What is up with the growing trend of parenting porn circulating across social media platforms?
And why do so many of these viral videos mostly showcase Black children being humiliated, ridiculed, and set up as the butt of sick jokes for clicks and likes?
The latest bizarre example is a six-second TikTok video showing a Black baby boy sitting on the floor next to a blue stuffed animal. His cheek has a little bulge, and his fingers are at his wet lips. He’s about to eat something.
His mother asks, “What you got in your mouth?” Then she holds out her hand and commands, “Give it to me. Give it me.”
And she (or someone else in the background) laughs.
It’s not clear whether the cockroach is real or plastic.
Or whether the mother saw the baby put the roach in his mouth or gave it to him for a fully staged skit.
Many of us have seen – and I’ve sometimes written about – videos of children getting cakes smashed in their faces, terrified by grinches during seemingly bucolic family photo shoots, and punked by parents commanding them to put on their shoes to help their parents fight someone.
I want to know WHY? What is the psychology behind these clips that are created and then posted for likes, comments, and shares with the goal of going viral?
What kind of parent does this to their child?
And what kind of impact will these videos—which live forever online—have on the children as they grow to see how they have been set up, used as pawns, and exploited for cheap laughs by the parents who are supposed to love, nurture and protect them?
What is the psychology behind this growing trend?
We must wonder what overrides the expected behavior of parents to shield their children from harm by any means necessary. Is the desperate quest for digital relevance destroying healthy parenting instincts?
Let’s think about the technical production process.
I teach digital storytelling as a powerful tool, as a way to connect and inspire people and to get them thinking.
I emphasize critical and analytical thought for my students in creating or consuming any kind of media.
We know that cell phones cameras have enabled a whole generation of folks to create their own content. And the goal of that content is to be seen, to generate responses. The ideal is to go viral, with as many likes, shares, and responses as possible. Those statistics have become today’s standard of measure for popularity, credibility, and clout.
While many of these parent-child videos might seem spontaneous, that is rarely the case.
Somebody must plan and set up the scenario.
Think about how the video will be framed.
Check the lighting and audio.
Determine the placement of the child in the frame, and any props to be used.
Children might have to be coached or the “skit” rehearsed before the final version is shot.
Then there’s the marketing aspect. Just like professional writers and editors must come up with “click-bait” headlines designed to make people check out the content, these parents have to create catchy headlines and captions, and add the hashtags designed to boost engagement with their content.
In other words: someone is making conscious choices at every step of this parenting porn production process.
These videos aren’t like the private photo albums we grew up with. And even those were usually limited to photos of occasions that were expected to be caught on camera: school, family gatherings, sporting events, plays, recitals, etc. You didn’t look at anyone’s family album expecting to see anything that humiliated children or set them up to be ridiculed.
RedSpice312’s headline for the video of her baby son spitting out the roach was “When it’s time to pack the whole baby up and send them with their daddy.”
Who was holding the camera?
How “spontaneous” was this 6-second video?
What made mama (or the other person in the background) laugh rather than screaming and worrying about the safety of her baby boy?
Whose idea was it to post this video?
Was it authentic, or created for “entertainment” purposes?
Imagine being this baby boy, growing up to see this video—which will be available forever. Seeing this horrific scene and hearing your caretaker chuckle as someone records the scene. Then mommy dearest posts the video with a headline / caption suggesting that the “whole baby” is so problematic that he needs to go with daddy now.
Let’s think about how these videos might impact these kids as they form their identities and grow into adolescence, teenage years, and adulthood.
Let’s consider the young, impressionable folks watching these videos: laughing at them, commenting, liking, sharing, even creating reaction videos to keep the “jokes” going. We must ask ourselves what these youngsters are learning about the ways that parents treat and present their kids.
The message increasingly seems to be that kids are property and props for this performative parental porn. That they aren’t humans worthy of respect, regard or protection. That their well-being comes second to their parents’ thirst for attention. And that their personhood is fodder for cheap entertainment.
What are these parents saying to other parents? Are they bragging about how many clicks, likes, comments and shares their videos are getting? It seems many folks are trading self esteem for viral visibility.
Dr. Jinaki Flint, a clinical psychologist at 21 Senses NOLA, says that what we see in this video is a form of bullying and a mother who is getting attention for herself and who is seeking control.
