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I first noticed the missing children when I was expecting my first child. I’d always wanted to sew an infant’s blessing gown when I had a daughter, and the time had come. I’d found the perfect fabric and the perfect pattern. But would I need to add any length to it? The pattern didn’t say whether it was knee length or longer, and the finished photo was on a hanger, not a baby. 

That wasn’t a big deal—I went on Instagram, just like I’d done with countless other sewing patterns. Sometimes a pattern wasn’t popular, and it would be hard to find reviews online. But this one had page after page of photos. The only problem? Not a baby in sight. Every picture was flat lay or a close up that avoided showing the dress’s wearer. 

After that, I started looking. I noticed that the only babies I saw online were in parenting spaces—and not always even then. The crowd scenes in movies were all adults, even in places where children were sure to be playing. In my digital world, children only existed when I sought them out. 

The reason isn’t hard to imagine. When a child’s life is shared digitally—especially in a high-profile way—it invites risk. Two recent stories resonated with my deepest fears about child exploitation and the media. 

This past February, the New York Times released a six-thousand-word expose on the dark side of the “Momfluencer” world. It analyzed five thousand accounts run by parents for their preteen girls. Many of the accounts fought to get sponsorship for dancewear and athletic clothing by posting increasingly grown-up or subtly suggestive photos of girls in bikinis or little more. A few accounts even offered exclusive (and less moderated) content to subscribers that paid a monthly fee. Accounts like this are frequently discussed in private “fan club” boards run by pedophiles. Even more terrifying, in a few cases negative attention moved to the real world, with online stalkers attempting to blackmail moms for explicit photos or calling the girls’ school with threats. 

Although most of the girls in these accounts didn’t have direct contact with predators, that’s not the case for all famous children. Last month, millions of viewers tuned into the docuseries Quiet on Set to watch another scandal unfold—this one decades in the past. In the 1990s and 2000s, the Nickelodeon Channel’s stars were among the most famous teens in the world. Shows like Drake & Josh and The Amanda Show catapulted their title teens to stardom, riffing off of adult shows like Saturday Night Live. But when the cameras were off, the atmosphere changed. Dozens of incidents—from uncomfortable jokes to sexual assault—have come to light. Millions of teens looked up to Nickelodeon’s stars, but it came at a high cost to the stars themselves. Social media influencing is still in its infancy, and it’s easy to imagine what secrets will emerge in the coming decades as a new generation of child stars—these ones famous on YouTube, Instagram, or TikTok—grow up. 

Many of the girls who idolized the channel’s teen stars are now young mothers in their 20s and 30s, making decisions about how to let their children connect with the world. Is it any wonder that they’re afraid to let their child be seen online at all, let alone seek “influencer” fame? The choice seems obvious—don’t risk it. Even your private Instagram page doesn’t feel safe, and even mentioning your children in an anonymous post might be dangerous. It’s better for children to be invisible than in danger. 

But in many ways, it’s contributed to an ever-widening gulf between families with children and childless adults. With the decline of third spaces and the shrinking of extended families, online communities often come to replace real-life support networks. At the same time, many parents feel less welcome in public places—afraid that any amount of kids being kids (and that includes talking, laughing, and playing, not just tantrums) will result in dirty looks or being asked to leave. In my experience, it’s become less common to see children tagging along to the grocery store or eating out, or even museums that aren’t specifically for children. Once, little children were told to be seen and not heard. Now, some parents feel their children can’t even be seen—not online, not out and about. If I want to see other parents with children, I have to seek them out in playgrounds and parenting forums, and I wonder if there’s a connection between the two—if our erasing of children from the digital world has helped make a society that won’t let them exist at all.

If so, what’s to be done? I’m not advocating to throw caution to the wind—it’s fine to be uncomfortable sharing our children’s lives online. But as mothers, we’ve spent too long self-segregating. When I was looking at all those kid-free sewing posts, at first I was disappointed. But now, when I see a flat lay baby outfit, I’m glad to see them shared in any form. These sewing moms found a way to share a glimpse into their life with crafting friends and mom friends alike. If we only talk parenting in mom blogs and playgroups, only take our kids to playgrounds and zoos, the world will forget children exist. And at the same time, we as parents miss out too—miss out on events that aren’t catered exclusively to children, miss out on friendships with those who don’t have kids, miss out on teaching our children all the world has to offer. If having a child is an all-or-nothing lifestyle, it’s “nothing” that will win. 

 

Sources: 

https://www.nytimes.com/2024/02/22/us/instagram-child-influencers.html

https://www.max.com/shows/quiet-on-setthe-dark-side-of-kids-tv/af3591a1-d1e5-411d-8cf0-6bea605eb805

Lead photo credit: Media Modifier via Unsplash