The report highlights the rapid expansion in influencer culture, where content creators build relationships with audiences on social media platforms, exerting both commercial and non-commercial influence.
The House of Commons DCMS Select Committee has published its report following an inquiry about influencer culture. The report concludes that the growth in the market for influencer marketing has exposed a number of regulatory gaps, particularly around advertising disclosure and protection for children, both as influencers and viewers, and calls on the UK government to strengthen both employment law and advertising regulations.
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, and the report also says that while the Advertising Standards Authority 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.
According to the Committee, 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 report states that 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 told the inquiry that influencer compliance rates with UK advertising regulations are still unacceptably low. In 2020, a monitoring exercise by the ASA found that just 35% of 24,000 marketing posts on the Instagram accounts of 122 UK-based influencers were clearly labelled as advertisements.
The Committee recommends that the non-broadcast Advertising Code be extended by removing the requirement for editorial ‘control’ to determine whether content constitutes an advertisement to close a loophole for some influencer content. It also says that both the CMA and ASA should be given more powers to enforce the law.