Updated: Nov 22, 2021
Last week I joined a networking group on Instagram supporting fellow female business owners and bloggers. The deal was you comment, the other members follow you and you follow back. I don’t usually partake in these follow threads. Partly because they rarely work and also because I’m careful to connect only with relevant professionals I respect and genuinely want to follow. However, since this seemed like it was a venture for other parents building businesses it seemed relevant enough to give a go.
Now, I have a moral code which prevents me from the whole ‘follow, unfollow’ trend to build followers. So I was absolutely prepared to follow back everyone who followed me. I stood in my kitchen as the follows came through and I clicked onto the profiles, finger poised over the ‘follow back’ button. Most were fine. Most were other mummy/daddy bloggers like me who had shared values. Many though were accounts created for children, managed by their parents. They were the child influencers of Instagram. Profiles filled with pictures of a child or siblings in cool clothing posing for the camera, gathering hundreds of ‘likes’. It was...ick! For each one that I saw I clicked ‘back’. I couldn’t do it. Couldn’t fulfil my moral obligation to return the follow and here’s why.
I’m a 33-year-old woman and I don’t want to be ‘friends’ with 6-year-old girls. Or 6-year-old boys. Or anyone below the age of 18 posing for a camera for which the account handler is gathering likes based on… what? Cuteness factor? Child attractiveness? The personality that has been created with styling and asking the kid to strike various poses?
To be clear, I’m not talking about parents, like myself, who post more pictures of their kids than they do of themselves. It’s totally natural to share pictures of your kids on social media since it’s about sharing your real life. These child influencers of Instagram accounts are not filled with shots of them enjoying everyday adventures. These kids are styled, posed and are often promoting a product or the clothes they are wearing. Some of these accounts have thousands of followers and each well-lit picture getting hundreds of likes. Let’s be clear, money is being made here.
Hopefully, this money is being saved for the child to use for university or a car or the therapy they’re very likely to need when they discover they gave up on part of their childhood to work.
‘Oh, but maybe they enjoy it?’ I hear you say. Yes, I’m absolutely sure they do. Lots of kids love dressing up and are very curious about how they look in pictures. My daughter would love it if I did this with her. I could set up a mini studio in our house, get the lighting, get to work making her a star. I’m sure we’d love putting outfits together. I’m sure we’d study how many likes each picture gets and feel the highs and lows. Maybe we’ll discover the attitude photos get more engagement than the cute poses, so we’ll decide to do more cool shots. Yes, I’m sure she’d love it. Until…
...Until she realises that other kids are spending their weekends going to football matches, having playdates, getting their wellies muddy on woodland walks and not having to wear particular clothing or document each outing.
Until she gets to 12-years-old and she’s not getting so many likes on Instagram because she’s no longer ‘cute’.
Until she goes to secondary school and the other kids act like they already know her because they’ve seen her grow up on social media.
Until she’s 14-years-old and she has an eating disorder because she’s been taught that her value is in the way she looks.
Until she’s 16-years-old and she’s uninterested in education because she plans to make money from her appearance.
Until she’s 18-years-old being humiliated week-after-week on a reality TV show because she’s desperate for that mass love she got as a child. That which gave her worth and made her even more special to mummy.
Maybe that won’t happen. Maybe she’ll get so sick of playing this image of the perfect child that at 14-years-old she’ll tuck her cigarettes into her back pocket, walk out of our house and take a road trip with her 20-year-old criminal boyfriend. Just to prove everyone wrong.
Some child influencers of Instagram are boys, but they’re predominantly girls. Have we not seen enough examples of how damaging child stardom can be? Are we not realising that getting attention for their good looks has not led to particularly happy lives for many celebrities who spent their youth in the spotlight. I won’t name them because it’s cruel and besides, you know who they are, their falls from grace are well canvased around by the same media outlets who helped build their stardom and give them their image.
