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On this episode of Unlocking Us

Brené interviews New York Times journalists Jennifer Valentino-DeVries and Michael H. Keller, who talk about their investigation into girl influencers and what’s driving the larger influencer culture across social media. This is the fourth episode in our series on the possibilities and costs of living beyond human scale.

Please note: As part of this conversation, we talk about the pervasive sexualization of young girl influencers (and girls in general) and the predatory nature of the comments they receive online.

About the guests

Jennifer Valentino-DeVries

Jennifer Valentino-DeVries is a reporter on the investigative team at The New York Times, where she often uses data analysis to explore complex subjects. Her work frequently examines the far-reaching effects of the technology industry on society, such as the spread of propaganda online and the legal questions posed by digital surveillance. She specializes in collecting and analyzing data and using it in combination with traditional reporting to tell stories.

Jennifer has been a journalist for nearly 20 years, first at the Houston Chronicle and then for a decade at The Wall Street Journal, where she covered technology, privacy and computer security. She joined The Times in 2018. In 2022, she was part of a team that won the Pulitzer Prize in national reporting, for coverage of systemic failures in American policing that lead to avoidable deaths.

She grew up in Texas and graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, where she developed a love for journalism while reporting for the student paper. She also has a master’s degree from the School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.

Michael H. Keller

Michael Keller is a New York Times reporter who combines traditional reporting with computer programming, often investigating how technology affects society and young people.

Show notes

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.

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Brené Brown: Hi, everyone. I’m Brené Brown, and this is Unlocking Us. Okay, y’all, this is our fourth episode in a series that I am calling “Living Beyond Human Scale, the Possibilities, the Cost, and the Role of Community.” And this is going to be a really unique series because it crosses over between Unlocking Us and the Dare to Lead podcast. We’re talking about everything from mental health and social media to how do we get ready to work with and not for artificial intelligence. I think there are a lot of possibilities for innovation and really great change, and we’re getting pressed to live really beyond how we are socially, biologically, cognitively, and spiritually wired. This conversation is tough today. I’m talking with Jennifer Valentino-DeVries and Michael Keller, they are both award-winning journalists for the New York Times, and they wrote an article, it appeared in the New York Times on the 22nd of February.

BB: The title was “A Marketplace of Girl Influencers Managed by Moms and Stalked by Men.” And I’ve been really interested in the last year and a half, maybe two years, about the influencer economy. And oh my god, it’s so nuts how susceptible we are, how pissed off we get. I even found myself like coming across clips of me and the context of the clips were cut off and I thought, oh my god, what is happening on social media where everybody’s got an idea and a belief and everyone’s selling you shit all the time? It just made me crazy. So we reached out to Jennifer and Michael, again, the New York Times reporters, and asked if they would talk to us about the investigation that led to this article, what they learned specifically about… These are basically young girls, I mean, young, like elementary school, not old enough to have accounts on social media platforms. Their accounts are managed by their moms and they’re dealing with a ton of sexualized comments from men.

BB: The mothers and parents are reacting in a variety of ways from, oh my god, how did this get started and how do I get out to, well, that’s what it takes to earn a dollar. The influencers are, some of them are making money, some of them are doing it for apparel deals, and it’s one small narrow niche part of the influencer economy, but I think there’s lessons there to learn for all of us. So let me tell you a little bit about Jennifer and Michael, then we’ll jump in.


BB: Jennifer is a reporter on the investigative team at the New York Times, where she uses data analysis to explore complex subjects. Her work frequently examines the far-reaching effects of technology on society, such as the spread of propaganda online and the legal questions posed by digital surveillance. She specializes in collecting and analyzing data and using it in combination with traditional reporting to tell stories. She’s been a journalist for 20 years, first at the Houston Chronicle, then for a decade at the Wall Street Journal, where she covered technology, privacy, and computer security.

BB: She joined the New York Times in 2018. In 2022, she was part of a team that won the Pulitzer Prize in national reporting for coverage of systemic failures in American policing that led to avoidable deaths. She grew up in Texas, she graduated from UT Austin, where she developed a love for journalism and reporting while she was working for the student paper. She has a master’s degree from the School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton. We’ll include a link to the primary article we’re discussing and links to where you can find Jennifer’s byline on different stories. Michael is also a New York Times reporter who combines traditional reporting with computer programming, often investigating how technology affects society and young people. Also worked on the team that won the Pulitzer Prize. Michael really gravitates towards topics that highlight people’s personal stories within the context of larger national and international issues. Michael’s been a journalist for 15 years, has covered issues ranging from politics to the environment.

