I Sold The Kids

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We have laws to protect children from factory work. Why aren’t they protected from parents who monetise their lives online?

4 Children For Sale': The Sad Story Behind The Infamous Photo

When it’s dark outside, and the lights are on, I can see straight into my neighbour’s house. It’s a few days before Christmas, and she appears to be performing a mini Broadway show – in her pyjamas. In front of a tastefully decorated tree, she squeals ‘It’s tiiiiiiimmmeee!!!!’ as she drops to the floor on her knees, spreads jazz hands, and wiggles her chest. Her smile is a dazzling white, her honey-coloured hair sits in bouncy waves. Behind her, three young girls, in matching nightwear, twirl with giant candy sticks.

One day, I pick up binoculars. For hours, I observe this picture-perfect mother, her strong-jawed husband and their five children, as they eat, read, sing and dance. My neighbour opens her curtains a little wider – she wants me to watch her. Soon she starts showing me products she uses so that, I too, can purchase this fantasy existence and be just like her.

I don’t spy on my neighbours. (I would be arrested.) But I’ve spent hours doing a completely legal equivalent: trailing fellow mothers online. Madison Fisher provides footage of everything, from the monumental (the birth of her twins) to the mundane (meal prep), to millions of followers on YouTube and Instagram. She is one of thousands of mothers on social media – dubbed ‘momfluencers’ – who open up their lives for my consumption.

Instagram gained popularity as a clever way to add filters to your spring break photos. When sponsored posts were launched, following the company’s sale to Facebook in 2012, it transformed into something else entirely: a giant shopping mall. In 2021, 3.8 million Instagram posts were marked worldwide with the hashtag #ad, a 27 per cent jump from the year before. Instagram runs on sex, for sure: scantily clad women sell lipstick, handbags and dietary supplements. It also runs on what happens nine months later: babies.

And with babies come the mums, selling an apotheosised version of motherhood. It’s big money: the perfect mum in the United States must have a flat stomach, shiny hair, a cool job, a handsome husband, be able to cook a balanced organic meal, and be rich – all with the help of ‘sustainable’ skincare brands, fitness apps, weight-loss programmes, and the latest fashion. The more intimate the image, the more the message appears authentic. In one photo posted to her 29 million Instagram followers, the US model Emily Ratajkowski lies naked and languid in the bath as her toddler son cuddles her. Captioned ‘Loml’ (‘love of my life’), it’s a sweet snapshot of motherhood. It is also a brand-building exercise.

Cute children are clickbait, adult nudity even more so. When an online backlash accused Ratajkowski of being ‘inappropriate’, she responded with a TikTok video. In it, she dances with her giggling son, mouthing a song by Megan Thee Stallion: ‘Talk about something y’all like, stop talkin’ ’bout me.’ Yet talking ’bout me and gaining followers – which can be turned into lucrative brand deals, modelling gigs and business opportunities – is exactly the point for Ratajkowski, who uses Instagram to promote work ventures including her swimwear line Inamorata. Instagram, YouTube and TikTok have heralded an era of gauche personal branding where success is measured in followers and ‘Likes’, exposure trumps privacy, and fame translates into cash. In an influencer’s life, everything is for sale – including the kid

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I first delved into the world of momfluencers during the pandemic. Living in New York and heavily pregnant, I came across an influencer who had just had her own baby.

Where other mothers used their platforms to address difficult topics (fertility problems; toddler tantrums) and offer tips, this momfluencer embodied a more toxic genre: the aspirational, fabulous and unreal. Nothing in her life seemed sacred. She gave tours of her house, tagging her bespoke ceramics, wallpaper and designer chairs; performed photoshoots with her mini-me baby for clothing campaigns; holidayed at exclusive beach resorts. Endless packages arrived at her house stuffed with products sent from brands seeking publicity. Her kid was adorable, her husband supportive. Her life looked effortless! It looked like so much work.

