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

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

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 sexually 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 sexually 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 list 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 sex offenders.

This is how The Times found its sample of 5,000 mom-run accounts.

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.

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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.”

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.

“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.

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.”

“You are so sexy,” read one comment on an image of a 5-year-old girl in a ruffled bikini. “Those two little things look great thru ur top,” said another on a video of a girl dancing in a white cropped shirt, who months later posted pictures of her 11th birthday party.

For many mom-run accounts, comments from men — admiring, suggestive or explicit — are a recurring scourge to be eradicated, or an inescapable fact of life to be ignored. For others, they are a source to be tapped.

“The first thing I do when I wake up and the last thing I do when I go to bed is block accounts,” said Lynn, the mother of a 6-year-old girl in Florida who has about 3,000 followers from the dance world.

Another mother, Gail from Texas, described being desensitized to the men’s messages. “I don’t have as much of an emotional response anymore,” she said. “It’s weird to be so numb to that, but the quantity is just astounding.”

Meta does not provide public information about who uses Instagram, so The Times analyzed data from the audience firms Modash and HypeAuditor, which estimate follower demographics based on their own algorithms.

The proportion of male followers varied greatly in The Times’s sample, according to the estimates. Many accounts had a few thousand followers who were mostly female. But while men accounted for about 35 percent of the audience overall, their presence grew dramatically as accounts became more popular. Many with more than 100,000 followers had a male audience of over 75 percent, and a few of them over 90 percent, the analysis showed.

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To be sure, not all men following the accounts have bad intentions. Some are grandparents and fathers of the young influencers. Many have inoffensive profiles and simply post compliments or greetings, and mothers react appreciatively.

“In responding or even hitting ‘like’ on it, it boosts your algorithm,” said a mother in Florida whose 16-year-old daughter has been an Instagram influencer for six years. “We tried shutting comments off at one point, and some of the brands didn’t like that.”

Brands that feature children from mom-run accounts face similar challenges.

Dean Stockton, who runs a small clothing company in Florida called Original Hippie, often features girls from the Instagram accounts, who earn a commission when customers use personalized discount codes. After initially deleting many male followers, he now sees them as a way to grow the account and give it a wider audience because the platform rewards large followings.

“The Bible says, ‘The wealth of the wicked is laid up for the righteous,’” he said. “So sometimes you got to use the things of this world to get you to where you need to be, as long as it’s not harming anybody.”

Mr. Stockton said he deleted male followers who were disrespectful or sexual in their interactions. An examination by The Times of the three dozen brands that are popular among mom-run accounts found inappropriate, predatory or pornographic followers in almost all of the brands’ accounts, including Original Hippie.

Many of the men posted pornography, or their bios included sexual language and emojis that child protection experts say pedophiles can use to signal interest in children. For instance, one follower of a children’s dance wear brand described himself as a “thong & anl sx lover.” A user named “sexy_69nazi” followed a children’s apparel company and exclusively posted pornography.

Chixit, a brand selling swimwear and other clothing, describes itself as “an International Sorority,” but business records show that it was run by Philip Russo, who advertised himself as a tutor operating out of his home in the Hudson Valley of New York. Other websites registered to Mr. Russo’s email are a tutoring business and inactive domain names describing sex with animals.

After The Times reached out to Mr. Russo, the website for his tutoring business went offline. He did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment.

The vast world of child-influencer followers on Instagram includes men who have been charged with or convicted of sex crimes, and those who engage in forums off platform where child sexual abuse imagery, including of girls on Instagram, is shared.

The Times traced the account of one follower, who goes by the moniker “jizzquizz,” to a man named Joshua V. Rubel, 39. He was convicted in 2008 of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old girl and is listed on the New Jersey sex offender registry. (Instagram’s policy bars sex offenders from using the platform, and the company said it removed two accounts after The Times pointed them out.)

Another account belongs to Daniel Duane Huver, a man in Lansing, Mich., who told law enforcement in 2018 that he had “top fan status” on girls’ pages, a designation bestowed by Instagram’s sister company, Facebook. The police searched Mr. Huver’s cellphone after it was confiscated by his probation officer and found hundreds of images and videos of children, including many considered inappropriate and sexually suggestive and two believed to be illegal (showing minors engaged in explicit acts.)

Mr. Huver told officers he was sexually attracted to children and masturbated to images of them, according to police records. He was charged with possession of child sexual abuse material, but the prosecutor in Eaton County later dropped charges, citing insufficient evidence because of the poor quality of the imagery.