BB: I think you’re going to find this conversation disturbing, frustrating, challenging, provo… I mean, I don’t know if it’s provocative, but I will say that there is a very explicit conversation about the over-sexualization of little girls, about the predatory men who stalk them on Instagram. So if you’re sensitive to those topics, I would maybe skip this podcast, read the transcript, whatever you can do to take care of yourself. It’s a tough topic, but we need to talk about it because it’s happening all over and I don’t think the platforms are doing very much, if anything, to stop it. Let’s jump into the conversation.


BB: Jen and Michael, thank you so much for joining us on Unlocking Us. I appreciate y’all being here.

J Valentino-Devries: Thanks for having us.

Michael Keller: Yeah, thank you so much.

BB: So we’re going to talk to Jen and Michael, both very esteemed New York Times journalists. An article was published on February 22nd. The title, “A Marketplace of Girl Influencers Managed by Moms and Stalked by Men.” I have been studying and looking at influencer culture for the last two years. And this article, everyone I know that’s read it, including my team that helped me prep, they kind of took their breath away. And I needed to examine some of my responses to it I have not liked. And so we can talk about that in a minute. I’d like to start where we always start, which is kind of tell us your story. So Jen, would you like to go first and just tell us about the journey that landed you here?

JVD: Sure. Well, I was born and raised in Texas, like you, actually in San Antonio. And I went to college at the University of Texas at Austin and eventually went to grad school and studied public policy and economics. And I started reporting on technology sort of by happenstance and it was the reporting job that was available during the Great Recession. And I’ve been covering a lot of tech issues over the course of my career. And Michael and I worked together on the investigations team and we both have covered technology a lot and also use a lot of data in our reporting. So we do similar things, but bring somewhat different approaches to our reporting. So we enjoy working together.

BB: Yeah, I think that quantitative background, I could definitely see it in this article. Even as a social scientist, I kept going back to the methodology and I kept thinking, well, somebody here has got a background in data science. So that makes sense to me. Michael, how did you end up here?

MK: I did not know I wanted to go into journalism. I grew up in Los Angeles and went to college on the other side of the country, in Georgetown, and studied comparative literature and psychology, which I similarly got started in journalism kind of post recession and graduated really right when the recession was going on. And so it was not evident how those two majors were going to lead to a career in anything. But a lot of my coursework was around in psychology, people with conditions like Alzheimer’s or degenerative disorders. And so it was a lot of interviewing and writing case studies. I thought the compilate work was also kind of about analyzing stories from multiple perspectives. And when I was thinking about what I wanted to do, journalism just seemed really interesting and kind of inadvertently had been getting a lot of the practice that lets you dive into these kind of nuanced, complicated stories. Around that time, it was also when data visualization and data journalism was starting up, and that seemed really interesting to me. I didn’t have any kind of computer programming background, but it was fun and I liked to do design.

MK: I did that for my college paper. And that was kind of what you could get a job doing in that tough time, although it’s still a tough time in the industry. And got attracted to reporting on technology companies, kind of lent itself better to doing those types of investigations, although I’ve covered a lot of things beyond technology companies. And yeah, so I think Jen and I both come at it from a perspective of what’s going to dive into really kind of human centered focused stories, things that matter because they’re affecting people’s lives. But how can we build a foundation or get into that by collecting a lot of data, seeing what’s going on? Most stories, I think, operate on this kind of low and high altitude where you want to zoom in and see what’s happening to one individual and really get the reader to care about their story.

MK: But then you also need to zoom out and say, you know, there’s also thousands of others like this person. And so I think those two skill sets, I think, go together really well.

BB: You definitely see it in this article. It’s interesting because I think the subject matter is so hard in places in this article that I found myself kind of tapping out of it and looking at it more analytically, like, wow, this is the best of when qualitative and quantitative research comes together because I understood the scope and breadth and then I also felt deeply the story. So it’s a really incredibly reported investigation. So congratulations to both of you.

JVD: Thanks.

BB: So for this investigation, Jen and Michael analyzed 2.1 million Instagram posts, monitored months of online chats of professed pedophiles, and interviewed over 100 people, including parents and children. And I consider myself to be like pretty tapped in. I did not know this phenomenon existed. Explain to me this idea of primarily mothers running young, young girls’ accounts primarily on Instagram for compensation. And how did we get here?

