Uh-Oh: My Kid Wants to Be a ‘Social Media Influencer’ … What Are the Legal Risks?

Teenagers and their parents need to know there are plenty of legal consequences for this new breed of marketers, according to attorney Christy L. Foley, an expert in social media influencer law.

A girl films herself reviewing beauty products.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

“My 16-year-old-daughter announced that she and a friend are in the process of becoming internet ‘influencers.’ They have been in discussions with a small, local company that manufactures specialty dog and cat food that we have been feeding to our pets — and they want these girls to advertise it.

“How risky is this?”

“Risky?” replied Sanford, Fla.-based attorney Christy L. Foley. “It is far riskier than most parents realize. One-third of internet influencers are 18 to 24 years of age, and we are seeing more and more high school students bitten by the bug, and they want to jump in. Few realize the legal consequences they are facing.”

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Foley is recognized as one of the nation’s top experts in social media influencer law, and she conducts continuing education seminars for lawyers across the country. During our interview, she outlined some of the very real dangers that are out there for influencers — and their families.

The first thing a parent must do “is to have a consultation with a business attorney, ideally familiar with Federal Trade Commission advertising regulations, tax and business insurance,” Foley points out, explaining, “You need a proper business entity, such as an LLC, something that offers protection for your family in the event things go wrong down the road.”

Such as a dog getting sick from a bad batch of food? “Precisely,” she replied.

Sound complicated?

“It is, but certainly doable with the right legal and accounting support. Without that, trouble lies ahead, especially where parents are unaware of their obligation to safeguard the child’s earnings, and following requirements of Coogan’s laws, which several states have.”

Named for the child actor Jackie Coogan of the 1930s — who as an adult stared as Uncle Fester in The Adams Family — a minimum of 15% of earning must be placed in a blocked account for the minor. Parents who steal their child’s earnings face civil and criminal penalties.

Honesty Absolutely Required by the FTC

“What makes influencers successful is that they act like a normal person, putting on the face cream, for example, and saying, ‘It works great for me.’ They may link to the product, but because it is their own opinion and experience, they are safe, and not making representations about appropriateness of the product for anyone else.

“But if they say, ‘This will be wonderful for you,’ or in your reader’s case, ‘This dog food will be great for your pet,’ this is an invitation to being sued if something goes wrong,” she cautions.

And what if she gets free dog food for her post?

“Stating your opinion is one thing, but if there is a quid pro quo — if she is getting something in return for her comments — this must be revealed at the beginning of the post as it is a paid-for endorsement. The FTC requires making the consumer aware they are seeing an advertisement.”

What if the influencer hasn’t actually used the product?

“FTC regulations state that you must have actually tried the product in order to endorse it, and any endorsement must be truthful. What you post must be truthful at the time of the post. It can evolve, but must be truthful when posted.

“You can’t lie about your endorsement,” Foley points out, and recommends a conversation covering these points that parents need to have with their influencer kids:

  1. Honesty matters. Truthfulness matters. There are consequences to being in front of the public. The internet never forgets, so if you lie, someone will discover it years from now when you are applying for a job.
  2. Parents should stress that when you are out there as an influencer, there will be negative comments. Teenagers are sensitive to social media comments. Many have committed suicide when bombarded with hurtful remarks. Parents need to prepare their kids for this and ask themselves, ‘Can our child deal with negative comments or bullying on social media?”
  3. Realize that the more your child reveals about your home life — the home itself, furnishings, visible wealth — this can be an invitation for bad guys to do real harm. So, if you are going to allow your child to be an influencer, create a “safe space” that does not reveal too much.

Should Becoming an Influencer Be Encouraged or Discouraged?

So, what’s a parent to do? Encourage becoming an influencer or not?

“It depends,” Foley says. “Factors include how well are the parents informed about what the child is doing? How willing are you to take on this risk? Can the child handle other responsibilities, such as school? There are simply a lot of ‘ifs.’”

Foley’s website is christyfoley.com (opens in new tab), and it is a must read for any parent dealing with these issues.

This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

H. Dennis Beaver, Esq.
Attorney at Law, Author of "You and the Law"

After attending Loyola University School of Law, H. Dennis Beaver joined California's Kern County District Attorney's Office, where he established a Consumer Fraud section. He is in the general practice of law and writes a syndicated newspaper column, "You and the Law (opens in new tab)." Through his column he offers readers in need of down-to-earth advice his help free of charge. "I know it sounds corny, but I just love to be able to use my education and experience to help, simply to help. When a reader contacts me, it is a gift."