Mr. Rubel did not respond to requests for comment. Mr. Huver said that the police mischaracterized his words and that the lack of prosecution was evidence he had done nothing wrong.

In monitoring multiple Telegram chat rooms, The Times found men who treat children’s Instagram pages and subscription services as menus to satisfy their fantasies. They trade information about parents considered receptive to producing and selling “private sets” of images.

A group with more than 4,000 members was highly organized, with an F.A.Q. page and a Google sheet that tracked nearly 700 children, identifying them by hashtags to help members find them within the long chat history. The group’s logo showed a child’s hand in an adult hand.

The Times asked the Canadian Center for Child Protection, an organization that monitors online child exploitation, to review links and other potentially illegal material posted by the Telegram groups and elsewhere. The center identified child sexual abuse imagery involving multiple underage Instagram models from around the world, as well as sexualized videos of others, including a preteen girl wearing a thong and a young teenager raising her dress to show her bikini bottom.

Men in these groups frequently praise the advent of Instagram as a golden age for child exploitation.

“I’m so glad for these new moms pimping their daughters out,” wrote one of them. “And there’s an infinite supply of it — literally just refresh your Instagram Explore page there’s fresh preteens.”

A small group of men go even further and cultivate business and patronage relationships with mothers.

One man posts videos and photos on Instagram of girls thanking him for shopping sprees, gifts like iPhones and iPads, and cash. If he does not receive a message of gratitude quickly, he sometimes shames the mother and daughter on his private Instagram account.

Another makes recommendations about increasing visibility by using specific hashtags and photographers. But two mothers said they became suspicious, and stopped working with the man, after he suggested they make certain their daughters’ nipples and other private areas could be detected through their outfits.

A third man tried to persuade a mother to sell her daughter’s used leotards because many men, including himself, were “collectors,” according to a recording of the conversation.

“In retrospect I feel like such a stupid mom, but I’m not stupid,” said a mother of a young gymnast, who dealt with similar men before she realized they were predators and received threatening messages from several of them. “I didn’t understand what grooming was.”

Sometimes the men flirt or try to develop virtual romances with mothers, offer to protect them and become possessive and angry if they interact with other men.

“It’s almost like the girls become a currency,” said the gymnast’s mother, who did not want to be named.

This feeling of ownership and jealousy can drive attempts at blackmail, The Times found.

Instamodelfan, who sent threatening messages to Elissa, sent blackmail threats to at least five other mom-run accounts. When one mother responded, he demanded that she sexually abuse her child and send him photos and videos, emails to the mother show. She refused and contacted law enforcement.

The Times communicated with a person identified on Telegram as Instamodelfan who said that he lashed out at the mothers because he believed other men got illegal images of children and he wanted them for himself.

Reporters also received information from an anonymous tipster, who they later found was linked to the blackmailer, indicating that some parents had produced explicit imagery of their daughters.

The Canadian center reviewed the imagery and said it included illegal nude photos of two girls. One girl’s mother said she was shaken to learn of the photos and did not know who could have made them. The other girl, now 17, said in an interview that the photos were for her and a girlfriend and that she told law enforcement that they had been stolen.

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Others images either were borderline illegal, were too poor quality to be conclusive or were digitally altered, the center said.

Several mothers who had been identified by the tipster said they reached out to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which, they said, had conducted an investigation. The F.B.I. declined to comment.

Ultimately, the gymnast’s mother said, a federal agent told them to stop talking to men online.

“They told everyone to get off Instagram,” she said. “‘You’re in over your head. Get off.’ That’s what they told us.”

Meta failed to act on multiple reports made by parents and even restricted those who tried to police their own followers, according to interviews and materials provided by the parents.

If parents block too many followers’ accounts in a day, Meta curtails their ability to block or follow others, they said.

“I remember being told, like, I’ve reached my limit,” said a mother of two dancers in Arizona who declined to be named. “Like what? I reached my limit of pedophiles for today. OK, great.”

Mr. Stone, the Meta spokesman, said “there are lots of reasons an account might face limitations or restrictions based the account’s activity,” and therefore it was difficult to know why parents encountered these problems.

Ms. Pastore of LA Dance Designs said it was “very much overdue” for Instagram to add the ability to filter by age and sex to help identify suspicious followers. “If you’re starting to gain a following, there needs to be some sort of way to control it,” she said.

Even some egregious violations led to no action by Meta.

One parent reported a photo of erect male genitalia sent in a direct message. Another reported an account that reposted children’s photos with explicit captions. A third reported a user who propositioned her child for sex, offering $65,000 for “an hour” with the girl.