JVD: I didn’t know until we started looking into this and kind of what led us to this story, I think, is helpful in kind of understanding the genesis of what we did and then we can get a bit into how we as a society got here. So we’ve got two stories how we as journalists arrived at this and how just overall we’ve gotten to this point. Michael had actually been reporting on the spread of child sex abuse material online prior to the pandemic even, and I was interested in expanding on his work and so spoke with a long-term source of mine who was at Stanford about the issues with child sex abuse content, which some people refer to as child pornography, but it’s not really pornography in the consensual way that most people think of obviously. So then that source said some really interesting things.

JVD: They’re an expert in online security and safety, and they said that child sex abuse material is the worst thing really that can happen online, and so because it’s so devastating it’s clearly important for us to pay a lot of attention to it, but that there are other issues online that are also worth paying attention to that are not quite as devastating, but they are worth trying to solve and exploring because even though they aren’t as damaging as actual child sex abuse, they are likely to affect far more people, and that among his concerns was the effect of social media and influencer culture on girls and young women and kind of their psychological space and their view of themselves and their behavior in relating to the world.

JVD: And so I was curious, and I started looking up tween influencer, tween model, on different social media platforms, and these accounts showed up. This was prior to the pandemic. Events intervened in our ability to report on it, but those accounts were around even then, and they were run by the parents.

JVD: Usually it said mom run or mom managed, and the girls were very often in high heels or skimpy clothing or, even just midriff-bearing clothing and short shorts, bathing suits, leotards, that kind of thing, and clearly the followers were male, and sometimes were saying either creepy things or even if it wasn’t outright sexualized they would be leaving heart eye emojis, which I did not think was particularly appropriate for an adult male to leave on a child’s photo. And so that was how Michael and I got to this point, and I think we’ve gotten here as a society through several ways that we have explored and we’re continuing to explore, but I think a big part of it is just this influencer economy and how people see on social media that this is a viable career path. It is something that kids are being encouraged to do, not even necessarily by their parents, but by their peers and by people they see online. And even for people who aren’t wanting to be influencers, the idea of benefits, even those that aren’t monetary, that you get from being online, the sense of approval that you get is really powerful. And I think, I know Michael has some other ideas, but there are a lot of factors that are coming together that have created this moment.

MK: Just to add to that, I echo everything that Jen said, the barrier to entry, like we’ve seen in a lot of industries, has come way down. And for most of the parents that we spoke to, they explain their journey in terms like, well, we’re already doing dance and gymnastics, so we may as well become an ambassador for the leotard company that we like. And it’s just very easy to set up an account and get followers. In the language of Silicon Valley, it’s the frictionless experience. And I think in our reporting, not just on this topic, but in a lot of technology investigations we work on, we explore the unintended or unnoticed consequences of those increasingly frictionless experiences. What are the harms that get introduced when it becomes easier to grow at scale, for anyone to grow at scale, including children? So I think it’s all a part of these larger dynamics where previously, we’ve always had kind of the phenomenon of pageants and stage parents, and this just makes it both much easier for more people to do, and you have the culture telling you, yes, this is a viable way for your child to get a career later on.

MK: And not just that, if she’s not doing it, she’s going to be missing out on opportunities. We heard that over and over again from parents.

BB: I was really surprised in one of the reader choice comments on the article. Someone wrote, a mother wrote, that I think their child was involved in dance or gymnastics, and the mother wouldn’t allow the child to have a YouTube channel or an Insta page. And how devastating that was for the child, because all of their peers had kind of these influencer pages and channels. And they were talking about a very young child. I mean, I pulled the stat from your investigation. Nearly one in three preteens list influencing as a career goal, and 11% of those born in Gen Z between 1997 and 2012 describe themselves as influencers.

JVD: Yeah.

BB: Like this is a new career category.

JVD: Yeah. I think something that a lot of the parents we interviewed expressed to us was that this was really something that their child wanted to do, that their child was driving, and they felt that they were supporting their child in wanting to do this.

BB: I mean, I have to say that like the moral outrage that I experienced, I’ll just… I’ll own my own stuff when I read it and kind of like, so mothers are running accounts. It seems to be far… I just want to make sure that I’m using that language specifically much more often mothers than fathers. Is that the case?

JVD: Yes.

BB: Yeah. So primarily mothers are running an account with young girls, as young as elementary school, right?

JVD: Correct.

BB: And I mean, there’s a call box here. Parents are the driving force behind these accounts. Some even offer the sale of photos, exclusive chat sessions, and some are even selling the girls’ worn leotards to mostly unknown male followers. True or not true?

JVD: Correct. Yes, that’s true.