“This represents a kind authoritarian parenting. It is about controlling and owning children who can’t give consent to being filmed,” she said. “She and some of the commentors think that’s funny to humiliate a baby that can’t even speak. This mom has disassociated so far from herself that she can’t even have the most basic empathy for a human being that she brought in the world.”
Real roach or not, this mom also placed her child in danger. “At this age, the child could have very easily choked. This mom was so busy trying to get likes that she hadn’t thought about the danger she put him in. That roach could have easily gotten lodged in his throat and there she was with a camera.”
Dr. Flint says that toxic parenting has always existed, but social media provides a ripe environment for these mindless behaviors because it rewards it with like laughter and motivates people to keep repeating them.
“Social media exacerbates that type of behavior by allowing people to keep creating abusive scenarios for likes and humor. It’s about being seen, popularity, and potentially income.”
Dr. Jeff Menzies, a psychology professor at Morgan State University agrees.
“We’re looking at an emotionally immature mother. Maybe she had the child at a young age. She’s probably received a good share of ridicule, shame, name calling, and had her self-esteem ripped through shred throughout her life. She likely received a deficient amount of attention. And sothat’s how she equates a parent showing love to a child,” he says. “What we have on full display is a rite of passage. Here is a mother clowning her son for having a filthy bug in his mouth.”
Dr. Menzies describes social media as a dopamine infused environment that allows people to restage old traumas.
“She’s receiving excessive amounts attention from this video. The more views, likes, shares, and comments she gets, the more fulfilled she’s going to be. What we might call negative attention, she thinks it’s positive. It also gives her the opportunity to argue with people. It’s an opportunity for engagement. All of which reinforces that she’ll do it again. Just to get that same dopamine rush.”
We are witnessing an entire generation of parents who get off on degrading their helpless, vulnerable children.
These videos aren’t cute, clever or amusing. They’re toxic as hell.
Then we wonder why so many children grow up to be angry. To act out. To become bullies. Why there is an alarming rise in youth suicides, especially among Black children. As ABCNews reports, “The suicide rate among Black youth has been increasing along with the number of suicide attempts and the severity of those attempts, according to the most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, released in 2019.
“That report, tracking suicide trends among students ages 14-18 over the previous 10 years, found that of the 8.9% who reported attempting suicide, Black youth were among the populations with the highest rates of reporting attempts, accounting for 11.8%. By contrast, white youth accounted for 7.9% of those reported attempts and Hispanic youth accounted for 8.9%.”
The report cited several reasons for the rise in suicides including societal racism, deficiencies in overall health care and mental health systems, anxiety, depression, and social stigmas. It might be too soon to connect these problematic parenting videos to these conditions and behaviors. But all signs point to the risks.
All children need and deserve to be loved, nurtured, and protected. Cared for. Respected. And given every opportunity to develop a healthy sense of self.
But how can the children who are victims of online exploitation and humiliation possibly cope with that level of parental cruelty?
A Forbes article titled, “Posting About Your Kids Online Could Damage Their Futures,” states that, “Indeed, children who grow up with a sense of privacy, coupled with supportive and less controlling parents, fare better in life. Studies report these children have a greater sense of overall well-being and report greater life satisfaction than children who enter adulthood having experienced less autonomy in childhood. Children must be able to form their own identity and create their own sense of both private and public self to thrive as young people and eventually as adults.”
While that article focuses on the consequences of parents oversharing information that can lead to their children becoming victims of identity theft and other dangers, now is the time for us to ask ourselves and each other what’s down the road for these young victims of digital parental humiliation. Because if we don’t do something to challenge and stop this trend, we’re going to hate what the future brings.
Dr. Menzies sees these viral videos as evidence of people trying to normalize the abuse they survived and are passing on to their own offspring.
“It says, ‘I’m not alone in this world with this experience.’ It is an attempt to reconcile the relationship with their abuser. There’s a lot of anger and lashing out being hidden behind social media and a technology driven culture.”
The cameras in our phones are powerful devices, with the ability to change—and damage—lives. Innocent lives. To create pain, suffering, and maybe even monsters.
They can be used for good but too often, they’re being weaponized against the children whose hearts, hands, and minds will shape our tomorrows.
We must heed the warning of the African proverb that says, “The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.”
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