‘I wanted to throw up’: the dark side of posting pictures of your children online
During the first few months of the pandemic, 35-year-old Kodye Elyse started sharing what she describes as “normal mum lockdown content” on TikTok.
“It was a fun, innocent way to pass the time with the kids,” says Elyse, an LA-based makeup artist. “I didn’t really have any followers on the app, so I didn’t think twice about posting videos of my children.” This was until one of Elyse’s videos suddenly went viral, and what ensued prompted her to permanently wipe her children off the internet.
The video showed Elyse’s then five-year-old daughter swapping places with Elyse and, using a transition editing tool, appearing to transform into her mother. Within just a few hours, the video had amassed more than six million views, and Elyse suddenly found herself with around 100,000 followers. But the comments on the video, many of which were discussing her daughter’s appearance, terrified her.
“The second I opened the comments, I cried” she says. “They were overwhelmingly about my daughter, insinuating vulgar, inappropriate things – comment after comment, it was all I could see. I wanted to throw up, I felt so guilty. I thought it was an innocent video. We had fun making it, it was a creative, bonding moment – I just wish I had kept that moment for myself.”
She immediately deleted the video, and removed all details of her children’s lives from the internet.
“I hired attorneys to help me. The creeps online, the threat of pedophiles, it’s almost like The Truman Show – you’re posting your kids to this screen with absolutely no idea who is behind it,” she says.
Last week, lawmakers in France green-lit a bill to target a growing number of influencers earning fame and money by chronicling the lives of their children in a phenomenon known as “sharenting”. The last ten years has seen a boom in family influencing on YouTube and TikTok, raising concerns about the potential for child exploitation. Many parents now rely on family vlogging or their child’s accounts as their primary source of income. Others use their children to boost their own fame.
Half of all pictures exchanged on paedophile forums originated from photographs posted by families on social media, according to the bill. “Certain images, notably photographs of naked babies or young girls in gym outfits, particularly interest paedophile circles,” it reads.
“The message to parents is that their job is to protect their children’s privacy,” said Bruno Studer, a French MP who put the bill forward. The legislation would include protecting children’s privacy as among parents’ legal duties. Both parents would be jointly responsible for their child’s image rights and “shall involve the child...according to his or her age and degree of maturity.”
While older generations who were introduced to social media later in life have been able to shape their online presence from scratch, children growing up in a digital age are no longer afforded this luxury. They can now be thrust into the eyes of millions from as early as their first cameo on an ultrasound scan. In fact, the average child has their image shared on social media 1,300 times before the age of 13, according to a survey for the Observatory for Parenthood and Digital Education.
On video platforms like TikTok, the potential eyes on each video is limitless. Going viral, whether intentionally or not, is not uncommon.
Concerned TikTok sleuths have recently been pointing out the amount of likes, saves, and disturbing comments on videos of children shared by influencer mums. Last year, users flagged that certain videos of three-year-old TikTok star Wren Eleanor were racking up a worrying amount of saves. A video of Wren, whose account has 17 million followers, eating a hotdog has been saved nearly 375,000 times. Another video of her wearing an orange crop top amassed another 45,000 saves. Users have also flagged unsettling comments on Wren’s videos and pointed out that popular TikTok and Google searches for her account included phrases like “Wren Eleanor hotdog” or “Wren Eleanor pickle”.
Wren’s mum Jacquelyn, who runs the TikTok account, posted about the situation: “The past few months have been incredibly distressing and I’ve learned a lot. What started out as a fun hobby to make a digital scrapbook for my daughter Wren gradually grew into an interesting role for this single stay-at-home mom. Wren is my number-one priority, and her upbringing and safety are my top job 24 hours a day.”
A growing movement of content creators such as Elyse are advocating that parents take down content featuring their children, arguing that they can’t consent to their images being used, and the nefarious places that they may end up. “You’ll never catch me sharing anything about my children again,” Elyse says. “Minors can’t really consent – your kids might say yes but are they just saying that because you’re their mum and they want to please you? They don’t even understand what they’re consenting to.”
