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Featuring kids is good business for influencer parents, but at the cost of their future

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

I have three young kids, and they love social media - especially videos of other families and other kids playing with new toys or having lavish birthday parties. The reason there is so much of that content is because there's money to be made from product placements, ads and views. That may be great for influencer parents, but what about the kids? Well, as you're about to hear, it can be rough, like resulting in abusive behavior and self-harm. Hanisha Harjani is a freelance journalist in Berkeley, Calif., who's been looking into what's now called sharenting (ph).

HANISHA HARJANI: You know, when parents share everything about the experience of parenting or raising a family online. But before sharenting was a term, there was what we called mommy blogs, and they kind of really got this whole trend started.

RASCOE: One thing about this is that even though it's, like, happening all over the place, it's still, like, fairly new, generally. Were you able to find a lot of information about the impacts of this?

HARJANI: Yeah, the lack of information actually really surprised me. The experience of these kids is often being gatekept by their parents and, you know, though it seems really wholesome on its face, there's definitely a power dynamic there.

RASCOE: I would assume, though, that the upside, for the parents at least, is that they can probably make some good money. And that may be the justification for, you got to get out here and make these videos.

HARJANI: Totally. And along with the real downsides I found reporting this story, it's also true that vlogging and blogging have been beneficial specifically to moms searching for a community to share their experiences about the struggles and joys of motherhood, which can kind of be isolating. I interviewed one of the first really successful mommy bloggers. She said that the blog was really instrumental for her when she was a new mom and with a crying baby, lots of diapers and no sleep.

HEATHER ARMSTRONG: Everything hurts. Everything is messy and dirty. And, you know, I was so bewildered in early motherhood.

HARJANI: That's Heather Armstrong. She's been in the news lately because she recently died by suicide. When I spoke to her last fall, our conversation was about her writing. Two decades ago, she had one of the hottest blogs on the internet. It was called dooce.com, and it was an outlet for the chaos she felt as a new mother.

H ARMSTRONG: I had no idea what I was doing.

HARJANI: And it turns out there were a lot of other moms out there having similar frustrations.

H ARMSTRONG: Everybody was like, oh, my gosh, we can talk about this with each other. We can say, this is [expletive] hard. What do we do? What are the answers? And laughing about it.

HARJANI: That's what made her blog such a success. It became a place for new moms to commiserate. And Heather was candid. She told it like it is. These days...

H ARMSTRONG: I look around at Instagram today, and everything is just extremely clean.

HARJANI: She said mommy blogging today isn't about finding community. It's become way more commercial - you know, picture-perfect.

H ARMSTRONG: I imagine that there's probably a lot of quiet depression going on with women scrolling through all the really pretty things on Instagram.

HARJANI: This shift in the mommy blogging space started when advertisers saw just how many moms were clicking on these blogs. And they wanted to get in front of that audience too. Heather experienced this change firsthand. As her blog's audience grew, advertisers started to reach out to her, and the money was enticing. But that meant she had to do product placements, and her kids could no longer just draw pictures at home. Instead, they'd go to a decked-out condo that somebody rented out for them and use art supplies that a brand had given them and pose for pictures.

H ARMSTRONG: And it just became this drag where my kids were like, OK, we just want to watch a show and do some art.

HARJANI: Ultimately, this trend towards brand sponsorships and sterile countertops in immaculate homes - it became too much. It's what led her to walk away from her influencing gig. But Heather maintained that her kids were fine being part of her blog.

H ARMSTRONG: My kids do not care.

HARJANI: I asked Heather if her 13-year-old child might be willing to talk to me about their experience being featured online, and she said, maybe. But when I followed up with Heather about the request, she stopped responding to me. I was able to use clues from Heather's blog to track down her other kid, her 19-year-old daughter. I knew her full name from the blog - Leta Elise Armstrong. And I found out that she was going to Drexel University through some comments I found on a subreddit where people talk about the things that mommy bloggers like Heather post.

So, hello. How's it going?

LETA ARMSTRONG: Hi. It's pretty good.

HARJANI: We got on a Zoom call in March, and Leta pushed back on her mom's claim.

L ARMSTRONG: She has had photos where I was like, can you take this down? Sometimes she's like, OK. But sometimes, like, she gets weird about it.

HARJANI: Leta says she gets it. It made a lot of money for the family, and she saw firsthand how it helped her mom feel supported and how it also helped other parents, too.

L ARMSTRONG: I think maybe, like, if she had asked permission to post certain things, I feel like that would have made me feel a little more secure.

HARJANI: Leta says the blog was kind of a double-edged sword.

L ARMSTRONG: I was a little frustrated because, like, I have all this content being put of me online, and sometimes it's not even accurate.

HARJANI: Leta worries sometimes about whether this digital footprint might limit the opportunities available to her. She's thinking about it as she starts applying to jobs and internships.

L ARMSTRONG: I think it's scary to think that, like, I can be judged off of that.

HARJANI: Leta is among a growing number of people struggling with this dilemma. I actually first heard about this problem through someone named Lou. Lou also asked that we only use first names for them and for their mom Jody due to concerns for Lou's safety based on past experiences related to the blog.

LOU: For my mom, the blog was her coping mechanism for everything she was going through.

HARJANI: Lou's mom, Jody, was blogging around the same time that Heather's blog Dooce was in its heyday, though Jody's blog didn't have the millions of followers that Heather's blog did. While dooce.com was tightly curated for its audience, Lou's mom could let it all hang out.

LOU: She was practically raising her five kids by herself, so that was what the community was for her. The community that presented itself to me was a little bit darker.

HARJANI: Lou was just 9 when the blog began.

LOU: I got more creepy requests.

