Influencer culture: MPs call for action on advertising and employment rules to protect children and online performers
9 May 2022
Regulation and employment protection has failed to keep pace with the growth of online influencer culture, leaving those working in the industry with a lack of support, child influencers at risk of exploitation, and unacceptably low rates of compliance with advertising rules, MPs say today.
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- Influencer Culture
- Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee
A Report from the DCMS Committee highlights the rapid expansion in influencer culture, where content creators build relationships with audiences on platforms such as YouTube, TikTok and Instagram, exerting both commercial and non-commercial influence.
The Committee concludes that the growth in the market has exposed a number of regulatory gaps, particularly around advertising disclosure and protection for children, both as influencers and viewers, and calls on the Government to strengthen both employment law and advertising regulations.
DCMS Committee Chair Julian Knight MP said: “The rise of influencer culture online has brought significant new opportunities for those working in the creative industries and a boost to the UK economy. However, as is so often the case where social media is involved, if you dig below the shiny surface of what you see on screen you will discover an altogether murkier world where both the influencers and their followers are at risk of exploitation and harm online.
Child viewers, who are still developing digital literacy, are in particular danger in an environment where not everything is always as it seems, while there is a woeful lack of protection for young influencers who often spend long hours producing financially lucrative content at the direction of others.
The explosion in influencer activity has left the authorities playing catch-up and exposed the impotence of advertising rules and employment protections designed for a time before social media was the all-encompassing behemoth it has become today.
This report has held a mirror up to the problems which beset the industry, where for too long it has been a case of lights, camera, inaction. It is now up to the Government to reshape the rules to keep pace with the changing digital landscape and ensure proper protections for all.”
Main findings and recommendations
Children as viewers
- Influencer content on social media is becoming an increasingly popular media genre for children, particularly on YouTube. According to Ofcom, in 2021 up to half of children said they watched vloggers or YouTube influencers.
- Influencer culture can offer benefits to children by giving a platform to diverse voices and communities but can also leave young people at risk of disinformation and harmful messages, for example around body image. There is also evidence that children are more vulnerable to native or embedded advertising as they find it particularly difficult to distinguish and identify.
- Children, parents and schools must be given more support in developing young people’s media literacy, while the Advertising Standards Agency should strengthen disclosure standards for adverts online targeting at children.
Children as influencers
- The child influencer market is booming, with children featuring in online content across social media platforms, earning income through sponsorship and partnerships with brands. Many accounts are managed by their parents.
- The Committee heard concerns during the inquiry that some children in the influencer economy are being used by parents and family members seeking to capitalise on the lucrative market. Posting content about children can also affect their privacy and bring security risks.
- The Government must urgently address the gap in UK child labour and performance regulation that is leaving child influences without protection. New legislation should include provisions on working hours and conditions, mandate the protection of the child’s earnings, ensure a right to erasure, and bring the child’s labour arrangements under the oversight of local authorities.
Behind the camera
- Social media influencing is becoming a popular career choice. Of the 511 British children surveyed as part of the inquiry, more than 32% said they would consider becoming an influencer. Despite the industry’s rapid rise in popularity, earning a living from influencing remains challenging.
- Influencers face a range of challenges including hacking, impersonation, algorithmic unpredictability, mental health issues, online abuse and harassment.
- The Government should use the Online Safety Bill to ensure that reporting and complaints mechanism are tailored to meet the specific nature of harms faced by influencers. There should also be a comprehensive study into the UK’s influencer ecosystem, so the Government can more effectively regulate the industry as it grows.
Pay and employment
- The Government should commission a code of conduct for influencer marketing, as an example of best practice for deals between influencers and brands or talent agencies.
- Like many professions in the creative industries, most influencers classify as self-employed meaning they have uneven earnings and a lack of employment protections. Social media platforms are not always properly rewarding influencers for their work in attracting users.
- As part of the market review, the Government should investigate pay standards and practice in the influencer marketplace.
- The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) told the inquiry that influencer compliance rates with UK advertising regulations are still unacceptably low. In 2020, a monitoring exercise by the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) found that just 35% of 24,000 marketing posts on the Instagram accounts of 122 UK-based influencers were clearly labelled as adverts.
- The Committee recommends that the non-broadcast Advertising Code (CAP code) be extended by removing the requirement for editorial ‘control’ to determine whether content constitutes an advert to close a loophole for some influencer content. Both the CMA and ASA should be given more powers to enforce the law.