IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Their children went viral. Now they wish they could wipe them from the internet.

Children “don’t know about the internet,” said one creator. “They don’t know that their images are going to live on forever."
Photo Illustration: A heart obscures a baby's face in an Instagram post
A growing collective of creators are pushing other parents to take similar precautions when they make content about kids. Justine Goode / NBC News / Getty Images

During the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, Kodye Elyse started posting what she described as “normal mom quarantine content” on TikTok. 

Kodye Elyse, a cosmetic tattoo artist, said she "really wasn’t on social media" before then, so she barely had any followers. Because her videos weren’t getting many views, she felt it “wasn’t a big deal” to have a public account to showcase her family’s life during lockdown, with many of the videos featuring her and her daughters dancing around the house.

But the overwhelming response to one of Kodye Elyse’s first viral videos “convinced” her to take her kids offline entirely. The video started with Kodye’s then-5-year-old daughter. She swapped places with Kodye Elyse to the beat of the music and, with a clever edit, appeared to transform into her mother.

Within a few hours, the video had amassed over 6 million views, and her TikTok following grew to 100,000 that week. The comments she got on the video, many of which revolved around her daughter’s appearance, “horrified” her.

“I remember that one of the top comments on it was ‘Wait, no, I liked the first one better,’” Kodye Elyse said. “I made the choice that day. I removed every video of them. I wiped them from the internet. ... I knew she [my daughter] didn’t have a say that her face was being shown to that many people.”

For years, celebrities have obscured their children’s faces from paparazzi pictures and on social media. Now, a growing collective of creators like Kodye Elyse are pushing other parents to take similar precautions when they make content about kids. 

Many in the movement argue that children can’t consent to being online and that they may not have a choice in growing up in the spotlight. Publicly documenting a child’s life can pose higher safety concerns. As social media usership increases — especially on video platforms like TikTok — the potential viewership of every video is limitless. Going viral, whether intentionally or accidentally, isn’t uncommon. 

Children “don’t know about the internet,” said Sarah Adams, a creator who runs the TikTok account Mom Uncharted, which posts videos about the ethics of parents’ content that revolves around children. “They don’t know about social media. They don’t know that their images are being blasted worldwide to billions of people, many of whom are predatory toward children. They don’t know that their images are going to live on forever.” 

Lindsey Cooley, a licensed clinical child psychologist, said she’s especially concerned for children whose parents are full-time content creators, likening them to child stars.

The pressure to perform usually isn’t “on the same level” for influencers’ children as it is for child actors, said Cooley, who uses her TikTok account, drcoolbeanz_psyd, to speak out against sharing children’s vulnerable moments on social media.

But kids can be “conditioned to know that when the phone is out, they should be behaving a certain way,” she said. If family vloggers depend on their content for financial stability, teenagers who don’t want to participate anymore may not have a choice. 

“I think what we’re going to see is a lot of fracturing of identity on some level where kids will be even more disjointed when it comes to who they are,” Cooley said. 

The inability to let go of an ‘invisible audience’ 

Adults whose formative years were shared online may never grow out of experiencing a so-called invisible audience, Cooley said.

Also described as the “imaginary audience,” the term refers to the adolescent belief that others are paying attention to them and scrutinizing their behavior. Most people grow out of it as they grow into their sense of self, but Cooley hypothesizes that those who are “used to being on stage at all times” will struggle to break out of it. 

“People are not always watching us, but when we grow up, when we literally have people always watching us, that’s going to change,” Cooley said. “That’s going to lead to a heightened sense of anxiety, of a felt sense of pressure from the world around us to perform and maybe be something we’re not.” 

Some creators who grew up being watched online are beginning to speak out about their childhoods. Some allege that being so prominently featured on their parents’ social media accounts affected them negatively.  

“I was able to understand social media more as I got older, and that’s when I got really, really bad paranoia about who’s watching me and who’s looking at me,” said Cam, a TikTok creator known as softscorpio. Cam uses they/she pronouns.  

Now 23, Cam, who didn’t want to be referred to by their full name out of concern for their privacy, said their needs were often sidelined by their mother’s constantly posting about them on MySpace and Facebook in the late 2000s to the early 2010s. It has taken a toll on their mental health and shaped how they navigate their own social media presence.

“Even to this day, if someone’s looking at me too long,” they said, “I start to get paranoid.” 

Cam said their mother began posting photos and videos of them on MySpace when they were in the second grade. They didn’t comprehend how many people were watching them grow up, Cam said, until their mother joined Facebook. Cam assumed that their mother knew her thousands of “friends” personally, so they often accepted requests from random adults because their mother was a mutual friend. As a result, they’d sometimes receive disturbing messages.

“I remember I was 12 years old, and I was riding my bike with my friends around the town that we lived in at the time and getting a Facebook message the day after saying, ‘Hey, I saw you riding your bike,’” Cam said. “And it was from an older man, and it was just very uncomfortable.” 

Cam, who is immunocompromised, said that throughout their childhood, they were repeatedly hospitalized for myriad health issues. Every time Cam had a new medical scare, they said, their mother would immediately post about it on Facebook, and people in Cam’s real life would ask about it. 

“It felt so invasive, because I didn’t tell anybody about my health situation, and it was obviously all coming from what my mother was posting,” Cam said. 

The last post their mother made about them, Cam said, changed their perspective. When they were homeless in 2015 to 2016, Cam said, they developed Bell’s palsy, a temporary facial paralysis that they think was caused by the immense stress of living in motels and their car. 

I needed a hand to hold. I didn’t need a phone in the corner of the room recording me.

