Influencers are showing their kids less on TikTok and other platforms

Grant Khanbalinov hates that when you Google the names of his children, they’re listed as TikTok stars. He doesn’t like that strangers know their birthdays. It bothers him that his son and daughter are featured on snark pages dedicated to trashing family vloggers. But what gets him the most is that he ever opened them up to the internet in the first place.

“I literally think about it every single day,” he said. “Why we were doing it for so long and what impact this is going to have on the kids as they get older.”

Khanbalinov is one of a growing number of content creators who built considerable online platforms sharing the details of their children’s lives before changing their minds and making the switch from ‘“sharenting”’ to limiting their kids’ online footprint.

Maia Knight gained more than 8 million TikTok followers by sharing videos of her twin daughters before deciding in December that their faces would no longer be featured in her content. She now places emoji over their faces or films them from behind. Bobbi Althoff, who has more than 5 million TikTok followers, deleted all videos and photos that featured her children and rarely speaks about them now. (If she does, she calls them by aliases.) Laura Fritz, who has 2.7 million TikTok followers, stopped making videos with her children but still posts photos to her Instagram account. Aspyn Ovard, who has 2.3 million Instagram followers, rarely shares photos of her children, but when she does, emoji cover their faces.

These are just a few parenting influencers among many who have recently pulled back from showing their children online, sharing intimate details of their lives and highlighting their days. The reasons may stem from societal pressure to protect children online, pushback from anonymous trolls or even jumping on the latest trend. But there is clearly a growing awareness of a child’s right to privacy and what it means to live a life online without consent.

At its height, Khanbalinov’s TikTok account, which featured his wife, son, and daughter, boasted 3.3 million followers. One of their first viral videos featured his toddler daughter repeating after him, saying the words, “I will never have a boyfriend.” Things moved quickly as the family account racked up millions of followers. “I went from this average person, this nobody, to getting brand deals,” Khanbalinov said. “Some of my favorite content creators are now following us. All this money is coming in. People are inviting us to places and noticing us and our kids on the street.”

But as the perks added up, Khanbalinov saw his family getting bashed on Reddit, with users accusing him and his wife of exploiting their kids and forcing them to film scripted content. At first, he shook it off. “I had these blinders on, like, ‘These people have no idea what they’re talking about, they’re just jealous,’” he said. “But every now and then, I would be like, ‘Well, are they right?’”

His breaking point came during a family trip to Disney when Khanbalinov noticed his children weren’t enjoying themselves. Instead, they seemed to be searching for a camera to look into and waiting for cues on what to say and do. The boundary between their online selves and their actual selves had become blurry: What was a performance and what wasn’t? And why couldn’t his kids just be kids? Khanbalinov describes the moment as an epiphany.

“I’ve never had one before. But this was literally like: ‘Oh my God, what am I doing?’”

From that point on, Khanbalinov started making the TikToks showing his kids private and stopped posting new content with them. He instead recorded videos imploring other parents to stop sharing their children. “It’s honestly like a cancer,” he said, “or an addiction, as you see those likes and comments and brand deals and fame coming in.”

He regrets ever sharing his kids online and has started talking about it in therapy. He has apologized to his kids. He can’t take it back, he said, but he can try to usher other parents into the same decision he’s made, though he’s had little luck with that. After messaging other parent influencers and explaining his “awakening” to them, he was stonewalled. One creator told him to shut up, another said they had it under control, and some ignored him completely. Still, Khanbalinov thinks the tide is turning, albeit slowly.

Stacey Steinberg, a professor at the University of Florida’s College of Law, researches parental sharing and child privacy. “Children have an interest in privacy. Yet parents’ rights to control the upbringing of their children and parents’ rights to free speech may trump this interest,” she wrote in a paper for the Emory Law Journal in 2017. “When parents share information about their children online, they do so without their children’s consent.”

Steinberg is heartened by the shift many influencers are making to either keep their children offline or limit their involvement in content. “We’re taking a step back from what we personally benefit from sharing and trying to see how it impacts our kids,” she said in an interview. “I’d like to think we’re past the point where parents could say, ‘I had no idea this impacted our kids.’ To what extent it impacts them, I think parents might still be figuring it out.”

But even as parents are making their decisions, the law lags behind the culture. “Sharenting” is nothing new. Though it has taken different forms (blogs, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok), it is decades old, and there still aren’t legal protections in the United States for children of influencers. Though there are several bills passing through state legislatures, none of them have been signed into law yet, and there are no federal protections either for the earnings of children featured in monetized online content or the “right to be forgotten,” a European legal doctrine that allows individuals to ask search engines to hide results from algorithms.

Steinberg sees the need for an expansion of legal protections akin to those that protect the earnings of child actors (which child influencers are not considered to be under these laws) and the right to be forgotten. “When we’re parents of young kids, it’s hard to see where they end and where we begin,” Steinberg said. “And as they get older, that becomes more and more apparent. But when we share so much about them in early childhood, it’s harder for them to create their own identity and become who they want to be.”

Jolene Vargas has racked up more than 550,000 followers and counting on TikTok through sharing videos about being a mom, going to Disney on a budget, and parenting a gender-creative child. She made content about turning Disney princess dresses into suits for her son and filmed him joyfully meeting the princesses featured in his clothing.

Vargas is used to hate comments — she’s a mom sharing about her son who likes makeup, ballet and dolls — but certain comments started to really bother her. “What made me want to delete and block people was when they would tell me, ‘Stop exploiting your kid,’ or, ‘Why do you have to show your kid so much?’” Vargas said. She felt defensive; it didn’t feel as if she was exploiting her son, but rather sharing her journey of parenting him and raising awareness of gender-creative children.

Then Vargas began seeing videos from TikTok user @mom.uncharted, who has created a platform through what she says is “calling out child exploitation on [social media].” The videos started to resonate uncomfortably. Despite her best intentions, she wondered: Was she one of the parents this user was talking about? Vargas dipped her toe into the Reddit snark community dedicated to TikTok gossip and “momfluencers” and saw users expressing concern that accounts centered around trans or gender-creative children were specifically harmful, because the journeys of those children were personal and should be kept private, especially in a country with a record-breaking amount of anti-LGBTQ+ laws being introduced in 2023.

Now, Vargas doesn’t share her son’s face. If he’s in a video, the pair discuss what emoji or character should cover his face. She tries to center her content more around her experience of parenting rather than her son’s journey.

Looking back, Vargas says she regrets “pretty much everything” she previously shared. “It’s so embarrassing, because my page has been a lot about consent and respecting children and letting children have choices,” Vargas said. “But here I am posting my kids without their consent, disrespecting their autonomy. I just wasn’t paying attention to the cost that the awareness [of gender creativity] was coming at. I was making my son the billboard.”