In France, a child can sue her parents for posting pictures of her on Instagram. On any social media network, in fact, it is the responsibility of the French parent to protect a child’s image. The Gendarmerie have even posted on Facebook about it: “Préservez vos enfants!” The law rests on the principle that the images you post of a non-consenting child will endure in the future, and thus may distress or shame the child in the years to come.
We all sort of know this, but brush it off as part of parents’ prerogative to embarrass their kids. Nobody thinks twice about posting a picture of their child throwing a tantrum, for example. Parents have always celebrated their children against their will, from the family photo album on the yuletide knee to the Facebook update.
But all social media platforms are not created equal, and the ones we favor are rapidly changing. In March, the Pew Research Center announced that 35 percent of U.S. adults now use Instagram, an increase of seven percentage points from 2016. Instagram is on a sharply upward trajectory in American culture, challenging, if not surpassing, Facebook as the central place where people perform their identities online.
At the end of 2017, I wrote that Instagram had served as an escape hatch from the awful reality of living in Trump’s America. But by the end of this year, Instagram has become something different. The app has become so dominant, so commercialized, and so lucrative for so many people, that the meaning of its content has changed, ethically compromising even those users who make not a dime from it. This is particularly true for those who post images of their children, since the publication of an intimate family photograph is so fraught with moral questions.
Instagram has become a place where images of children are swapped for cold, hard cash. This poses a multifaceted ethical predicament. If your child likes being photographed, but can’t understand what it means to be famous online, how do you interpret their wishes? Let’s say that your child doesn’t care either way, but your Instagram account gets popular enough that you get free stuff in exchange for your posts, which the child gets to enjoy. Would you be denying the child freebies that they’ve technically earned, because your own moral foibles got in the way? What if you don’t earn anything tangible, but feel like you have to keep posting in order to stay popular, relevant, or even just to seem like a good parent?
As a 2018 Time piece noted, the role of Instagram “influencer” has facilitated a shift in so-called “mommy-blogging,” from standalone websites to social media accounts. Instagram is absolutely full of these shills. A mom, usually white, posts photographs of her beautiful and shining children, in her beautiful, shining home. There’s Susan Sarandon’s daughter @thehappilyeva, former Bachelorette star @alifedotowsky, and the 4.1 million-strong @kcstauffer, to name but a few. These are the paradigmatic mommy-bloggers, and they make money.
To me, this content is exploitative, tacky, and, as France agrees, neglects both the autonomy and the future happiness of the child. Indeed, its very awfulness is part of its appeal, encouraging legions of hate-follows. Want to know how Australian performance-mom Courtney Adamo gets her money? Try scouring the archives at GOMI (Get Off My Internets), a delicious forum dedicated to bitching about the people embracing the influencer career path. As the lifestyle blogger Hey Natalie Jean told The Guardian, GOMI “legitimately put [her] on antidepressants.”
As another GOMI user, Shelly Lyon, told The Guardian, these posters “were pimping their children out on social media for likes and page clicks, which brings in sponsors and brings in money.... it takes out any semblance of autonomy or privacy these kids have. And I find that really distasteful.”
Also, the products they hock are usually ridiculous, like breakfast protein powder.
The IG mommy-blogger poses two chief questions for the regular Instagram user. First, is there a political argument for letting the mommy-bloggers be, even following them? Second, what is the regular, non-famous parent supposed to do about the new economy of Instagram parenting?
One could argue that these women are simply entrepreneurs. If a stay-at-home-mom becomes an Instagram-famous mommy-blogger, and therefore derives an income that recompenses her otherwise unpaid domestic labor, her claim on that cash may well trump the rights of her child. Women traditionally perform undervalued work that is nevertheless crucial to the functioning of society. Maybe the mommy-blogger has simply found wages for the second shift.
Then again, these women (there are a few men, but only a few) are overwhelmingly white, able-bodied, and beautiful, and so are their children. Blame the entertainment and advertising industries, if you want. But it’s our clicks that become the numbers that companies use to calculate who gets what sponcon deal. Every time Instagram serves up some blonde Midwestern domestic goddess on the Explore page and you reward them with a tap of your finger, you are participating in an attention economy that is, through the dark art of the algorithm, continually reinforcing racist and classist ideals of what it is to be lovely, successful, and female.
It’s a system that implicates everyone. Let’s say that you’re a parent. You’re not famous, and you post about your kids in the form of a public diary, updating your friends and family with the events of their day. There’s nothing distasteful there. Unless, well—is your account public? Do you find yourself choosing pictures of your child that make you look like a good parent?
Everybody curates their public image online. But it is worth considering whether the parental instinct to seek company—to be made less alone in the long journey of parenthood—is compromised by the cues and rewards built into the platform itself. Things get uncanny, for example, when normal people post portraits of infants that are elaborately staged and obviously taken with expensive cameras. Even if the parent is not sponsored by a corporation, she or he might as well be, aesthetically speaking, in their effort to represent the child (and their life in general) in portfolio form. The Instagram grid becomes a kind of resumé.
And what if your child does ultimately become Instagram-famous? Once this happens, and your child gets recognized in the street, say, then you have lost control. In a recent article on Babble, for example, the writer asks whether it is “weird” for an adult to follow a child on Instagram. She is reassured by Lizzie Post, great-great-granddaughter of the etiquette queen Emily Post, who says no: “It’s not weird at all to follow a kid on Instagram.” She adds, “It’s not like you’re spying on a child through their bedroom window.”
But it is a little weird for adults to follow children. There are so, so many children with their own Instagram accounts, and they exist because adults have shaped that “career path.” There are child makeup artists who seem like professionals prepping themselves for the inevitable Ellen appearance. There are children on Instagram who are famous for simply being beautiful. (Behold: @beautifulmixedkids.) It may not be akin to spying on a child through their bedroom window, but adults are the ones who are making real money off this stuff—the executives at Instagram and Facebook, and the parents who control the endorsements that kiddie content reels in.
If you’re a normal parent, most of this has nothing to do with you or your intentions. (The media will always tell you that you’re doing everything wrong, and I’ve no wish to malign the innocent.) But, just as Post is missing some important data points in her analysis, I think the rest of us might be too. Just think about what you were like at age 7, 10, or 12. Unless you’re a very young parent, you probably did not grow up with photographs of your childhood splattered online for anybody to find. Beyond the old trope of the Hollywood child star—not encouraging—how can we possibly know what that kind of exposure does to a kid?
When I discussed this article’s ideas with a colleague of mine, she predicted “a wave of memoirs, circa 2030, by people who were psychologically damaged as children because they got posted about too much.” That could be your child. You could be condemning them to a career of misery-memoir with every photo you post. They might not grow up Kardashian-famous, but if you Instagram your child in public and at regular intervals, then you might be doing something that you cannot undo. So take a moment at the turn of the New Year to sit with the new facts of social media and how they could affect your kids’ future happiness. Unless you’re French, in which case just watch out for the cops.