What are we teaching these child influencers of Instagram is that people pressing that little ‘heart’ button next to your picture can make you money, make you famous, make you feel good. All based purely on their appearance. The worst part about it is it’s a lie.
When I was a child many adults would smile at me and comment ‘aren’t you pretty,’ and ‘such a pretty girl’. I remember, even at the age of seven, wondering why my appearance was always commented upon above anything else. Am I not smart? I thought. Am I not kind, or fun, or creative? Let’s just consider that this was way before such things were discussed in the media. Nobody had ever warned me that being complimented only on your physical appearance might be damaging. I knew this already, at just 7 years old. It made me untrustworthy. It made me cautious in the way where you know that something happening is wrong but you don’t know why or how to express it.
Besides if it were true, what adults were saying about my being pretty, it was not protecting me. I was a bullied child. Homelife was wonderful. I was blessed with two wonderful parents, a little sister and a loyal golden retriever. Yet at school, I struggled to retain friends. I found myself being targeted and I didn’t know why. All I knew was that being a ‘pretty little girl’ was not preventing it. This is what the fairytales, at least the shiny Disney versions, do not tell you. That being pretty does not pave the way for a happy ending.
Having said that, we do know that slimmer, more attractive people are more likely to be taken seriously. Many women have reported that weight loss has been followed by promotions and a higher level of respect both socially and professionally. What we have to ask ourselves is do we want to make ourselves fit into a world where this happens, or do we want to rebel against it? In many ways, when you become a mother, it’s easier to choose the latter. You ask yourself not what you are prepared to do to ‘fit in’, but what you wouldn’t want your child to have to do. These child influencers of Instagram, whose personalities are still forming, are already being given a fast-track lesson on how to wear a mask. Pretend they’re happy, pretend they’re excited, show confidence, show attitude, give us pretty, give us angelic. Don’t show sadness, frustration, boredom, indifference or negativity because people don’t ‘like’ those emotions. Those feelings will not bring you success.
This is why they don’t share the pictures of the point in the photoshoot where the child has got fed-up and wants to go off and play. That’s why they don’t share the hours some of these little girls obviously spend in a chair having their hair pulled and tightened into various styles. They’re not interested in the truth. On which note, let me clarify that the child influencers of Instagram are different from professional child models you see it the Next catalogue or on the Gap Kids website. Companies will always need children to see children’s products but there are strict rules and regulations for this. The children are protected and also, the company’s aim is not to make the model famous. Account handlers (usually parents) of the child influencers of Instagram are relying on being booked for collaborations and promotions because of their high number of followers. I ask you again, who is following kids on social media that they don’t know?
Just where is the outrage about this? I see pro-life activists demanding rights for fetuses, I see outcry when schools dare to teach children sex education. Every time Greta Thunberg appears on social media, thousands of people claim she is being manipulated or used by her parents and other adults around her. Maybe people wouldn’t be so quick to criticise her if she were getting attention for being ‘cute and cool’ rather than expressing beliefs and opinions. I mean, we’re in 2021 and rich powerful middle-aged white male politicians are claiming that she must be being ‘used’. They imply a young girl is not capable of deciding climate change is a serious problem all by herself. Certainly, a little girl is not strong enough to deal with the pressures of activism. Funnily enough, I haven’t seen these same claims being made about much younger child influencers who already have careers selling fashion and products.
Yet, I suppose this is all unsurprising in a capitalist world which celebrates monetary wealth over substance, and style over integrity. I’ve struggled to write this article because I don’t want to shame anybody or judge the decisions of other parents. Regardless, children need parents, not managers. They need play not careers. They need to form real meaningful relationships, not build a fanbase. They need to be treated as human beings, not accessories.
I believe in the freedom for us to all live the way we choose so long as it isn’t hurting anybody. What we need to ask though is is this the life these child influencers would choose if they knew what the consequences could be? Or are they being set up for a future where their self-esteem is dependant on the shallow fleeting approval of ‘virtual’ strangers?