The kids raised by parenting influencers have grown up — and they're talking back
Amil Niazi and Kathryn Jezer-Morton react to Fortesa Latifi’s Teen Vogue piece on the lives of kid influencers
From viral home videos to parenting blogs, family content has been a part of the fabric of the world wide web since the dawn of the Internet itself.
But as parenting influencer culture has evolved, so too have the effects of making such content on its stars: the kids.
Culture critics Amil Niazi and Kathryn Jezer-Morton react to Fortesa Latifi's Teen Vogue piece on the well-being of child influencers, and consider the way influencer parents need to be held accountable for the safety of their children.
We've included some highlights below, edited for length and clarity. For the full discussion, listen and follow the Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud podcast, on your favourite podcast player.
Elamin: I'm excited to get into this. Kathryn, for those people who are less aware, can you give us a sense of what it means to be a "kid influencer"? What does that look like?
Kathryn: Well, it can start when you're an infant. If your parents are taking pictures of you, [or] short videos on TikTok of your routines, feeding you your bottle, waking you up in the morning, it can really just be you toddling around. And then as you get older, you could be wearing clothes from a brand that the parent is affiliated with; it can just be like, cute moments from your life — you know, videos from milestones — and then just everyday stuff, like you going down the slide, messing around in your house. On YouTube, it can also be like, your parents disciplining you, you crying; it can be actually intimate moments from your life, not just the more picture-perfect moments.
Elamin: Right. It's sort of the experience of turning the whole life as a parent and life as a kid into some kind of content cycle, Amil. Like, a visit to Old Navy becomes #OldNavyHaul … So it sort of transforms these ordinary moments of parenting into something bigger. But then we get this Teen Vogue piece. Can you just tell us a little bit more about the focus of this piece, Amil?
Amil: Fortesa Latifi wrote this really illuminating piece in Teen Vogue that looked at the impact of having your entire life be lived in front of the camera, like Kathryn said, from infancy, to have every moment of toddler-hood and preschool-hood up to adolescence be monetized and turned into content, and the implications of that — and sort of looked at that from the child's perspective. It also looked at some of the moms who run these accounts, who have built these tremendous businesses, and asked them why they are suddenly pivoting away from sharing their children on social media. So it was a really interesting piece that is looking at this tide shift that is coming in this world of both mom-fluencing and, for lack of a better word, kid-fluencing.
"Nothing they do now is going to take back the years of work I had to put in.” <br><br>I talked to a young person whose life has revolved around her family's YouTube channel about what she wishes her parents – and others – would do differently<a href="https://twitter.com/TeenVogue?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@TeenVogue</a> <a href="https://t.co/5DMgywTdr6">https://t.co/5DMgywTdr6</a>—@fortesalatifi
I think for so long we've not questioned that these children have been sort of taken on this ride on social media for so long … It's the fact that we're finally starting to hear these kids share what this is like for them. I think every parent that shared [the article] probably saw it as a real wake-up call, and a bit of a warning for how they themselves share their own family life on Instagram and TikTok.
Elamin: So I guess my bigger question is about these kids, about the idea that they get really used to life being documented and they just think this is kind of something that happens to everybody ... What was your reaction in reading that Teen Vogue piece? What else did you take away from it?
Kathryn: I think it's about time that some of these kids speak up, and I think we're just seeing the beginning of this. But to me, actually, something that's more troubling is the kids that don't speak up about this, and also the families, even the audiences who consume this media, who are influenced by it and who begin to incorporate these narratives of social media's version of family life into their own understanding of what it means to be a family. The kids who are growing up who never questioned this, for whom this is what it means to be a family — we document our milestones like this, a successful vacation is as much about getting the content as it is about having fun. When that logic becomes just part of our way of looking at ourselves, I think that's really troubling. I think that's something that is happening and that isn't being talked about, so to me these kids talking about this is actually a source of comfort, in a way.
