Social media is a brave new world in a lot of ways — and sadly one of them is child exploitation.
Platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram theoretically have policies for how old children have to be before opening an account, but no way to verify the birth dates users input. The result isn’t just kids opening their own accounts without their parents’ permission (though that happens plenty too), but accounts opened for children by their parents in order to monetize their offspring.
The latest example of this is a new star for our social media age: Lil Tay, a foul-mouthed 9-year-old who brags about selling drugs and getting in fights. In one recent video, she says, "This is why all y'all f*cking haters hate me b*tches. This sh*t cost me 200,000. I'm only 9 years old. I ain't got no license, but I still drive this sports car, b*tch. Your favorite rapper ain't doin’ it like Lil Tay."
She is reportedly managed by her mother.
Since the beginning of media, there have been stage moms, standing off to the side directing their children in movies, commercials, television shows, pageants and more.
Of course, this situation is not new. Since the beginning of media, there have been stage moms, standing off to the side directing their children in movies, commercials, television shows, pageants and more. One famous mother-daughter pair sky-rocketed to fame not so long ago: Momma June and Honey Boo Boo, who were originally discovered by TLC as guests on the reality show “Toddlers & Tiaras” and then given their own.
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When their standalone show originally aired, a Hollywood Reporter reviewer said, "'Here Comes Honey Boo Boo’ is a car crash, and everybody rubber-necks at a car crash, right? It's human nature.” He added, “You can say no to visual exploitation. You can say no to TLC. And you can say no to Honey Boo Boo Child. Somebody has to.”
Nobody said no, though: The show went on for two seasons and Momma June got her own spin-off series, even as the family itself fell apart. We can’t turn away; even from child exploitation.
But if “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” was a car crash, Lil Tay is a multi-car collision on some railroad tracks.
We don’t need to ask "Where are her parents?" because the answer is quite clearly that they are behind the camera.
Lil Tay is perhaps the most disturbing of the phenomenon to date (though, one expects it can yet get worse), given her foul mouth and discussions of selling “bricks of cocaine” and clips of her lighting up what appears to be a blunt. We don’t need to ask Where are her parents? because the answer is quite clearly that they are behind the camera. Which leads to another question: Is there anything to be done about it?
When children become involved in traditional show business, they are subject to child labor laws, which govern not just the time they’re allowed to spend on set, but courts in several popular entertainment states like California and New York also sometimes require part of the money they earn be put in a trust. There are numerous stories of parents pillaging their child’s earnings, even despite these laws, which makes it even more necessary for children having their identities exploited by their parents to have at least some financial protection.
While there is nothing easy to be done about how parents exploit their children in the manner that Lil Tay’s obviously do, there is another serious conversation to be had about what exploitation might look like when the cameras aren’t rolling. It’s a deeply disturbing question, but one that authorities should be asking, especially considering some of the claims made by Lil Tay in her videos about drug dealing and illegally driving.
As we saw in the case of Honey Boo Boo and her mother, just because we should look away doesn’t mean we will.
Recently former YouTube parent stars of the channel “DaddyOFive” were sentenced to five years probation for the antics they showed in their online clips of their children, which authorities decided constituted child neglect. Their online abuse translated to real-life consequences; as well it should have.
While there’s not much social media companies can (or perhaps should) do about verifying and policing these kinds of accounts, there ought to be rules about the monetization of accounts starring minors. The social media world is a Wild Wild West; and it may take some regulation to protect all child stars, even those online and in the reality television genre.
As we saw in the case of Honey Boo Boo and her mother, just because we should look away doesn’t mean we will. Unfortunately, there are financial and social incentives to continue to elevate and promote children, but this phenomenon cannot go unchecked.
But, if our culture is unable to disincentivize the extreme online exploitation of children, law enforcement should.
Bethany Mandel is a senior contributor to The Federalist, an editor at Ricochet, a columnist at the Jewish Daily Forward and, in her spare time, a stay-at-home mother of three.