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

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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 sexually attracted to children, and they sometimes pay to see more.

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By Jennifer Valentino-DeVries and Michael H. Keller

For this investigation, the reporters analyzed 2.1 million Instagram posts, monitored months of online chats of professed pedophiles and interviewed over 100 people, including parents and children.

Published Feb. 22, 2024Updated Feb. 23, 2024, 9:16 a.m. ET

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. [Read five takeaways from our investigation here]

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.

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