In 2016, the burgeoning US industry of influencer marketing was worth $1.7 billion. By 2021, this had ballooned to $13.8 billion. Within this world, momfluencers are particularly coveted. They provide safe, family-friendly content, appear to put others first, and appeal to fellow mothers – a lucrative market, given that women made 83 per cent of all consumer purchases in the US in 2019.

The top 1 per cent make six-figure salaries, charging $125,000-plus for a single post

Among Millennials, 92 per cent view influencers as more trustworthy than celebrity endorsements or traditional adverts. ‘[Influencers] have developed a long-term relationship with the women following them – their community of followers trusts them,’ Maria Bailey, a specialist in marketing to mothers and the founder of the Florida-based BSM Media, tells me. ‘That’s why they’re good at selling things to other people.’

The momfluencer economy is much like the regular one: wildly unequal. The top 1 per cent make six-figure salaries, charging $125,000-plus for a single post. The rest dabble, hawking diapers for a few hundred dollars. But there is a potential (and growing) goldmine for those who succeed: in 2019, Forbes estimated that the ‘new mom economy’ (the apps, products and services targeting Millennial parents) stood at $46 billion.

One thing is certain: you can’t be a momfluencer without kids. Or without pushing those kids into the public eye – handing them on a digital platter to ever-ravenous spectators hankering for access. And you can’t be a momfluencer without putting your kids to work.

Children have earned their keep across the centuries, of course, labouring on the family farm, in factories, down the mine, or as household servants. The idea of ‘childhood’ as something sacrosanct, where play is protected, education encouraged and child labour heavily regulated, is relatively recent. Both Catholics and Protestants believed that humans carried Adamite sin. The English cleric Thomas Becon declared in 1550 that ‘a child in Scripture is a wicked man, as he that is ignorant and not exercised in godliness.’ A Nuremberg catechism maintained that even unborn babies had ‘evil lusts and appetites’. Slothfulness was frowned upon; lazy kids were immoral. These views bled into industrialisation, fuelled by child labour. In 1790, one London industrialist proposed using children in his textile factories to ‘prevent the habitual idleness and degeneracy’ destroying the community.

A spinner in Whitnel Cotton Mill, December 1908; from Lewis Hine’s exposé series on child labour in the United States, which did much to end various practices. Courtesy the Library of Congress

When Jean-Jacques Rousseau rejected the concept of original sin in his seminal work Émile, or On Education (1762), his theories were radical. Rousseau insisted that children are born innocent, only to be corrupted by the world. In the 1800s, Romanticism crystallised this idea, largely in opposition to children’s brutal working conditions. Poets such as William Wordsworth and William Blake idealised a carefree childhood that, once lost, could never be regained. In his books, the wildly popular Charles Dickens – who provided the serialised HBO entertainment of his day – exposed the exploitation of children.

Only wealthier households could afford to safeguard and nurture their offspring

‘What happens in the 19th century is very novel: people begin to think of a world where children should not work,’ says Hugh Cunningham, a historian of childhood at the University of Kent in England. Minors working in mills and mines were no longer considered productive citizens, he says, but ‘children without childhoods’.

Child mortality, meanwhile, was dropping and families were getting smaller. ‘Children become a little more precious,’ notes James Marten, the author of A Very Short Introduction to the History of Childhood (2018). Yet only wealthier households could afford to safeguard and nurture their offspring. Working-class children needed state protection. In 1833, the UK’s Factory Act prohibited the employment of children under nine, limited their working hours, and insisted they should receive schooling. In the US, it wasn’t until 1938 that child labour was regulated by federal law via the Fair Labour Standards Act.

In an almost parodic extension of this trend, today’s children are not only the most sheltered and overprotected generation in history, but the boundaries of childhood keep expanding: the 2017 US Census showed that more than a third of young adults (aged 18-34) live with their parents. We have fetishised this period of our lives and made it so cosy and devoid of real responsibility that we want to remain cocooned in it for as long as possible. The lucky, lavished with material gifts, and guarded from physical danger, are given every possible educational opportunity. Yet technology means they are also at their most exposed: mentally, emotionally, legally. The average kid in the 1950s might get their hands on a Playboy magazine but, today, children as young as 11 are watching porn. More worrying, this is a generation whose childhoods are being recorded, and mined – for family and friends, but also for the mass entertainment of strangers.

