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Response to: “A Marketplace of Girl Influencers Managed by Moms and Stalked by Men”

February 26, 2024

By Caroline Miller
Editorial Director, Child Mind Institute

The sexualization of teen and preteen girls has been a growing source of alarm. That concern has been supercharged by the fact that social media seems to amplify the pressure on girls to look —as they would put it — hot!

When we see 10-year-olds modeling in provocative poses, we blame platforms like Instagram and TikTok for exploiting them to make money. So, it’s particularly disturbing when it’s parents themselves who are encouraging and monetizing sexual images of their children.

The recent New York Times exposé on mom-controlled Instagram accounts documents the dark side of these child influencers, highlighting their vulnerability and exposure to sexual predators and pedophiles.

But the story throws a spotlight on the larger issue of how destructive this trend is to the mental health of young girls.

Exploitation is a harsh word for trying to turn your 12-year-old into a star. “But kids and teenagers don’t have the executive functioning skills to understand the implications of what they’re doing,” notes Emma Woodward, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. “They can’t legally give consent for what their parents are posting about them. And I do think they’re being exploited by their own parents.”

Dr. Woodward worries about the parent-and-child relationships as these girls get older and understand who was seeing these pictures. Some parents describe ongoing efforts to purge followers who are inappropriate, and Instagram may be falling short on enforcing their safety guidelines. But some moms admit that they need and want the followers in the interest of jump-starting a child’s modeling career or getting freebies from clothing brands.

These girls are learning from their parents that it’s fine to ignore degrading comments and harassment when they’re on the web – that they can’t hurt you.  “But we know that what happens on the internet doesn’t stay on the internet,” says Dr. Woodward, “and many kids are victims of sex trafficking or sexual harassment because of it.”

For Jessica Janze, PhD, a psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, one of the big concerns is that it’s a parent’s role to teach kids about the kind of boundaries that will keep them safe, and these parents are willfully circumventing boundaries set up on Instagram for that purpose.

“It’s the responsibility of parents to educate children on how to keep their own bodies safe and have clear boundaries,” explains Dr. Janze, “If parents are not teaching that and modeling that, I don’t know how kids are going to learn. And then I can only see that leading to further sexualized behavior and lack of boundaries for these kids into later adolescence and life.”

Using these accounts to raise money is an added concern, notes Dr. Janze, as girls, or any child for that matter, can easily come to feel that they owe subscribers more intimacy. “It’s damaging for children to be taught that their bodies are not their own,” she adds, “or that ignoring boundaries is fine if it’s going to help pay for your college education.”

Brands that are using these kids as advertising vehicles should take a long look at the impact of what they’re doing, but the first line of defense for these children should be their parents.

Teaching girls that being “hot” on the internet is a shortcut to success is the opposite of the kind of message that builds solid self-esteem. “It’s the antithesis of how we try to raise young people,” says Dr. Woodward, “to move the spotlight away from their physical appearance to their strengths and their efforts and their personality.”

This kind of message is harmful to other kids as well. It undermines the parents who actually try to protect their kids by keeping them off of social media until they are old enough to handle it. Kids are seeing their peers blowing up on social media and getting discounts from their favorite brands, and they’re understandably tempted to join in.

So, we applaud the Times for pulling back the curtain on this trend, and we hope it will encourage more protective measures for underage kids on social media platforms. But we also hope that it will make some of these well-meaning families have second thoughts about placing their children in harm’s way online to turn them into influencers.

Read the Full New York Times Article

Tagged with: Media and Tech, Sex and Gender
Caroline Miller
Caroline Miller
Caroline Miller is the editorial director of the Child Mind Institute. In that role she directs development of resources on … Read Bio