Elamin: I think it's worth mentioning, Amil, that the privacy and safety of kids in the world of entertainment is not a new thing. We've discussed the issues of how to manage the privacy and the safety of kids as long as the entertainment world has existed. How do the labor laws, do you think, of child influencers compared to the ones on the books for child actors?
Amil: Well, they don't exist at all for these influencers, and that's the big problem. That was one of the things highlighted in the piece, is the fact that there are no mechanisms to protect these kids. If you are a child actor and you're in a film, there are so many people whose job it is to make sure that you are safe, that you are okay, that you are never working beyond the hours that are mandated by law, so that you're not exploited — and that's the goal. That does not exist for these kids — I mean, family life is 24/7, so there's no shut off. This is constant for them, and your boss is your parent, so you can't say no. These are the people that are in charge of your wellbeing. That is the biggest issue, is that there is just no stopping point for these kids and there's no one looking out for their best interests — or rather, I think the scarier thing is the people that are supposed to be looking out for your best interests, are using you as a cash cow.
Elamin: Kathryn, you can't seize the means of production when the means of production is your family. Maybe it's useful to think of this as, when they are on camera, they are working because that work ends up producing the means of how that family ends up living. Maybe we've been focusing on all these parents who are influencers for a living, but all of us take pictures of our children every day. How should we all be thinking about this — the fact that we are all taking pictures and videos of our children every day?
Kathryn: Well, I think it's just common practice to be taking pictures and sharing pictures of your kids. Most people do it; some people don't, and that's great, people have varying relationships to this. But I think that first of all, the platforms own all these images. So there isn't a huge difference between an influencer and a regular parent who's sharing pictures just in the sense that they're searchable. The AI now, our phones know what our kids look like. It's becoming kind of out there. But also, we are introducing a logic of digital storytelling in our families, and I think it's really important for us to be critical of our own practices that way, because I think our kids learn a lot about what fun is, about what being cute is, from the way that we want them to look. I think that we should remain aware that that's something that we're doing as everyday people, not just influencers.
Elamin: Kathryn, I'll just say this: Is there any scenario where you'd feel comfortable getting into the influencer business with your kids?
Kathryn: No. Like, I post on Instagram pretty regularly, so I can't say that I'm totally removed from this. But yeah, my kids — listen, when they're 18, they can do what they want. But I would not. I don't think that's a path that I would encourage now.
Elamin: I love that there was no hesitation at all in that answer. Amil, being a parent is hard. Keeping a roof over your family's head is hard enough. We're not here to judge anybody's decisions or choices. But for parents who have their kids in the influencer business, or even those who post pictures of their kids on social media all the time, last word to you: What do you think we should be considering as they continue to navigate this world?
Amil: It's true, and I'm glad you said that because I post pictures of my kids on social media. I love sharing cute moments and funny moments—
Elamin: They're so cute, by the way.
Amil: —My kids are very cute, like what am I going to say?
Elamin: That's true.
Amil: But, so don't feel bad if you're listening to this and you're like, "Oh, God, but I like sharing those pictures. Do I have to suddenly stop?" I think it's more just about being aware of where these pictures can go, what kind of life they're going to have beyond your account — because they will, and they can, and they do. And I think it's about getting active consent — getting used to saying, "Is it okay if I take your picture? Is it okay if I post it on Instagram? It's just going to be our family and friends who see it." Even if your kids are super young, just get in the habit of making sure that you involve the whole family, because you are sharing the whole family, and every single person in that family should be an active and willing participant in that process. And so I think, don't feel bad about doing it, but just be aware that we are no longer in a place where it's a closed loop. This is a big, wide world, and your kids are going to grow up and look back at it, and it sounds like the kids who have grown up in this world are not super happy about how it's gone so far.
Elamin: Amil, Kathryn, I'm really grateful for you guys being here just to help me navigate this big story. Thank you so much for being here.
Kathryn: Thank you so much for having us.
You can listen to the full discussion from today's show on CBC Listen or on our podcast, Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud, available wherever you get your podcasts.