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A Marketplace of Girl Influencers Managed by Moms and Stalked by Men



A Marketplace of Girl Influencers Managed by Moms and Stalked by Men​

Seeking social media stardom for their underage daughters, mothers post images of them on Instagram. The accounts draw men xesually attracted to children, and they sometimes pay to see more.

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Published Feb. 22, 2024 / Updated Feb. 25, 2024

The ominous messages began arriving in Elissa’s inbox early last year.
“You sell pics of your underage daughter to pedophiles,” read one. “You’re such a naughty sick mom, you’re just as sick as us pedophiles,” read another. “I will make your life hell for you and your daughter.”
Elissa has been running her daughter’s Instagram account since 2020, when the girl was 11 and too young to have her own. Photos show a bright, bubbly girl modeling evening dresses, high-end workout gear and dance leotards. She has more than 100,000 followers, some so enthusiastic about her posts that they pay $9.99 a month for more photos.

Over the years, Elissa has fielded all kinds of criticism and knows full well that some people think she is exploiting her daughter. She has even gotten used to receiving creepy messages, but these — from “Instamodelfan” — were extreme. “I think they’re all pedophiles,” she said of the many online followers obsessed with her daughter and other young girls.
Elissa and her daughter inhabit the world of Instagram influencers whose accounts are managed by their parents. Although the site prohibits children under 13, parents can open so-called mom-run accounts for them, and they can live on even when the girls become teenagers.

But what often starts as a parent’s effort to jump-start a child’s modeling career, or win favors from clothing brands, can quickly descend into a dark underworld dominated by adult men, many of whom openly admit on other platforms to being xesually attracted to children, an investigation by The New York Times found.

Thousands of accounts examined by The Times offer disturbing insights into how social media is reshaping childhood, especially for girls, with direct parental encouragement and involvement. Some parents are the driving force behind the sale of photos, exclusive chat sessions and even the girls’ worn leotards and cheer outfits to mostly unknown followers. The most devoted customers spend thousands of dollars nurturing the underage relationships.

The large audiences boosted by men can benefit the families, The Times found. The bigger followings look impressive to brands and bolster chances of getting discounts, products and other financial incentives, and the accounts themselves are rewarded by Instagram’s algorithm with greater visibility on the platform, which in turn attracts more followers.

One calculation performed by an audience demographics firm found 32 million connections to male followers among the 5,000 accounts examined by The Times.

Interacting with the men opens the door to abuse. Some flatter, bully and blackmail girls and their parents to get racier and racier images. The Times monitored separate exchanges on Telegram, the messaging app, where men openly fantasize about xesually abusing the children they follow on Instagram and extol the platform for making the images so readily available.

“It’s like a candy store ,” one of them wrote. “God bless instamoms ,” wrote another.

The troubling interactions on Instagram come as social media companies increasingly dominate the cultural landscape and the internet is seen as a career path of its own.

Nearly one in three preteens lists influencing as a career goal, and 11 percent of those born in Generation Z, between 1997 and 2012, describe themselves as influencers. The so-called creator economy surpasses $250 billion worldwide, according to Goldman Sachs, with U.S. brands spending more than $5 billion a year on influencers.

Health and technology experts have recently cautioned that social media presents a “profound risk of harm” for girls. Constant comparisons to their peers and face-altering filters are driving negative feelings of self-worth and promoting objectification of their bodies, researchers found.

But the pursuit of online fame, particularly through Instagram, has supercharged the often toxic phenomenon, The Times found, encouraging parents to commodify their children’s images. Some of the child influencers earn six-figure incomes, according to interviews.

“I really don’t want my child exploited on the internet,” said Kaelyn, a mother in Melbourne, Australia, who like Elissa and many other parents interviewed by The Times agreed to be identified only by a middle name to protect the privacy of her child.
“But she’s been doing this so long now,” she said. “Her numbers are so big. What do we do? Just stop it and walk away?”

In investigating this growing and unregulated ecosystem, The Times analyzed 2.1 million Instagram posts, monitored months of online chats of professed pedophiles and reviewed thousands of pages of police reports and court documents.

