A labor crisis is brewing in Great Britain. That might sound like the kind of boring headline you barely pay attention to when your parents are listening to NPR. But this headline is actually interesting, we swear, because it involves grade-school-age (and sometimes even younger) social-media stars. Or “kidfluencers,” as they are unfortunately known.
Kidfluencing can be lucrative: You might think that that six-year-old on YouTube is just playing with any old toy or gumming any old frozen pizza, but he or she might well have been paid by the toy or pizza company—in the hopes that you, too, will desire that toy or pizza. It’s an ad pretending not to be an ad; the kid being influenced is you.
On the lower end of the kidfluencer scale one might find a cute toddler whose parents dress her up in junior designer clothes for an Instagram account with tens of thousands of followers. Maybe the designers send her free outfits, but only in exchange for plugging them. As the mother of one such “mini fashionista” (the mom’s term) explained to The Times of London, “I don’t want her to think she can always get things for nothing.”
Then there’s Ryan Kaji. Now 11, he’s been starring in YouTube videos “testing” toys and taking on goofy challenges with his family (mom, dad, little twin sisters) since he was three and a half. He has nine YouTube channels with more than 32 million total subscribers. He also has shows on Nick Jr. and Apple+.
Ryan seems like a nice kid, someone other kids might want to be friends with, but he’s not a great singer or actor or dancer or comedian. To be honest, Air Mail Pilot is a bit stumped as to Ryan’s massive popularity. But in 2020, according to the business magazine Forbes, he earned upwards of $30 million. That’s three times what New York Yankee slugger Aaron Judge made last year.
Here’s the problem (or one of them): legislators in Britain fear there aren’t adequate laws to protect kidfluencers from being exploited by greedy adults, including their parents. Last week, a committee in Parliament urged that something be done. Current U.K. laws govern working conditions for child performers on stage and screen, but those regulations don’t extend to social media. As The Times noted, “Children also have no legal right to their earnings, leaving adults in control.”
In a statement, the committee said, “We are deeply concerned that a lack of action in the booming influencer market will lead to even more children in the industry being exploited, with potentially lifelong consequences.” That is not hot air: as any student of show business history will tell you, fate has rarely been kind to child stars who were not carefully protected by the adults in their lives. (For more information, Google Judy Garland or the cast of Diff’rent Strokes.)
New regulations under consideration in Britain would limit the number of hours kidfluencers can work and protect their privacy—as best as anyone’s privacy online can be protected—now and on into their adult years.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., legislation has been introduced in Congress that would regulate social media content aimed at kids, so that those ads/not ads might theoretically be more obvious. But that wouldn’t much help kidfluencers themselves. While federal child labor laws offer broad protections, such as preventing six-year-olds from toiling in grim sneaker factories and fetid smartphone plants (we “outsource” that work), it has been left to the states to regulate child performers, meaning the rules are literally all over the map. And, as in Britain, social media falls into a legal gray area for now.
A brief editorial: Longtime readers know that Air Mail Pilot is not prone to alarmism. Sober observation and droll understatement are the cornerstones here. But we feel safe in saying that kidfluencing is the worst thing to happen to childhood since at least Cars 3, and maybe even homework. Click warily, please, if at all. —Bruce Handy
Did mom and dad order Chinese take-out for the fourth night in a row? Well, AIR MAIL Pilot has good news for kids whose parents can’t—or won’t—cook. Researchers at the University of Cambridge have created a robot that not only cooks, but also tastes the food to ensure dishes are top-notch.
Robots that can flip burgers and whisk sauces are old news. “If robots are to be used for certain aspects of food preparation, it’s important that they are able to ‘taste’ what they’re cooking,” Grzegorz Sochacki, one of the engineers behind the robot, told The Guardian.
To do this, researchers mapped out humans’ taste preferences. Teaching those tastes to the robot required a two-part process. Step one: attach salinity sensors, which assess how salty a dish is, to the robot’s arms. Step two: feed the robot nine variations of scrambled eggs with tomatoes so it can learn what’s too salty, what’s not salty enough, and what’s just right. The scientists even gave the robot blended up eggs and tomatoes to teach it how the taste of food changes as it is chewed.
“This result is a leap forward in robotic cooking,” Dr. Muhammad Chughtai, a scientist who worked with the researchers, told The Guardian. Eventually, the team hopes to train robots to adapt to people’s taste buds. If you like your food extra sweet or super oily, the robot will be able to prepare a meal accordingly.
While Chughtai believes the technology will play a major role in homes in the future, Sochacki said that’s “probably a few years away.” AIR MAIL Pilot is hoping they teach robots to do the dishes, too. —Elena Clavarino
Ryan Kiera Armstrong doesn’t like scary movies. “I cannot watch [them],” she tells AIR MAIL Pilot from her home in Los Angeles. She’s only 12 years old, so it’s understandable. But “for whatever reason, scary movies follow me literally everywhere,” she the young actress says. Take, for example, the first movie set she ever visited. At just a few days old, she ended up on the set for the 2010 horror film Saw 3D because her father, Dean, had a part in it.
You wouldn’t guess her fear from looking at her resume, which is full of thriller and horror films. First, in 2018, she was in the TV adaptation of Joël Dicker’s suspenseful bestseller, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair. In 2021, she had a part in Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story series, in which she acted alongside killer clowns and ghosts in a derelict mental institution. Now she has the lead role in Firestarter, a film adaptation of Stephen King’s scary 1980 novel.
The book was first adapted for the screen in 1984, with Drew Barrymore in the starring role of Charlie, a little girl who suddenly develops pyrokinesis, which means she can set things on fire just by looking at them. In the new version, which hits theaters today, Armstrong takes over Barrymore’s part. A secret government agency wants to capture Charlie and harness her powers for evil. Her father, played by Zac Efron, tries to keep her safe.
“In Firestarter, there are so many closeups of eyes,” Ryan says. Coincidentally, before shooting, “I was actually studying how to draw hyper realistic eyes.” She told Keith Thomas, the film’s director, about her drawings, and he decided to add that detail to the film. “A lot of the drawings on the wall of my bedroom in the movie—they are actually mine.”
While the movie focuses on a young girl, it’s for mature audiences. Ryan was up to the task. “I grew up with acting,” she says. “At the age of four, I told my dad, ‘this is what I want to pursue.’” —Bridget Arsenault