(This is the first in a series of articles on social media basics, legal issues, online safety, and building a social media following for child actors and their parents.)
So, you’re raising a child or teen who wants to be a star — or you’re the parent of a working child actor or model. If you’re the latter, you already know what a big role social media can play in your child’s success. But, unfortunately, social media can also derail a child’s career.
Let’s start with some basics and a disclaimer. I am going to use the term “social media” very loosely, to include almost all online activity. Things like search engine optimization, creating a website for your child, owning your child’s online identity, and avoiding contract problems with the studios, corporations, or agencies that hire your child aren’t technically “social media”, but they’re vital in protecting your child’s online reputation. And, of course, your child’s physical and emotional safety aren’t technically part of social media but they’re vital to any parent.
I am expecting this series of articles to be in three parts, each dealing with a group of related concepts and ideas. As for my qualifications, I’ve been a marketer and PR professional since the early days of online communication — I’ve had the same email address since 1981, and I published my first “online forum” (the precursor to websites) in 1983. If you look at the About Me page on this blog, you’ll see a partial list of some of the companies I’ve worked with to develop comprehensive social media policies and online presences. And I have an adult son who’s been a working stunt performer for over 20 years, and a teen who’s been a working actor for almost 10 years. I am not a lawyer, but any legal information here is linked to its source or has been reviewed by my very competent attorney. You should, of course, seek qualified legal counsel before making decisions based on anything you read here.
Last, but not least, if your child is represented by an agent or manager, you should follow their advice if it differs from what you read here. That’s the end of the boring disclaimer stuff. On to the real information.
Who Are You? Owning Your Online Identity
Do you own your name? Are you sure? One of the first actors I was close friends with is Thomas Hall — or as he is listed on IMDB and the SAG/AFTRA membership list, Tom Rayhall. Because there were already SAG members named Tom Hall, he was required to create a stage name for SAG membership. This was in the 80’s, when the online world was in its infancy.
Today, if you can’t be found on the first page of Google results for your name, you might as well not exist. There are managers and agents in LA and New York who won’t sign new talent unless they have a certain number of social media followers.
So the first step in building your child actor’s “social media footprint” is to determine whether you can own their name. If you can own the name they want to use, great. If not, you have to decide how to create an online identity that matches the name casting directors and the public will come to know them by.
Ideally, all your social media and online accounts will have the same name, and that will match the most likely search term when someone wants to find you. For instance, I own the domain name debmcalister.com, and the Twitter handle @debmcalister, and that’s the name I use on Facebook and other social media sites. It’s not the name on my passport or driver’s license, as I have been married for 20 years, but it’s my “professional name”, so that’s what most people use to find me online. Email is the exception: I do NOT use email@example.com, and neither should you unless you want your in-box filled with spam every time your child’s name appears in connection with one of his or her roles.
Once you’ve determined your child’s “professional” name for online use, make sure to use it consistently. Don’t call your child by a nickname in social media posts, unless you intend for that nickname to become a default professional name.
Child actors should have both personal and professional social media identities — and access to their personal social media identity should be restricted. Think of this personal social media identity as a kind of Secret Service code name, available to only very close friends and family. The personal identity you pick shouldn’t be obvious — I wouldn’t use mcalisterdeb, or dmcalister, or deborahmcalister or even deborahanne for example because anyone with half a brain could realize those are all just variations on my name. And, please, don’t make it something your child will be embarrassed about if it leaks later. She or he may be your “cutelittlestar” now, but may not want that known later in life.
Before your child lands a major TV or film role, it costs about $10-50 to purchase their domain name for 1-3 years. Afterwards, it can cost thousands, if you can buy it at all. Don’t let someone else buy the name before you do. Whether you plan on publishing a blog or website right away or not, at some point your child will need it. (Note: I’d recommend putting up a basic web site soon — but that will be discussed in a later post.)
