Recently, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt launched a Substack newsletter called After Babel to explore the cultural effects of social media which, he says, reminds him of the biblical account of the tower of Babel. Recorded in Genesis, the project seemed like a good idea at first but, in the end, “everything you built together has crumbled, and you can’t even talk together or work together to restore it.”
Haidt is convinced, as are others, that social media has fueled the exploding mental health crisis among teenagers, especially among adolescent girls. However, if social media is to be consumed, it must first be created. A recent essay at the culture magazine Aeon grapples with how the creation of social media is affecting children on the other side of the iPhone.
The article, entitled “Honey I Sold the Kids,” asks a reasonable question: “We have laws to protect children from factory work. Why aren’t they protected from parents who monetise their lives online?” The author, a British journalist named Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore, explores the phenomenon of so-called “momfluencers,” or moms (and sometimes dads) who have become social media stars by broadcasting photos, videos, and essays about their personal family lives to ballooning public audiences. Posting intimate YouTube and Instagram videos to millions of followers, showing kids playing, eating, fighting, crying, even being born, is big business. Big brands pay “momfluencers” to use their products in their posts and videos. In 2021, the influencer industry was estimated to be worth 13.8 billion dollars.
On one hand, this kind of content, showing happy families living happy lives, appeals to a lot of people and is an improvement in a culture that often treats marriage, kids, and family life like obstacles to “real” happiness. On the other hand, “momfluencer” culture can be exploitative of kids and the audience who are led to believe that hundred-thousand-dollar staged tableaus are actually candid family moments to which we should aspire.
According to Karen North, a professor in digital media at the University of Southern California, kids who grow up in “momfluencer” families often suffer from social and emotional problems later in life, in ways reminiscent of child actors. In fact, North says,
We’re seeing the problems of child actors amplified because the shows are available on demand, and because it’s not a kid portraying a character, it’s a kid’s actual life and vulnerabilities being exposed for other people’s entertainment.
Kids who are widely visible online are also at higher risk of online predators. An owner of an online marketing firm told Aeon that, “when mothers put little girls at the centre of their feeds … I get uncomfortable. … there is a slightly higher amount of male followers.”
The whole phenomenon is especially strange in a culture that claims to prioritize consent. Can children really agree to have their lives broadcast to millions of strangers? Can kids really grasp what it means to be famous, used to make the moms and dads of other kids jealous? If parents are responsible to respect and protect their kids’ personhood, privacy, and innocence when it comes to what they consume online, shouldn’t they also bear responsibility when it comes to what is produced?
So far, the answer has been some version of an excuse often repeated today, in an age in which what adults want is placed ahead of the rights and wellbeing of children: “Oh, the kids will be fine.” Though this mantra is objectively not true, it has successfully advanced everything from no-fault divorce to same-sex parenting to artificial reproductive technologies to the hyper-sexualization of children. Though it may seem a stretch to place family-based social media influencers in the same list as these ethically fraught challenges, it is not.
In each case, kids are treated as objects, as means to an end, whether that end is adult desire or adult dollars. People are not means to any of these ends, only to what is the ultimate end of all creation: to glorify God. Any time a price tag is placed on a person, it cheapens them. Children are cheapened constantly in a culture that denies who they are and forgets Whom they are for.
This Breakpoint was co-authored by Maria Baer. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to colsoncenter.org.
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