Reporters also interviewed more than 100 people, including parents in the United States and three other countries, their children, child safety experts, tech company employees and followers of the accounts, some of whom were convicted xes offenders.

The accounts range from dancers whose mothers diligently cull men from the ranks of followers, to girls in skimpy bikinis whose parents actively encourage male admirers and sell them special photo sets. While there are some mom-run accounts for boys, they are the exception.

Some girls on Instagram use their social media clout to get little more than clothing discounts; others receive gifts from Amazon wish lists, or money through Cash App; and still others earn thousands of dollars a month by selling subscriptions with exclusive content.

In interviews and online comments, parents said that their children enjoyed being on social media or that it was important for a future career. But some expressed misgivings. Kaelyn, whose daughter is now 17, said she worried that a childhood spent sporting bikinis online for adult men had scarred her.

“She’s written herself off and decided that the only way she’s going to have a future is to make a mint on OnlyFans,” she said, referring to a website that allows users to sell adult content to subscribers. “She has way more than that to offer.”

She warned mothers not to make their children social media influencers. “With the wisdom and knowledge I have now, if I could go back, I definitely wouldn’t do it,” she said. “I’ve been stupidly, naïvely, feeding a pack of monsters, and the regret is huge.”

Account owners who report explicit images or potential predators to Instagram are typically met with silence or indifference, and those who block many abusers have seen their own accounts’ ability to use certain features limited, according to the interviews and documents. In the course of eight months, The Times made over 50 reports of its own about questionable material and received only one response.

Meta, Instagram’s parent company, found that 500,000 child Instagram accounts had “inappropriate” interactions every day, according to an internal study in 2020 quoted in legal proceedings.

In a statement to The Times, Andy Stone, a Meta spokesman, said that parents were responsible for the accounts and their content and could delete them anytime.

“Anyone on Instagram can control who is able to tag, mention or message them, as well as who can comment on their account,” Mr. Stone added, noting a feature that allows parents to ban comments with certain words. “On top of that, we prevent accounts exhibiting potentially suspicious behavior from using our monetization tools, and we plan to limit such accounts from accessing subscription content.”

Influencers use TikTok, too, but Instagram is easier for parents to navigate and better suited to the kinds of photos that brands want. It is also home to a longstanding network of parents and brands that predated TikTok.

From time to time, Instagram removes child-influencer accounts for unspecified reasons or because people flag them as inappropriate, The Times found. In extreme cases, parents and photographers have been arrested or convicted of child exploitation, but barring evidence of illegal images, most of the activity does not draw the attention of law enforcement.
Like many parents, Elissa, who received the threatening messages about her daughter’s photos, said she protected her daughter by handling the account exclusively herself. Ultimately, she concluded, the Instagram community is dominated by “disgusting creeps,” but she nonetheless keeps the account up and running. Shutting it down, she said, would be “giving in to bullies.”

The account’s risks became apparent last spring when the person messaging her threatened to report her to the police and others unless she completed “a small task.” When she did not respond, the person emailed the girl’s school, saying Elissa sold “naughty” pictures to pedophiles.

Days later, the girl tearfully explained to her mother that school officials had questioned her about the Instagram account. They showed her images that her mother had posted — one of the girl in hot pants and fishnets, another in a leotard and sweatshirt.
Elissa had reported the blackmail to the local sheriff, but school officials only dropped the matter after an emotional interrogation of the girl.

“I was crying,” the girl said in an interview. “I was just scared. I didn’t understand what was going on.”

‘Walking Advertising’​

In today’s creator economy, companies often turn to social media influencers to attract new customers. Giants like Kim Kardashian, who has 364 million followers on Instagram, have turned the phenomenon into a big business.

Young girls strive to do the same.

In the dance and gymnastics worlds, teens and preteens jockey to become brand ambassadors for products and apparel. They don bikinis in Instagram posts, walk runways in youth fashion shows and offer paid subscriptions to videos showing the everyday goings-on of children seeking internet fame.