There are brokerage houses and online tutorials that tell “domain squatters” how to profit by registering the domain names of celebrities, sports players, and those identified as “future stars”. It’s big business — and it can be a real headache. So if your child hasn’t yet scored a major TV or film role, buy up all of the domain names (website addresses or URLs) available, and register all of the obvious Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook names as well. Don’t forget Pinterest and the other smaller social media accounts. For example, make sure you own debmcalister.com and any variations of your name, and the primary Twitter “handle” @debmcalister, and so on.
Consider buying the negative versions of your primary domain name, such as debmcalistersucks.com, ihatedebmcalister.com, and so on. Sad to say, if your child is a teen girl, you might also want to register the .xxx and .sex version of your child’s name to keep anyone else from using it.
Note that if you live outside the US, or your child works outside the US, you may want to buy the local and “top level” domain — both .com and .ca if you live in Canada, for example.
The Difference in Professional & Personal Social Media
Your child’s social media footprint — what Google returns in its results when someone searches for their name — can be an important marketing tool for their career. So you’ll ned a “professional” social media presence.
But no teenager these days is going to go without a personal social media presence. So separate the two. What’s the difference, and how do you enforce it? Simple. If it’s for fun, let your child do what they want within the guidelines you set, and using their “personal” social media identity known only to selected friends and family members. This is where they talk about school activities, chat with friends, and share all those selfies.
If it’s related to the business of acting or modelling, keep it professional, positive, and have an adult (probably you, unless you can afford a social media agency — which isn’t needed unless your child is very famous) carefully edit and manage what is posted. A professional social media account should avoid controversial topics (religion, politics, current events), and anything negative relating to the business of acting or modelling. This includes “warnings” about toxic people or slow-paying clients, information about disputes with anyone in the business, and “feuds” with other actors. Once you’re like Meryl Streep, with a string of blockbusters and Oscars, you can say what you want. Until then, if you can’t say something nice, keep it off your public social media pages.
Where’s the line between personal and professional? Basically, it’s content. If it relates to acting, modelling, or the film/TV/fashion industry, it’s professional.
Sometimes it’s not so clear. For instance, I know a teen actress who attended the Nickelodeon Kids Choice Awards this year. Her personal social media pages, where she is friends with my teen actor, was filled with her comments about who she saw, who was nice, who wasn’t, and the other stuff kids talk about with each other. Her public social media accounts, on the other hand, posted photos of her on the red carpet, and said little more than “So excited to be at the Kid’s Choice Awards!” There were over 2 dozen comments on her private page — some of them a bit snarky and rude — but just three on her public accounts.
Decide early what image you want to create for your child or teen, and stick to it. Here’s one basic way to divide the separate accounts, set viewing permissions, and determine appropriate content.
|Personal Social Media||Professional Social Media|
|Family pictures, events.||Professional achievements.|
|Private: select friends only.||Public: broad audience.|
|Opinions & details go here.||Positive, public info only.|
|Be selective in accepting friends, followers, DMs, PMs.||Open door policy – be wary of DMs, PMs, and trolls.|
Larry Magid’s Safe Kids website, and its sister site Safe Teens, is the best resource for general guidelines on keeping kids (and their reputations) safe online. Larry is an educator, journalist and personal friend who’s been writing about online safety since the 1980’s — and he’s also a founder and board member of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (creator of the Amber alert system), so he knows his stuff better than anyone.
In your child’s business social media postings, keep it positive. If you don’t like a director, the food on a set, or a co-worker, keep it to yourself. The purpose of an online presence for a child/teen actor is simple: to get hired again in the future. Complaining and leaking details about a shoot is a fast way to wind up on a “do not cast” list. Remember what your mother said: if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.
I’ll cover this in more detail later, but make sure that you are not violating any contracts when you post something on your child’s social media accounts — and make sure they aren’t violating it in their “private” social media, or even in conversations at school, either. My teen actor, for instance, is nearly 17, but he’s still bound by the non-disclosure clauses in a contract signed on his behalf nearly 10 years ago because the pilot he filmed was never released. He worked with a very famous actor who’s been in the news lately, but can’t comment about it without owing the studio big bucks. So read the contracts you sign and make sure you understand them.
