Labor Laws
When the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was passed in 1938, it represented a landmark shift in federal regulation of child labor. For the first time, the United States government set a minimum age requirement on the employment of children in any industry deemed to be hazardous or detrimental to a child’s health. There were, however, two notable exceptions; agricultural work and acting. These exceptions left child actors like Coogan with essentially no legal safeguards to constrain the agents and studios who employed them. Moreover, state laws throughout the country, including in California, held that children lacked the capacity to form contracts, and legally own property. Thus, child actors could not be directly paid, and instead, their parents were the recipients of their earnings.
A Dark Example
So what did this all mean for Coogan, as he struggled to gain control of the money he had made through years of film and television credits? All the earnings he had received before his 18th birthday were the legal property of his parents. When he eventually took his mother and stepfather to court in 1938 to demand the return of the money, he came away with little more than a grinding legal battle that depleted his already dwindling resources and an admission from his mother that his once immeasurable fortune had been squandered.
The story of Jackie Coogan’s exploitation was such a national scandal that California lawmakers were shocked into action. In 1939, the state legislature passed the California Child Actor Bill, which codified certain rights and protections for children acting in film and television, including the requirement that parents deposit 15 percent of their childrens’ earnings into blocked trust accounts that would be accessible on their child’s 18th birthday. Although these regulations did not initially spread to every U.S. state, several states eventually codified similar protections in what are commonly known as “Coogan Laws.”
Coogan Laws in the Digital Age
While Coogan Laws may provide some protections for young actors today, a growing number of voices, including in the Washington State Legislature, are raising concerns about the potential for a modern-day version of the star’s exploitation: the rise of family vlogging and Kidfluencers.
The Rise of Family Vlogs and the Kidfluencer
From its earliest days, Youtube has played host to a seemingly never-ending supply of “cute kid does something cute and/or funny” videos and posts. Viral sensations like the “Charlie bit my finger” video have received millions of views, and, since the platform began allowing creators to monetize their channels in 2008, generated thousands of dollars.
But it isn’t just cute kids doing funny things anymore. Today, there are hundreds of channels dedicated to Family Vlogging – a brand of content that aims to bring an audience into the daily life of a family via videos and social media posts. These channels range broadly in their presentation with some focusing on authentic representations of family life, while others feature toy reviews, parenting hacks, or prank battles.
The result of all this content is that kids, sometimes at exceptionally young ages, are quickly becoming some of the biggest stars on Youtube. For instance, in 2021, Ryan Kalj and Nastya, two popular content creators aged 10 and 7 respectively, both garnered billions of viewing hours on their channels and made more than $27 million apiece while posting videos to the platform. It’s not just the views that are bringing in the bucks either, as sponsored content can provide creators hundreds of thousands of dollars in both monetary and in-kind compensation like toys and health and beauty products.
Moreover, right now there are no Coogan Law equivalents for Kidfluencers (a helpful portmanteau for these stars). Therefore, parents are still the legal owners of all their children’s earnings and have free reign to do what they please with the profits.
Regulatory Responses or a Lack Thereof
With all this money flowing, and essentially no guardrails in place to protect the interests of children, concerns about the potential for exploitation and abuse in this space have become increasingly widespread. In a recent YouGov poll, nearly two-thirds of Americans said that underage influencers were exploited by a parent or guardian at least “somewhat” often. The same poll found a clear consensus over what Americans wanted done in response: child labor protections extended to Kidfluencers.
Despite this, only a few states have even considered proposals aimed at extending labor protections to Kidfluencers. One of these states though is Washington.
In 2022, House Bill 2032 was introduced to the Washington State House of Representatives. The brainchild of Seattle high school student Chris McCarty, the bill proposed a bold new structure for protecting kids featured in family video content. Among other provisions, it set out to mold the Coogan Law formula to fit the modern age by requiring that parents producing monetized videos featuring their minor children, deposit a percentage of the money they made from these videos into trust accounts for the children featured in the content.
However, despite positive news coverage and bipartisan sponsorship, the bill did not advance through committee in 2022, and after being reintroduced this session, it once again failed to move out of committee.
This repeated failure and the general lack of political action being explored on this seemingly popular issue beg the question: Why is establishing regulations of this type of content so difficult?
One possible answer may come from an important stakeholder in this issue: tech companies. The companies that host this content regularly attempt to avoid regulation and would almost certainly prefer to avoid the cost and trouble associated with ensuring compliance with new regulations in this area.
Another reason comes from a more fundamental source: the mechanics of these regulations themselves. Any attempt to regulate this kind of content will inevitably involve states in some way invading the relationship between parents and their children, raising a host of thorny legal questions and concerns over constitutionality, as well as possible political blowback.
Ultimately, when viewed in light of the complicated technical challenges and powerful opponents these regulatory efforts face, it is a small wonder that they remain few and far between.
To conclude, many Kidfluencers seemingly serve as close parallels to Jackie Coogan. Today, they sit on top of the world, raking in millions of dollars and billions of views, and can rely on little in the way of legal protection. But maybe, just maybe, we can learn a little from Coogan’s legacy, and make sure their stories don’t parallel his too closely.