HARJANI: These adults would reach out to Lou online. And like many other kids growing up in the late '90s and early 2000s, Lou spent a lot of time on the computer. Sometimes Lou would even comment on their mom's blog.

LOU: Silly stuff like, hi, Mom, or, like, fart humor or, you know, this is Rocky, and I've taken over.

HARJANI: Rocky - that was the name of the family dog. But it was also what the family called Lou when they were growing up. Their mom's audience would use Lou's username, which was attached to these comments, to track Lou down on other sites - chatrooms, to start conversations. At first, it wasn't completely obvious to Lou who these people were supposed to be. They were strangers, but...

LOU: They already had all of the names to people in our family and, like, places that we'd been, and it felt way more intimate than it really was.

HARJANI: Lou talks about it like a warped parasocial relationship. That word is usually used to describe those one-sided relationships where fans believe they have a real connection with a celebrity. But in this case, the power dynamics are all jumbled.

LOU: There's no way for that child to have autonomy in that situation. The power is on the other side with whoever's consuming the content.

HARJANI: And those adults controlling the conversation - they would message Lou in these online chatrooms, and then they'd suggest to move to phone or video calls. And on these calls, Lou says, there was a lot of...

LOU: Flirting - you know, like, you look so great in this picture. I wonder what you would look like without this on.

HARJANI: And now Lou can even see how some of these adults were grooming them by trying to build trust.

LOU: Like saying that they wanted to be there for, like, emotional support, or, like, I see what you're going through.

HARJANI: Because Lou was going through a hard time, and strangers online could see that from how their mom talked about them on the blog. The persona Lou's mom created for them online was impacting Lou's real life. Lou says it wasn't the only reason, but it was one of the reasons that contributed to them dropping out of high school. Soon after, Lou moved away from home. But Lou realized that the situations they were moving into were not always safer. Years of being approached inappropriately online had lowered their guard for creeps in real life. The first place they moved into after leaving home seemed really good on paper.

LOU: There was this guy who was like, oh, yeah, I'm a deployed soldier. My wife and my 13-month-olds are looking for a roommate and someone to help clean up around the house.

HARJANI: But then Lou says the husband started to cross boundaries.

LOU: Immediately he went into, like, flirting, asked if I wanted to call him master.

HARJANI: This was awful and disappointing to Lou, but it wasn't necessarily new.

LOU: I was like, yeah, this is fine. This is fine. This is how I'm used to being talked to online, like...

HARJANI: Lou and Leta's stories are just the beginning. I mean, have you been on social media? It's full of kids being featured by their parents online.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CAM: I just want to note that today is the first time that I've introduced myself with my legal name in three years because I'm terrified to share my name.

HARJANI: This is Cam. When she was a kid, she was also the subject of a mommy blog. And I actually reached out to her for an interview for this piece, but she never got back to me. What I did find was her public testimony for Washington State House Bill 1627. It aims to protect the interest of minor children who are featured on for-profit family blogs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CAM: At 15, I was in a car accident in which the fire department had to come with the jaws of life to remove a car door off of my leg. Instead of a hand being offered to hold, a camera was shoved in my face.

HARJANI: The Washington bill has stalled in the state legislature, but a similar bill in Illinois was approved by lawmakers earlier this year, and the governor is expected to sign it into law. It's kind of a big deal because it's hard to make laws about parenting, and that's for good reason. Legislating parenting can quickly turn racist or xenophobic. But family blogging is kind of in its own category, a strange gray area where parenting and business overlap. Here's Washington State Representative Kristine Reeves. She sponsored House Bill 1627, and she's a mom who also sometimes features her kids online.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KRISTINE REEVES: The reality is our kids don't always get a choice, though, in how they're included in an online presentation.

HARJANI: Both the proposed laws in Washington and Illinois aim to provide children with the rights to their likeness or their image. That means they'd get paid for participating in content creation - you know, like how children in entertainment have been all this time. Children on online platforms aren't usually considered to be in the entertainment industry, but that's what these bills would be changing.

REEVES: You know, the fight we got into in that committee was like, well, child labor laws should already cover this. But the reality is child labor laws were written for physical workplaces. Child labor laws never conceived of online brand profiles and content creation.

HARJANI: Developmental psychologist, professor and British Psychological Society member John Oates knows this all too well. He's been working with children in media settings for much of his professional life. He even helped create regulations in the U.K. to safeguard child actors taking part in performances on the stage and the screen. But before we even began our interview, he mentioned there really just wasn't much research done into children on the internet in this context. It's hard to get access. I can relate to that. I reached out to so many current parent influencers for this story. Not one of them got back to me.

JOHN OATES: I guess their fears would be that it might show that their work is more harmful perhaps than they would like to believe it is.

HARJANI: According to Oates, there's an inherent power imbalance when it comes to children who are featured heavily on their parents' social media.

OATES: Children are almost inevitably disempowered if an adult asks them to do something.

HARJANI: Where Oates has had most of his experience, in the professional media spaces of film and television, parents of child actors play a really important role. Ideally, they act as a buffer between the production's interest and the child's needs. But when the parent becomes a producer, as is the case for most social media influencers, this relationship is distorted.

OATES: I would say an unacceptable conflict of interest.

HARJANI: This is where legislation may help. At the very least, it will make parents think twice about what they're posting. When I reached out to Lou's mom Jody to get her comments on Lou's experience with the blog, Jody said, quote, "Lou feels traumatized and scarred by my blogging, and I accept the fault," unquote.

RASCOE: To hear more of Hanisha's reporting and our conversation, listen to this week's The Sunday Story on Up First wherever you get your podcasts. And if you or someone you know may be considering suicide or is in crisis, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.