Sentimentalised childhoods with their nostalgic narratives have been co-opted for commercial ends before. In the 1900s, illustrations, then photographs, of chubby babies were used to hawk Pears’ Soap. In the 1930s, the child star Shirley Temple appeared in ads for Wheaties cereal. In the 1970s, the British actress Patsy Kensit got her TV break as a loveable four-year-old selling Birds Eye peas, with the now-iconic phrase ‘Sweet as the moment when the pod goes pop.’ Such commodification of childhood continues unabated. But, amid the murky mechanics of social media, children are no longer just selling goods in clearly marked advertisements; instead, they are symbols of an enviable lifestyle that their parents are turning into profit.

Grace Daly (3 years old) and Maud Daly (5 years old), shrimp pickers at the Peerless Oyster Co, Bay St Louis, Mississippi, March 1911, photographed by Lewis Hine. Courtesy the Library of Congress

Momfluencer sites may look spontaneous – full of seemingly snatched, candid moments – but it is now standard practice for macro influencers (those with more than 100,000 followers) to plan their content months in advance and to be represented by an agency, according to Danielle Wiley, the founder of an influencer marketing agency, writing in Forbes. Influencers increasingly use professional film crews and photographers, too, either paid for by the brand or out of pocket.

For each image used, hundreds are taken, then edited and Photoshopped. Meanwhile, paying brands expect to approve the final post before it goes live, and agents negotiate beforehand whether or not the children will appear. Content, too, is often scripted: kids are asked to repeat mottos for the likes of Zara or Target as if off the cuff. Although momfluencers talk in their posts about how much they love their little ones, the timing of their declarations is often choreographed to tie in with holidays such as Mother’s Day or Valentine’s. The ‘engagement’ (the number of ‘Likes’ and comments a post receives) is tracked to see how effective an influencer is at building an audience. If a post is not connected to a product, it still needs to be in line with the influencer’s own brand: whether that’s sassy fashionista, craft mum, or girl boss entrepreneur. And even if the momfluencer can’t yet afford an outside team, achieving slick-looking images is born of studied contrivance and detailed preparation. As an industry contact told me: ‘It’s very rarely authentic.’

When mothers put little girls at the centre of their feeds, ‘there is a slightly higher amount of male followers’

In 2017, the Arizona-based twins Mila and Emma Stauffer became sensations, aged two, when an Instagram video of them giving each other career advice went viral, amassing more than 5 million views. Emma wants to be a teacher. ‘Emma, you hate kids!’ Mila retorts. ‘How about a doctor?’ Emma asks. ‘Emma, you hate blood!’ says Mila. The video ends with Emma clutching Mila’s face: ‘We’ll get through this, sweetie.’ Since then, the twins, now aged eight, have won lucrative contracts, working for brands such as Amazon and Walmart. It has allowed their mother, Katie Stauffer, to build her own massive online following and quit her day job in real estate.

More disturbing is a notable focus on little girls channelling beauty pageant vibes, who twirl for the camera in frilly smocks, suck on lollies, and flutter mascaraed lashes. Madison Fisher’s three-year-old daughter Halston appears in a video sporting a full face of make-up on her very own Instagram account (followers: 570,000), while coaxing the camera, saying: ‘I’m so good at doing lipstick.’ She is good – it looks professional and extremely adult, in contrast to her big eyes and babyish voice. There is every chance that her mother thinks it’s cute, yet the video displays a blithe ignorance about predation. ‘When mothers put little girls at the centre of their feeds,’ Bailey of BSM Media tells me, ‘I get uncomfortable … because we will look at the followers and there is a slightly higher amount of male followers.’

As more and more children front brands, this is not the only blindspot. We are (rightly) outraged if a dress is assembled by an eight-year-old sweatshop worker in Bangladesh; but we don’t think twice if that same dress is marketed to us by an unpaid, unprotected eight-year-old in the US. Influencer kids are not being kept out of school. They don’t live in crushing poverty and are not going to lose a limb if a machine malfunctions. But that’s not to say that their exposure extracts no mental toll. Performing your childhood for an outside, unseen and adult global audience can mess you up – just ask Macaulay Culkin.

