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Do Instagram influencer parents exploit their children?

Say goodbye to soccer moms - there’s a new breed of perfect parents out there and they're making it look easier than ever. Fashionably dressed, with beautiful houses, they seem to juggle life's challenges effortlessly, while raising gleaming, smiling, adorably cute children. I’m talking, of course, about Insta-parents. I’m sure you know the type already, they're the ones that fill up our feeds with carefully-crafted vacation snaps often captioned with messages that go something a little like this: “Busy days, big smiles and these ridiculously cute matching mumma-daughters outfits from @insertbrandhere. So excited to be in Cape Verde for the next month to celebrate my 40th birthday!!” 

Accompanied by a smattering of corny hashtags - #travellingwithkids #growingupfast #momlife #lifebeingsat40 - often, there is the all-important #ad tag hidden surreptitiously somewhere in there, blurring the line between mum-life and marketing. However, some have now accused these parents of exploiting their children, parading them out for public consumption and using them as a vehicle to work alongside brands for their own financial gain, in a way akin to the "stage moms" of the past. So, do the critics have a point?

Last week, one such Insta-mom named Clemmie Hooper - better known to her followers as Mother of Daughters - deactivated her account after a lengthy debate on parenting community website Mumsnet over the ethics of using children in sponsored Instagram posts. Over the past few years, Hooper, who is also a midwife and an author of books on pregnancy, had built a substantial following of almost 500,000 users by sharing the daily exploits of her four girls; her husband Simon - or, Father of Daughters - also currently boasts almost 900,000 followers. Between the two of them, their accounts had featured adverts for everyone from nappy brand Pampers to car makers Renault, even enjoying a sponsored trip to Disney World, Florida. 

In the Mumsnet conversation some users accused Instagram parents, although not initially Hooper explicitly, of exploiting their children for financial gain. Others described the decision to feature their children as “unethical” given that they are too young to consent to their images being used and warned that their children may come to resent them in the future. Later, the thread turned more explicitly towards the couple with one user writing: "I’m sure neither of them would wander round their local high street handing out photos of their kids to random strangers but yet they seem to have no issue in posting photos and videos online for (what seems like) nothing more than monetary gain."

Posting under the name anyalovesrose, Hooper disputed the idea that her motivation in running her account was purely financial: "I can see how you’d think I only blag about my ‘wealth’ and use my kids to make money but I would like to point out that neither myself or my husband make huge wads of cash, if we did he wouldn’t still work full time as a management consultant," she said. In another post, she revealed that she turns down "9/10 of the paid opportunities that come my way because most of the time they don’t fit with what I want to do, despite the money being really tempting". She also defended her use of her children in her posts and admitted that her approach had changed in recent years, saying: “I don’t feel I ‘sell’ my children to make money, I actually hardly ever feature the older girls and have changed my approach when working with brands eg I won’t feature a picture of my children alone for an AD and I always ask ‘do they need to be in the post at all?’” She added that the older children: “see and give consent to any post where there [sic] are in the picture". 

As was probably predictable the argument has spilled over on to social media itself, with many taking to Instagram to make their feelings on the subject known. Hooper's fans in particular have been vocal on their belief that Instamums are doing nothing wrong and simply using modern technology in a savvy way to benefit their family, with one mum - who is not an influencer - writing: "This social media world can be used for so much and I don’t believe there’s anything wrong in building a successful business round your family life. It wasn’t harming anyone. In fact often quite the opposite, providing inspirations, laughs and advice to other mums and dads."

Others pointed out that for all of the criticism over childhood privacy, influencer parents are far from the only ones who share images of their children on social media, and that the right to do so is a personal judgement, with one saying: "I made the decision not to share pictures of my daughter on social media (which has come with its own criticism!) but I’ve never, ever judged anyone else that has chosen to - they’re your kids and your choice!!" A May 2018 study by the London School of Economics found that three quarters of parents who use the internet regularly had shared images of their children. Perhaps surprisingly, it also found that "parents who are especially concerned about privacy also share more images or videos of their child online", although it did note that they were also more likely to have asked for permission first.

Among those defending Hooper was husband Simon, who hinted that the issue was not going to let Clemmie stop posting in the long run: "She's true to herself & spends her days setting an example for our girls by supporting them in being the best version of themselves they can be. She's not perfect by any means, but no human is - she vulnerable, anxious and emotional like all of us, yet meets everything coming at her head on. In short she is my everything. I'm incredibly proud of her & I know a lot of you miss her but she'll be back shortly."

If anything, this whole debate only really serves to show what we already knew about parenting: that no matter what choices you make - whether that's never telling your daughter she's beautiful or giving your teenager an extravagant allowance - there will always be someone there to tell you you're in the wrong. But at the end of the day, the only person you should really have to justify those decisions to is yourself and your child. And to be fair, there's a simple solution to the annoyance of Insta-parents - if you don't like them, don't follow them.