A Word About Online Security & Privacy
Let’s be honest. There is absolutely no privacy online, and no way to ensure that your private information won’t be hacked or published if it’s stored on any device that’s linked to the Internet. Many celebrities — including a number of minors — learned this lesson the hard way. “The cloud” — as in a storage system like Dropbox, iCloud or any other online back-up or storage system — is just somebody else’s hard drive.
Scarlett Johansen, Liv Tyler, Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez and many others learned that even their own hard drive could be “hacked” when they took their phone or computer in to a repair shop and a technician decided copying and selling photos was more lucrative than the job they had.
Here are some things you should never store on a “connected device” for any long period of time:
- Private photos
- Financial records
- Photos in which your car license plate is visible
- Medical records or appointments
- Audition tapes
- Family videos
- Location details for family property*
- The name and location of any church, club, sports team, or school your child attends or participates in
Buy an external hard drive — you can get one for less than $50, and a really big one for less than $100 — and regularly back up private images and data from your phone, laptop, iPad or other device to it. Then DELETE it from your main device, and store the external drive in a safe location in your home.
*Your property tax records are PUBLIC information. So, sooner or later, Google Map photos of your house are likely to become visible online, and your address is likely to become public. Talk to a lawyer about whether your desire for privacy and security is serious enough to consider changing the title on your property (that is, transferring ownership to a trust, LLC or some other family member) in order to protect your address. For most people, it is not. But I’m not famous, and I don’t have a stalker. So it might be important for others — your lawyer will know, and can advise you of the tax and legal issues surrounding such a move.
The most important point about online privacy is that if it was ever online, it’s no longer private. European Union residents have a “right to be forgotten” — that means they can request that Google and other search engines remove untrue or illegally obtained information, as well as “outdated” information like voided criminal conviction and the search engines are required to comply. American citizenss don’t have the right to be forgotten. Even if the information was found by a court to be libelous, stolen, or false, Google never forgets, and the information can still be found online and repeated.
Being an actor, especially a famous one, severely curtails privacy rights. This is why the stalking paparazzi are allowed to do what they do: the law says that “public personalities” — those who have sought fame or publicity by virtue of their career as a politician, actor, author or in some other way — have no expectation of privacy when they are in a public place. The rules about invasion of privacy, libel and slander are harder for a “public figure” to enforce than they are for a private citizen, and this is true for children and teens as well. It’s a balancing act to manage your child’s professional online presence in a way that both promotes their career and protects them, but it’s an essential part of being the parent of a child actor.
Remember that online information doesn’t vanish when it is deleted, not even on Snapchat and other services where it supposedly expires in minutes, days, or weeks. Anyone can take a screen shot of it while it is out there, and that screen shot can be reposted anytime, anywhere, or indexed by a search engine.
Don’t allow your teen or child actor to “check in” when they are out with friends — there are websites and apps that track celebrities based on these social media check-ins. Of course, the tracker apps also rely on “spotters” who report where they saw a celebrity. (And your manager or agent may have you do this purposely to encourage publicity photos at certain times — but that’s business. You don’t want your child accosted by fans or photographers when they’re at a movie with their friends.
One area that’s often overlooked is the privacy and security of YOUR social media profiles, as opposed to your child or teen actor’s social media accounts. For instance, listing the names of parents and grandparents can be a contentious subject for young actors, and getting family members to think of security can also be a challenge. Identity thieves and celebrity stalkers know that grandparents or proud parents may reveal details on THEIR social media profiles that can lead them to a celebrity’s location or private social media accounts. For instance, let’s say that my mother’s maiden name was Cox (it wasn’t). So if I mention that on my profile, and my name is on my child actor’s resume or IMDB page, anyone who sees it knows the maiden name of my son’s mother (my mother or father’s name is likely to be my maiden name). And that detail is a key to hacking MANY sites, including banking and credit card records.
In general, don’t share or report anything from your child’s “private” social media accounts on your “public” accounts, and ask other family members and close friends to do the same. This gets harder as your child becomes more famous, although many young celebrities have managed to keep their private lives remarkably private thanks to help from very good friends.
(Next up: Social Media Legal Basics for Child Actors & Their Parents)