Via Instagram reels and TikTok videos, some social media influencers use their children to attract views.
Therapists say this can harm children’s mental health and encourage families to prioritize trust in relationships above social media views.
Last week, a famous YouTube mommy vlogger, Ruby Franke, of Utah, was arrested on abuse charges after one of her children was found malnourished with open wounds and duct tape on their wrists and ankles. The case sheds light on whether it is a good idea for social media influencers to highlight their children online.
While not all social accounts highlighting children lead to abuse, some physicians worry about the impact social media exposure can have on children. Whether posting Instagram pictures of baby’s new outfits or partaking in a new TikTok trend in which parents crack eggs over the heads of their children, adults have found countless ways to use kids for content. But while ‘kidfluencers’ may bring in likes, laughs, or cash, professionals warn that they may be at risk for developing mental health problems.
Jeff Yoo, LMFT, a therapist at Moment of Clarity, a mental health treatment facility in Orange County, CA, says that the nonconsensual use of children online is one of the biggest problems plaguing the influencer industry today. Yoo adds that, especially in the new egg-cracking trend, the adults’ behavior can “foster distrust and hurt feelings.”
Because children mimic and learn from adult behavior—“They do what they see and react the way they feel,” Yoo says—this may impact emotional development.
For influencer and non-influencer families alike, “social media can be detrimental to most people’s mental health,” Yoo says. It can also impact teens and children more aggressively, he adds.
Studies have linked social media to mental health concerns like depression, anxiety, eating disorders, poor self-esteem, suicidal ideation, and self-harm—and that’s just from engaging with it. Influencers may likewise experience added pressure to maintain a body or persona that fits how they want to be portrayed on the internet. Studies also suggest that, in the long run, child celebrities whose parents manage their careers may grow up to think of their parents as less caring—or have otherwise strained family relationships.
Parents in the videos may not be acting with the intent of causing harm, but they can nonetheless impact their young, developing children.
Child influencers in the spotlight
As child influencers have grown in popularity, more people are paying attention to their needs. In addition to addressing mental health concerns, some states are fighting against financial inequalities.
Passed this August, a new Illinois law will protect the financial rights of child influencers. The law, which entitles children to part of the earnings from videos that contain their name, image, or photograph, is the first in the country to directly protect the rights of child influencers. It is set to take effect in July 2024. Other states, like Pennsylvania, are suggesting similar legal action.
While a big step for the ever-virtual US, the law does not protect children’s mental health.
How can we protect kidfluencers’ mental health?
Just as the ways in which parents and children engage in influencer activities are expansive, so too is the complexity of healing from mental health issues. Some families may succeed by taking a break from influencer activities, but others may benefit from consulting a mental health professional.
Laura Fritz, a mom influencer who previously posted a slew of videos of herself and her children on TikTok, wrote on Instagram in March that she was ending her TikTok account “as it was” because she wanted her “kids to have a regular life growing up, without the pressures of social media.”
Yoo says that because social media is rampant in the US, protecting the mental health of child influencers isn’t an easy task—and the solution shouldn’t be banning phone or internet use.
“Media is no longer something we can protect [children] from,” he explains. “Should one parent have restrictions when another doesn’t, they may create a different set of problems in how a child interacts with others.”
Instead, the primary focus for parents and families should be “cultivating trust,” he says. How to go about this may depend on individual scenarios.
As a physician, you may want to check in more closely with children and families about their home life and sense of safety—especially when it comes to social media, to help all members of the family feel safe—or direct them to mental health support if they see fit.