Of the tens of thousands of companies that participate in the overall influencer economy, about three dozen appeared most frequently in the accounts reviewed by The Times. For many of them, child influencers have become “walking advertising,” supplanting traditional ad campaigns, said Kinsey Pastore, head of marketing for LA Dance Designs, a children’s dance wear company in South Florida.


Microinfluencers have been a lucrative investment for LA Dance Designs, a children’s dance wear company.
Credit...Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

“We costumed somebody for ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ thinking that would be huge P.R., but we ended up finding out the bigger return on investment is these microinfluencers,” she said. “We have parents that will spend thousands of dollars to buy styles that no one else will have. That’s our best market.”

The most successful girls can demand $3,000 from their sponsors for a single post on Instagram, but monetary gain can be elusive for others, who receive free or discounted clothes in exchange for their posts and have to pay for their own hairstyling and makeup, among other costs. Even youth fashion shows, including events in New York that coincide but are not affiliated with New York Fashion Week, charge the girls to participate and charge their parents to attend.

In interviews, parents defended spending the money to promote their daughters’ influencer ambitions, describing them as extracurricular activities that build confidence, develop friendships and create social media résumés that will follow them into adulthood.

“It’s like a little security blanket,” said a New Jersey mother whose mom-run account has led to paid modeling jobs for her daughter and invitations to work with sought-after choreographers. “She can help pay for college if she does it right,” she said.

A mother in Alabama said parents couldn’t ignore the reality of this new economy.
“Social media is the way of our future, and I feel like they’ll be behind if they don’t know what’s going on,” the mother said. “You can’t do anything without it now.”

One 12-year-old girl in Maryland, who spoke with The Times alongside her mother, described the thrill of seeing other girls she knows wear a brand she represents in Instagram posts.
“People are actually being influenced by me,” she said.

In 2022, Instagram launched paid subscriptions, which allows followers to pay a monthly fee for exclusive content and access. The rules don’t allow subscriptions for anyone under 18, but the mom-run accounts sidestep that restriction. The Times found dozens that charged from 99 cents to $19.99. At the highest price, parents offered “ask me anything” chat sessions and behind-the-scenes photos.

Child safety experts warn the subscriptions and other features could lead to unhealthy interactions, with men believing they have a special connection to the girls and the girls believing they must meet the men’s needs.

“I have reservations about a child feeling like they have to satisfy either adults in their orbit or strangers who are asking something from them,” said Sally Theran, a professor at Wellesley College and clinical psychologist who studies online relationships. “It’s really hard to give consent to that when your frontal lobe isn’t fully developed.”

Instagram isn’t alone in the subscription business. Some parents promote other platforms on their mom-run accounts. One of them, Brand Army, caters to adult influencers but also has “junior channel” parent-run subscriptions ranging from free to $250 monthly.

“Message me anytime. You will have more opportunities for buying and receiving super exclusive content,” read a description for a $25 subscription to a minor’s account. For $100 a month, subscribers can get “live interactive video chats,” unlimited direct messages and a mention on the girl’s Instagram story.


A fashion show for girls that was held in New York this month. Parents often pay for their children to participate in such events
Credit...Natalie Keyssar for The New York Times

The Times subscribed to several accounts to glean what content is being offered and how much money is being made. On one account, 141 subscribers liked a photo only available to those who paid $100 monthly, indicating over $14,000 in subscription revenue.

Some of the descriptions also highlight the revealing nature of photos. One account for a child around 14 years old encouraged new sign-ups at the end of last year by branding the days between Christmas and New Year’s as “Bikini Week.” An account for a 17-year-old girl advertised that she wasn’t wearing underwear in a workout photo set and, as a result, the images were “uh … a lot spicier than usual.”

The girl’s “Elite VIP” subscription costs $250 a month.

Brand Army’s founder, Ramon Mendez, said that junior-channel users were a minority on his platform and that moderating their pages had grown so problematic that he discontinued new sign-ups.

“We’ve removed thousands of pieces of content,” he said. “The parents’ behavior is just disgusting. We don’t want to be part of it.”

More can be found: A Marketplace of Girl Influencers Managed by Moms and Stalked by Men


All these mothers know their own laocheebye got no market. So make use of their daughter's small cheebye.