A seven-year-old American boy named Tariq went viral on the internet last month after appearing in an 85-second Instagram clip professing his love for corn. His wacky jokes, including the catchphrase “Have a fantastic day!” he quickly found favor with internet audiences, who turned him into the meme affectionately known as the “Corn Kid.”
At the time of this writing, the original Instagram clip has been viewed more than 26 million times and has been reposted by multiple other accounts on Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, and TikTok.
Thanks to his accidental viral popularity, the Corn Kid is now well on his way to becoming a child celebrity. His time in the spotlight has followed a predictable path forged over the past decade as the era of “cute kids videos” has given way to a full-blown kid-influence industry.
Turning accidental virality into business opportunities
Corn Kid’s humorous interview automatically tuned into a catchy song “It’s Corn!” by comedy music YouTubers The Gregory Brothers. He began appearing in a number of content collaborations with notable influencers. He was even recently named a “Corn-bassador”, an ambassador for corn, for South Dakota in the US.
But Corn Kid’s fortuitous fame has also brought tangible business opportunities.
He starred in a Chipotle social media ad that went viral and also registered an account on Cameo, a video-sharing platform where users can pay for personalized video messages.
And this is where what seems like fun on the internet can start to have consequences in the real world.
Accelerated paths to ‘child celebrity’
If the story of the Corn Kid sounds familiar, that’s because this fast track from “accidental virality” to “meme celebrity” to “influencer” has been a proven recipe for over a decade.
In 2011, British cousins Sophia Grace and Rosie (then 8 and 5 years old, respectively) went viral with a short dance clip. She led to regular appearances on The Ellen Show, followed by musical and film opportunities, and careers as YouTube influencers.
In 2014, five-year-old Noah Ritter’s viral street interview eventually led to him becoming a regular on talk shows and convention appearances, after he was similarly picked up by The Ellen Show.
But there are also less wholesome examples, like when 14-year-old Danielle Bregoli went viral for her appearance on the Dr. Phil Show in 2016, after he called out her bad behavior and publicly shamed her. She then established herself as a rapper and NSFW influencer who reportedly made $50 million in her first year.
As I point out in my book Internet Celebrity: Understanding Online Fame, young children who go viral on social media are quickly perceived by industry stakeholders as business investments to be “caught and fixed.” And this initial period of instant fame is a critical time for big decisions.
Some pitfalls of the influencer industry
Parents of children who go viral online often suddenly find themselves in a world of opportunity. Paid cameos, corporate partnerships, talent brokerage deals, and kid influencer contracts can quickly line up. In the growing market, even micro and mid-level influencers can command thousands of dollars for a single post.
As parents are quickly thrust into the dazzling world of child celebrity, there is often little time to make concerted and informed decisions. Tempting offers can be short-lived and contingent on faltering public interest.
However, it is important to consider the pitfalls and long-term consequences in the child influencer industry.
Earlier this year, fan accounts sexualized a child celebrity on TikTok, sparking a public conversation about the safety and privacy of similar child influencers. In another case, a person influential in my investigation reported that he and her son were involved in a car chase by overzealous fans.
Read More: When Child Exploitation Goes Wrong on YouTube: Lessons from DaddyOFive
As advertising opportunities expand, parents may also find themselves on a slippery slope moving from kid-focused products to less kid-relevant recommendations like car decals and fast food.
Parents should also recognize when their children may no longer enjoy creating content, such as when they need to be “enticed by rewards for compliance to stay in frame and continue filming.”
In some cases, parents have also been found to exploit and abuse their children when they create sensational content to attract viewers.
In Australia, the industry is growing rapidly.
Navigating unregulated terrain
The influencer kids industry remains a largely unregulated arena. An exception is France, where the government passed a law in 2020 to regulate working hours, safeguard the income of those under 16 and ensure that companies apply for permission to work with influential children.
In the UK, a House of Commons committee conducted an investigation into the child influencer industry in 2021. The UK Parliament is currently working on a response to calls for more regulation.
Formal regulations are starting to catch up with the industry.
Meanwhile, parents of aspiring child influencers are also doing more to protect their children.
Established “family influencers” on YouTube have modeled how to negotiate children’s participation in content creation, treating it as a reward rather than an obligation, and allowing them to opt out whenever they want.
I’m doing a five-year ethnography of the influencer industry in Australia and East Asia, during which I found many more examples of parents doing more to advocate for their children’s interests.
Parents in South Korea are requesting specific clauses in their child influencer contracts with sponsors to give their children more agency. These can accommodate “no-shows” if a child declines to participate in a client event on a late notice, or flexibility to renegotiate advertising reports if a child does not want to participate in the sponsored product or service.
In China, talent managers are trained professionals who act as mediators and service agents for child influencers. They protect access to prominent child influencers, ensure that client contracts are fair, educate parents by advising them on legal and contractual issues, and provide quality control for content that child influencers deliver to clients.
Furthermore, influencer agencies are contractually liable for any missteps. Therefore, they work quickly to solve problems that affect the well-being of the child.
Even the most loving and well-intentioned parents may not have the ability and skills to protect their children’s interests in the volatile industry of influencers. And as change looms, we can draw on the lessons of the past.