Still, influencing has reached the upper echelons of celebrity; few stars today feel able to exempt themselves from the public portrayals of their private lives that keep them relevant – including posting images of their children. Indeed, influencing has acquired a royal imprimatur, with the persistent self-exposure of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. They seem always to be promoting something – their books, their documentaries, their sun-drenched, airbrushed Californian lifestyle – using their children when it suits them, even as they lash out when the press violates their privacy. Harry is at pains to point out that, where the tabloids never sought permission to splash surreptitiously snatched images of him as a child across their front pages, he is consenting to the use of intimate footage of his kids in Harry & Meghan (2022), the most-watched documentary on Netflix. ‘I think consent is a really key piece to this. That, if you have children, it should be your consent as to what you share,’ he has said. Yet the question of consent is in some ways beside the point. Impact is the problem, and the law has yet to catch up.

Legally, parents have complete discretion over what they share of their kids in public, so long as there is no outright abuse. Their children have no control and cannot meaningfully consent to the public use of their image – let alone understand the long-term consequences. When money changes hands, there is a conflict of interest: parents stand to benefit the most, yet they are also entrusted with putting up the guardrails.

Some governments are wising up to the problem, but they’re outliers. In 2020, France introduced a new law to protect child influencers, which regulates the hours that children can work, specifies that a portion of their earnings be set aside, and enshrines the right to be forgotten. In certain US states including California, child performers who appear in TV shows and movies have similar rights under the Coogan Law: parents must apply for a work permit and put 15 per cent of their child’s earnings into a trust. However, children who appear on social media – even in commercial campaigns – have no such protection.

‘No other industry relies so heavily on child labour that is also so completely unregulated,’ says Leah Plunkett, a lecturer at Harvard Law School and the author of Sharenthood: Why We Should Think Before We Talk about Our Kids Online (2020). Influencers are running a family business, in which the government is loath to interfere. But, as Plunkett tells me: ‘It is very different for a child to work at the weekend at the family bakery than it is for a child to be filmed sleeping, playing, studying, and have a global audience of an unspecified number of viewers now and in the future.’

She forced her seven children to perform on YouTube by beating them and using pepper spray

To keep fans engaged, influencers must continuously up the ante. In one widely condemned video, the YouTube star Savannah LaBrant in California tells her daughter Everleigh Rose they are giving away the family dog. Only after the little girl grows too upset to speak, hiding her face from the camera, does her mother reveal it’s an April Fool’s prank. The Fisher family in Utah likewise set up staged scenarios to create tension and drama. In the vlog ‘Taytum VS Oakley: ONE TOY’ (2019), Madison conducts an ‘experiment’ on her twins under the guise of teaching them how to share. She gives a brand-new toy horse to one, and a twig from the garden to the other, and then swaps the presents, giving the twig-girl the horse and the horse-girl an orange square. The latter has a tantrum, hurling the square across the table. Then, the big reveal: both twins are given new horses and are happy! The video has received 1.7 million views, with compliments coming thick and fast (‘I love their outfits btw!! super adorable!!’) But others are critical: ‘You get a new toy for throwing things and pitching a fit … Great teachable experience!’

Lawmakers intervene only when influencers veer into outright maltreatment. In 2019, Machelle Hobson was arrested in Arizona after forcing her seven children to perform on YouTube by beating them and using pepper spray. Other cases are less straightforward. When Myka and James Stauffer (no relation to Katie Stauffer) adopted an autistic boy from China to join their four biological children in Ohio, he became part of the Stauffer family brand. The Stauffers renamed him Huxley and, in 2018, filmed the three-year-old for a post featuring a hypoallergenic laundry detergent. In the video, Myka coos: ‘One thing I did to help our bond was decide to use Dreft baby detergent.’ On Instagram she poses on freshly laundered linens, cuddling Huxley, with the caption: ‘I wouldn’t trade him for anything!’ Patently, however, she has traded his image. For cash. And two years later, the Stauffers traded him in for real, quietly rehoming Huxley with a new family. One can’t help but wonder if the boy’s adoption was part of an outward-facing, do-gooding push to help the Stauffers showcase their pastel-perfect world.