-Cam, a TikTok creator known as softscorpio

They said they developed severe pain on the side of their face that was paralyzed, and in the emergency room, medical staff members removed their new nose piercing so they could be evaluated. They said their mother stood in the corner recording it all for Facebook.

“I was really scared, because not only did it hurt a lot; it was a big metal tool really close to my face,” Cam said. “I needed a hand to hold. I didn’t need a phone in the corner of the room recording me.”

Attempts to reach Cam’s mother were unsuccessful. She didn’t respond to a request for comment by phone or Twitter message.  

After Cam recovered, they said, they became “very private” around their mother. “I didn’t even bring up health issues that I had, just because I knew this is probably going to be posted online,” Cam said. “I threw up my walls around her. It’s almost like I turned myself off and was one person around her and then a completely different person when I wasn’t around her.”

In later teenage years, they found solace in the anonymity of stan Twitter, where they could gush about One Direction and Fifth Harmony without anyone knowing the intimate details of their medical history. At 18, Cam went to rehab to treat their opiate addiction, they said, after which they left their mother’s home and moved in with their partner, whom they met through Twitter.

Cam said that on TikTok, which they joined in late 2019, they are finally comfortable existing online because they’re in control of what their followers know about them. They have openly discussed their health on the platform, sharing how they recovered from addiction after rehab. They also use their account to advocate for better protections for children online. 

“It was just so therapeutic, almost, because that was the first time in my life that I was ever honest,” Cam said. “And people were really just receptive of that. I was showered with so much love that I had never seen before.” 

'There should be regulations for these kids’

Between YouTube ad revenue and brand collaborations, running a YouTube family channel has been considered a lucrative business.

But the genre has been widely criticized in recent years for relying on children to create monetized content.

The Federal Trade Commission regulates the advertisements that can be shown to children, and on Oct. 19 it hosted a virtual event to discuss “what measures should be implemented to protect children from manipulative advertising” on social media. 

But there are no laws in the U.S. that prevent children from working on social media and becoming part of the ads themselves.  

Traditional media companies that work with children for commercials or on film sets abide by strict labor laws. Neither the Fair Labor Standards Act, a 1938 law addressing “excessive child labor,” nor California’s Coogan Act, which protects child actors, have been updated to include child influencers. 

“There should be regulations for these kids,” said Adams, the creator of Mom Uncharted. “There’s no rules or regulations in regard to their labor, in regard to the money they are making. These kids can be filmed legitimately all day, be creating these advertisements, and there’s no protection that they will personally see a dime of that money later down the road.” 

On her page, Adams often points to videos featuring children as a vehicle to discuss child safety and privacy. She blurs out the faces and the usernames in the original videos to prevent harassment. 

“The problem I have with the family vlogging community are those individuals who are turning their kids into content, meaning the kid is the sole focus of the account or the account would not be successful without regular use of the child,” Adams said. “Those accounts are very different from influencers who share a picture from their vacation or share a photo at Christmas.”

Creators like Kodye Elyse have overhauled their entire social media presences to protect their children. 

Bobbi Althoff, a creator who started on TikTok by posting sardonic videos with her daughter “Richard,” removed all of the content with her baby from her public social media accounts in January. Since then, “Richard” and Althoff’s younger daughter, “Concrete,” who was born this year, have appeared on her Instagram and TikTok accounts with their faces obscured. 

In an August episode of the “Idiot” podcast, the comedian Laura Clery explained why she stopped posting her kids on social media, where she has 6.9 million TikTok followers and 3 million Instagram followers. 

“Our kids did not consent to being online,” she said in a video. “And I have posted our entire family, and I just started feeling this immense guilt, going, ‘They didn’t ask for this.’”

As for Kodye Elyse, since she took down the videos of her children, she has been vigilant about maintaining their privacy.

Much of her TikTok account, which now has 3.9 million followers, revolves around parenting content. She often features her ex-husband in lighthearted videos about co-parenting or updates her followers about dating as a single mom.

Her three children now rarely show up in her videos — and if they do, their appearances are limited to just their hands or their voices.  

She decided to home-school her kids in a “co-op” program after their school’s name and address were leaked online, and she routinely instructs teachers, babysitters and parents of her kids’ friends to never post photos of her children online. She also avoids any content featuring children on TikTok.

Long-term effects of growing up online are still unknown

Because social media is “so relatively new,” there’s little clinical research on the long-term effects of growing up online, said Cooley, the clinical child psychologist.

Older Gen Z, she said, is the “first generation that’s been raised more or less completely online,” but it was less common for their parents to post them on public social media with the frequency and intimacy that many parents do now. 

Children who grew up while social media was less widespread may have been included in the occasional family photo on a parent’s private Facebook account, “where just Grandma was going to click the like button,” Cooley said. Today, a child’s temper tantrum might end up on millions of TikTok users’ feeds as a “funny” viral video.

“We have [parents] posting to hundreds of thousands of followers out there, of their child experiencing what is likely one of their worst moments,” Cooley said. “And it’s hard for the adult brain to grasp what logic is for a 2-year-old throwing a fit in a grocery store, but their lives are so small, and their world is so contained. What would it be like if in your worst moment, when you felt like absolute crap, someone took a video and posted it for everyone to see?” 

Kodye Elyse said she knows she can’t keep her kids offline forever, especially as they reach adolescence and want their own communities. 

She said that even though they know they aren’t allowed to show their faces, her older kids often ask her to appear in her videos. One of her daughters danced beside her in a recent TikTok video — in a unicorn mask that covered her head.