For Elyse, the impact on both herself and her children in the aftermath of her viral video has been severe, in ways she could never have imagined. “My kids’ school addresses ended up getting leaked, so they’re homeschooled now – I’ve even had to move house,” she says.
Reading-based journalist Rebecca Cox has also started to think twice about the images she shares of her seven-year-old son Jack. As he has gotten older, I’ve shared less and less about his life online,” says the 36-year-old.
“I generally only post side-on pictures of him or cover his eyes and face in pictures on my Instagram. When he was younger I worried less – I think I just saw others posting pictures of their families and didn’t give it too much thought. But I think that if I’d really considered the ethics and online safety implications of this I might have made different choices.”
My kids’ school addresses ended up getting leaked, so they’re homeschooled now – I’ve even had to move house
“I find it hard not to post pictures of my son all over social media because in my (admittedly somewhat biased) opinion he is the most beautiful creature in the world, but I think he should have autonomy over his own image to some extent.”
Also at play is the issue of child labour exploitation. While many countries now have rigorous labour and performer laws to protect child actors and musicians, the wild west of user-generated content remains a legal grey area. The self-employed, home-grown nature of the trade means calculating the work hours and therefore salary of a child influencer relies on guesswork.
Last year, a UK parliamentary committee called for more controls to close this “legislative gap”. “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,” said the report.
In May 2020, Ohio family-vlogger couple Myka and James Stauffer demonstrated just how extreme this issue can become. “This is by far the hardest video James and I have ever publicly had to make,” said 32-year-old Myka Stauffer tearfully, looking forlornly into the camera while her husband James sat by her side on their white bedspread. The couple were updating their one million YouTube subscribers about the status of their ever-growing family.
Three years earlier, the pair, who have four biological children, adopted their fifth child – a two-year-old boy with autism from China. Documenting every step of the adoption journey in a 27-video series, their son, whom they named Huxley, quickly became the focus of the Stauffer’s channel The Stauffer Life. Clips titled “Huxley’s EMOTIONAL Adoption VIDEO!! GOTCHA DAY China Adoption”, and sponsored videos like “5 Things I Didn’t EXPECT About Our China ADOPTION! International ADOPTION” amassed millions of views, while unrelated content fell flatter.
That was, until May 2020, when the Stauffers announced to their subscribers that the adoption hadn’t worked out, and they were giving Huxley back.
“After multiple assessments, after multiple evaluations, numerous medical professionals have felt that he needed a different fit in his medical needs,” Myka said into the camera, adding that they had placed Huxley with his “new forever family”.
The video prompted a social media firestorm, with users furiously questioning the ethics of spending years monetarily profiting from sharing intimate details of Huxley’s life even before they had adopted him. While the couple removed all videos featuring Huxley, concerns remained. What would happen to the money they had made from Huxley now that he had been “un-adopted”? How would this impact Huxley’s life going forward?
“It comes down to an ability and a capacity to consent,” says psychologist Charlotte Armitage. “Children just don’t have that yet.” Armitage is concerned about the impacts of social media on a child’s sense of self worth and trust. “They are potentially going to grow up feeling violated and paranoid because they didn’t choose this publicity,” she says.
“Every child must have somebody that they can trust implicitly. But if you have a profit-making dynamic with your parents, or they have been the ones posting images of you which are then abused by paedophiles, your whole view of them could come crashing down.”
She warns that this could have a knock-on effect on children’s personal and familial relationships well into adulthood. “There are serious, deep-rooted psychological implications that it can be hard to come back from.”
“Ideally it should be up to parents to protect their children, but it’s clear at this point that that is not happening,” she says.
“These kids do deserve their own rights: somebody needs to stand up for them and protect them. At the moment, no one is.”