Exploiting a vulnerable autistic child to sell detergent would, if regulation worked as it is intended, be a no-go area for conventional advertisers. But influencers operate in the equivalent of a digital Wild West. Of course, as with everything, there is a spectrum. Ratajkowski uses her son like an accessory, ­a star to her moon, while the Fisher kids are essentially child actors. Thousands of children work somewhere in between. The majority aren’t earning millions unboxing plastic toys or being sadistically abused. Their job is like everyone else’s. Which is to say, they’re mostly just bored.

But they do work. If you think that it isn’t hard work trying to get a small child to stand still, look at the camera and say ‘Cheese!’ – while also catering to the requirements of a paying brand – then you haven’t spent much time with kids. One ‘#momtip’: get your child to wear sunglasses to hide the fact they aren’t looking directly at the camera. Another: bribery. In one photoshoot with her husband and toddler, the mega-influencer Abbie Herbert in Pennsylvania admitted in the caption: ‘yes that is a cookie in her hand & yes we used it to get a few more shots’.

The pressures are real: influencers run mini media empires, producing the equivalent of a daily magazine. ‘They’re hustling, they’re running their own advertising department, they’re running their own editorial creative department,’ says the journalist Jo Piazza, whose podcast Under the Influence takes a deep dive into momfluencing. ‘Everything you do is a branding decision. Your life is branding, which is exhausting mentally and psychologically.’

Although we know that adolescents, especially girls who use social media heavily, are more likely to suffer from low self-esteem, depression and anxiety, we do not yet know how exposure will affect children raised on public sites – how they’ll feel once they’re teenagers and no longer able to trade on their ‘cute’ currency; how growing up in a narcissistic system that so nakedly chases the approval of others might impact them. Given how new influencing is, there are next to no academic studies on the effects on small children.

In a series of TikTok videos from 2021, Lou Nomington, then aged 26, detailed the ongoing aftermath of appearing as a child on their mother’s ‘mommy’ blog. Wearing their hair in a braid and clutching a toy koala, Nomington described feeling always ‘on’: ‘Even in the privacy of our home, you could always expect the camera to be around, and any conversation that you had, regardless of how embarrassing or intimate or private it was, it could end up on the blog.’ Nomington remains ‘stressed’ about how they are received by strangers; in an interview with the YouTuber Dr Ryan in 2021, Nomington was particularly incensed at how their mum’s audience was ‘making judgments about us growing up at every stage of our life.’

Karen North, an expert in digital media and psychology at the University of Southern California, tells me she is not surprised: ‘We’re seeing the problems of child actors amplified because the shows are available on demand, and because it’s not a kid portraying a character, it’s a kid’s actual life and vulnerabilities being exposed for other people’s entertainment. There is no way to deal with things privately because their problems are now open for public scrutiny.’

Insta careers seem to promise a way to beat the economic merry-go-round while staying at home with the kids

Who is benefiting? Influencers, yes. The kids, maybe. Big tech, definitely. Companies such as Meta, which owns both Facebook and Instagram, seek to maximise engagement, keeping users on their phones for as long as possible using psychological tricks so they can then track data and advertise to viewers. Madison Fisher may be a millionaire; Mark Zuckerberg is a billionaire.

Before we condemn these mothers, consider what an impossible task modern motherhood has become. Raising a child in the US today costs around $16-17,000 a year. There is ‘no childcare system, the school day doesn’t mirror the work day, we have no elder care help,’ says Jessica Grose, the author of Screaming on the Inside: The Unsustainability of American Motherhood (2022). Plus, working mothers still do the vast majority of household chores. Insta careers seem to promise something too good to be true: a route out – a way to beat the economic merry-go-round while staying at home with the kids.