In response to those three reports, Meta said either that the communications did not violate “community guidelines” or that its staff did not have time to review them. In other cases, Meta told parents that it relied on its “technology” to determine the content was “probably” not a violation.

Separately, The Times found comments that included links to sites identified by the Canadian center as trading illegal, nude imagery of children. None of those reports received a response from Meta.

Former Meta trust and safety employees described an organization overwhelmed despite knowing about the problem for years.

“You hear, ‘I reported this account, it was harassing my daughter, why is he back?’” said a former investigator for the company who requested anonymity. “There are not enough people, resources and systems to tackle all of it.”

In recent years, conspiracy theories like QAnon, which claims Democratic politicians are trafficking children, has led to an excess of unfounded reports that have muddled the evaluation of child abuse tips, three former Meta trust and safety employees said.

A 2020 document that surfaced in a lawsuit described child safety as a “non-goal” at Meta. “If we do something here, cool,” the document said. “But if we do nothing at all, that’s fine too.” The lawsuit was brought against Meta and other companies claiming damage from using social media. Lawyers for the plaintiffs declined to provide more information about the document.

In documents from 2018 included in a separate lawsuit making similar claims of harm, a top Facebook executive told Instagram’s chief executive that unless changes were made, Facebook and Instagram were “basically massive ‘victim discovery services,’” an allusion to the considerable evidence of abuse on the platforms.

Mr. Stone, the Meta spokesman, disputed the suggestion that the trust team was understaffed and underfunded, saying that 40,000 employees worked on safety and security and that the company had invested $20 billion in such efforts since 2016. He also referred to a previous statement about the lawsuits, saying they “mischaracterize our work using selective quotes and cherry-picked documents.”

In addition, he noted that Meta reported more suspected child abuse imagery to the authorities than any other company each year. In December, it announced plans to encrypt its messaging services, which would reduce the reports.

Experts in child protection and development say young people should never be made to have negative feelings about their bodies. But clothing that is appropriate in a gym or dance competition may take on an unintended meaning when shared online.

Children’s dance attire regularly features strappy bra tops, sheer fabric and bikini bottoms, and popular cheer outfits combine sports bras with little skirts — part of a long-term trend toward more revealing clothing for girls.

“In the dance world we’re in, they’re half naked all the time and their legs are in the air,” said a mother in Massachusetts who declined to be named. “And if you’re not used to seeing that, maybe it’s different.”

Lynn, whose granddaughter in Texas is an ambassador for a cheerleading brand, said there was no logic to the reactions her posts received. Photos of the girl’s feet attract the most extreme comments, she said. “You can’t stop weird people, I guess.”

Still, many of the would-be influencers suffer. In some instances criticism of the posts, and accompanying bullying, becomes so severe that mothers turn to home-schooling.

“She got slaughtered all through primary school,” said Kaelyn, the mother in Melbourne. “Children were telling her, ‘We can’t play with you because my mom said too many perverts follow you on the internet.’”

In the United States, parents have substantial leeway in making decisions about their children. But people who suspect illegal behavior on Instagram quickly discover that the authorities are overwhelmed and typically focus on the clearest-cut cases.

Even the most unsettling images of sexualized child influencers tend to fall into a legal gray area. To meet the federal definition of so-called child pornography, the law generally requires a “lascivious exhibition” of the anal or genital area, though courts have found the requirement can be met without nudity or sheer clothing.

There have been criminal prosecutions against parents accused in child sexual abuse cases.

In Louisiana last year, a mother was arrested and charged with working with a photographer to produce illegal images of her daughter in a thong bikini. In Texas, a mother was sentenced to 32 years in prison in December for producing nude photos of her 8-year-old daughter with the same photographer. And in North Carolina, a mother is awaiting trial on charges that she took her 15-year-old daughter to a photographer who sexually abused her and she failed to get medical help when the girl tried to kill herself, according to court documents.

Still, those prosecutions are rare, and some male followers of the mom-run accounts openly welcome the windfall.

“As long as this stuff legally exists, I just enjoy it :),” one of them wrote on Telegram.

“Exactly,” another responded. “It’s all over Instagram.”

The “text in box” style used throughout this article represents real images posted publicly to Instagram. The text describes what each image depicts. The responses were taken from real comments and emojis associated with the posts.

Danielle Ivory and Karen Yourish contributed reporting. Julie Tate contributed research. Produced by Aliza Aufrichtig and Rumsey Taylor.