LIKE many children, I wanted to be a Blue Peter presenter when I grew up.

I spent many a happy afternoon pretending I already was one, talking my imaginary audience through the steps of my latest craft project, but I was held back by the inability to declare “here’s one I made earlier” and skip ahead to the next step. Do you know how long papier-mache takes to dry? Ages.

Of course, these days creative types don’t need to bother with ones they made earlier – a jump-cut will take their social media followers to the next step of whatever the project might be. Renovating an entire house can be showcased in an Instagram reel, with months of blood, sweat and tears edited down to 20 seconds soundtracked by the vocal line “can we skip to the good part?”

Crucially, children can now skip ahead themselves, as they don’t need to wait until they are adults to reach an audience – a global audience, even. They don’t even need to pass an audition. They just need to be born into the right family. Or the wrong one, depending on your perspective on child influencers.

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Westminster’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has been gathering evidence about influencer culture amid justified fears that there are massive regulatory gaps in the UK. Reporting this week, the MPs expressed great concern about children who are social media personalities and influence their young peers. They’re also worried about the children who follow them, trust them and seek to imitate them.

Academics Rachel Berryman and Professor Misha Kavka told the committee that “the combination of commodification and intimacy” in influencer content “can make it difficult for children to realise that the person on-screen is not their ‘friend’, and the video is not a playdate”. This has implications not just for how they play but also the kind of things they want to eat and drink, with the MPs particularly worried about product placement of junk food.

It’s not just children who are vulnerable to this blurring of boundaries. The development of so-called “parasocial relationships” – those that are entirely one-sided, with one party unaware of the other’s existence – can provide fertile ground for advertisers, because even adults grow to trust those they follow through the media. One only need look at the troubling outpouring of unconditional support for the actor Johnny Depp, currently involved in an unedifying court battle with his ex-wife Amber Heard, to see a prime example of this. Most of the women – and sadly it is women – who are weighing in to support Depp have never met him.

Despite his dedicated fan base, it’s unclear if Depp’s career will ever recover. For young influencers, having an army of followers – ones who think they are your friends, and who generate money for your family – is surely as much of a curse as a blessing. Tellingly, the committee invited 11 influencer families to give evidence to its inquiry and only one accepted.

Among their key concern was the fact that children are effectively working at home, for their parents, but are not protected by any child labour laws and have no control over the income earned. Behind the output the audience sees – a series of photos, a short TikTok video, a YouTube prank – may be many hours of work. If these children were modelling or performing in any other context, that would be governed by local bylaws. It’s perhaps little wonder their parents aren’t keen to face questions about whether such situations are exploitative.

Are the children acting? Are they “working”? It’s an area that will be tricky to regulate. What’s the difference between my friend sharing photos and videos of her daughter’s birthday party on social media and a celebrity doing the same? The size of their respective followings? Product placement, perhaps, but professional influencers don’t do this in all of their posts. Indeed, too many adverts (which legally must be flagged as such) can interrupt the formation of those parasocial bonds and make clear the promoter/customer relationship.

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Perhaps the biggest challenge is ensuring children have the right to opt out of being influencers as they age. No amount of regulation will be able to override the potential pressure youngsters may feel if there are significant sums riding on their ongoing cooperation. Worryingly, the MPs report that much social media content is not covered by GDPR. Even if it were, the “right to be forgotten” is not easy to uphold.

One of the young influencers mentioned by the committee participated, as a young child, in crude scatological-themed videos orchestrated by her parents. She is now 14, and some of the worst seem to have been removed from her YouTube accounts, but it didn’t take me long to find them elsewhere. She has millions of followers, and yesterday posted a (sponsored) video revealing she had been thinking about quitting but then reconsidered. “You can’t quit – you’ve had this channel for, like, your whole life,” she said. “You’ve got everything anybody could ever want.” Materially, perhaps, but what price privacy ... and dignity?