At root, babies make business. As Chris McCarty, the 18-year-old founder of the advocacy site Quit Clicking Kids, notes: ‘A lot of channels get a baby bump, and when they have a new kid their views and their ratings go up. They typically squeeze every last ounce out of the pregnancy, birth and naming,’ and go so far, on occasion, as releasing footage of their child’s birth or first skin-to-skin contact as sponsored content for brands.

Is it so bad to have a career that rewards rather than penalises having more children? One that improves a child’s living standards? Presumably, kids raised online have better access to digital skills – to say nothing of lessons in how to brand themselves. The pre-teen appearances of Kendall and Kylie in the reality show Keeping up with the Kardashians (2007-21) have translated into fame and fortune: Kendall Jenner is now a supermodel, and Kylie Jenner is a retail queen. Their path to riches likely inspired and sanctioned the decisions of many momfluencers, just as their sister Kim Kardashian’s infamous ‘break the internet’ displays were a boon to body-positive activists.

Momfluencers love their kids as much as anyone else, of course. But that’s not to say that their hustle isn’t manipulative, and perhaps cynical. Most momfluencers aren’t struggling working-class mothers living in public housing and surviving on food stamps, but middle-class women who already exist in material comfort, and whose message to the rest of us is consume, consume, consume. A mother in Ohio, whose child is hawking the latest Barbie, is, through the most innocent-seeming means – childhood joy! – knowingly promoting a system in which rampant materialism has become a warped sign of moral success and personal wellbeing. Momfluencers aren’t offering what they purport to offer: an idyllic family, attainable for everyone. They’re airbrushing their lives to fit consumerist ideals, and co-opting their children as props in order to sell, and receive, material goods.

Even so, the impulse to make money can distract us from an equally powerful currency that is never explicitly stated: the quest for validation and the crushing need for human beings to be seen. If children were once employed under the questionable motive of avoiding idleness, now they are employed as tools to shore up their parents’ egos: who doesn’t want to hear that their kid is clever, or musical, or pretty? Whenever someone ‘Likes’ a photo, or leaves a comment, the reward centres of our brain light up. Influencers get a double dopamine dip: from interaction and money. That’s ‘a recipe for addiction that is incredibly powerful,’ notes the psychologist Mitch Prinstein, the author of Popular: The Power of Likeability in a Status-Obsessed World (2017). ‘People will do whatever they have to get that response, even if it involves questionable choices.’

The digital media expert Karen North believes that momfluencers operate as stand-ins for the family sitcoms of past eras. In a cosy, colour-saturated world where nothing bad happens, we get to see parents parent, children grow up, festivities come and go, offering us a benchmark from which to judge our own actions – and worth. Yet there’s also a hidden nugget of shame embedded in the relationship between influencer and fan: the knowledge that the fan’s life is flawed. Their family is less photogenic, their dinners less healthy, their holidays less magical. Influencers promise that what they have – what they are – is achievable for you, if only you click on the product link and follow their example. You have to pinch yourself very hard to remember that it is all staged. You can’t buy yourself into being a good mum. You can’t purchase a perfect family. Even influencers go home to screaming kids.

My husband and I have a shared photo album for friends and family, where we post pictures of our two-year-old daughter, but we’ve never published a photo of her in public. We want her to play away from prying eyes, to value her privacy as priceless, to know that mistakes are OK because life is messy. Her everyday reality is a far cry from the saccharine images of children portrayed on social media. Every morning she runs headlong into me for a sloppy kiss and cuddle. She throws her meals on the floor, empties bottles of water in the bathroom, and gets frustrated when she can’t put on her shoes.

As for me, when I scroll through Instagram, I imagine that I’m looking at a towerblock of windows. Hundreds of people are vying for my attention, manic puppets twirling in little boxes and pools of light. I have decided that I don’t need their products, or their inspiration. I don’t need to see how they live their lives to know how I should live mine. And I don’t need big tech and big brands pulling my strings so I buy more and more things. Let them prance and dance for someone else. I am closing the curtains.