BB: Holy shit. I have to say that my first reaction was so terrible because my first reaction was these mothers are the worst human beings alive, the second group of people I took to task was the platforms, and I almost felt like when I pulled back, I was just assuming of course the men aren’t going to be held accountable because this is just going to be, this is just… This is the reality. Do you know what I’m saying?

JVD: Yeah. No, of course. I think that these are all questions that we ourselves grappled with and…

BB: Really?

JVD: Yeah. Well, I mean, we and our editors and I mean, I’ll just honestly, like, I feel that those are natural reactions. I, however, and I think I’ve responded to some reader comments on the story, too, that trying to kind of express though, that I think it’s important not to let the men off the hook. To just assume that men are going to be horrible and it’s the responsibility of everybody else to work around that. There are ways in which that is true, especially when a parent has a responsibility to protect their child and obviously the platform has a responsibility to, if they’re saying that it’s safe for young people to go on here with parental supervision if they’re under 13 or they say that it’s safe for anybody 13 or above, you don’t even have to have a parent-managed account, the platforms have a responsibility to their consumer base to ensure that safety if that’s something that they are promising.

JVD: That aside, though, the fact that the men are doing this should not be dismissed or taken for granted and I think that there are a lot of questions for us about how this kind of behavior is expected and also how technology has made it. Michael was talking about making things more seamless. Well, it has also made this kind of consumption of children’s images or this sort of treatment of women who are online also seamless and we monitored a number of chats on Telegram groups.

BB: What is Telegram? Before you go, let me stop you because I had not heard of that. I’m glad I haven’t heard of it. I think I’m glad, but what is it?

JVD: It is an encrypted platform that is more personal use. It’s a bit like WhatsApp. I think more people are probably familiar with WhatsApp. It’s encrypted, though, and so it can be harder to find groups. It’s not like you can just go and search the way you can on Instagram and it’s harder for regulators or law enforcement or whoever to get a handle on what’s going on there sometimes.

BB: So you’re on this platform and you’re kind of doing a content analysis and investigating inside this platform.

JVD: Right. We were just monitoring some of these chats that we had heard about during the course of our reporting as places where these men gathered to discuss these child influencers who were on Instagram. And they would talk about how great it was. They would use this to encourage each other, to justify their behavior because it was on Instagram. And so I think it’s clearly not a healthy thing to have that kind of behavior be encouraged and normalized.

MK: It was fascinating in the reporting process of being able to talk with parents and hear them grappling with it in real time. I think in one of the first interviews we did, we weren’t sure how they were going to go. Are parents can open up to us about this? We’re having kind of a pretty normal conversation, like, “Tell us how’d you get started?” And it was like a timeline and this. And I ended up asking, “What do you think other parents should know about this?” And the answer was something like, “This is the worst thing you could do.” And it kind of threw us for a loop.

MK: We’re like, wait a minute. Wait a minute. Back up a second. You think it’s terrible, but you’ve told us how you’re doing it. Explain this conflict. And a lot of parents explain that, not just this one mom, but they felt like they were in a bind. And they often use the term of this is a digital resume for our child and we kind of have to do this. And there was a real spectrum. There were people that were getting really tangible things out of it. I think that family was getting legitimate dance opportunities to go at shows and things that were real and their daughter was really enjoying doing. Other parents though were just kind of doing it because their daughter enjoyed getting free clothing and toys or fashion accessories.

MK: In a lot of cases, they paid to be a part of these ambassadorships or they got discounts. They paid by buying the apparel. And then kind of at the far end of the spectrum and some of the things that you cited from the piece, some were selling photos and used clothing. There was definitely a big range. And we had thought that perhaps there was more of a financial incentive for more people, but for a significant number, there wasn’t this idea of, oh yeah, we’re making tens of thousands or even thousands of dollars and that’s why we’re doing it. It was a lot more kind of nuanced and we had to kind of talk with each family individually, kind of what is the motivation?

MK: What are you doing this? One thing that we also really heard a lot in how they grappled with this question was pretty much everyone I think thought that what they were doing was safe or how they were going about it was safe. Almost everyone brought up the safety concerns and that there were creepy men that would message them or try and contact them other ways, but they thought that they had put boundaries on it, such as, well, my daughter isn’t the one using Instagram, I’m the one running the account. And so for us, we thought that’s really interesting. How do we make sense of this? Is that safe? Does that put enough distance between the child and these men online? And one of the really surprising things was we found that even in those scenarios where the daughter is not on Instagram themselves, there were men online who would try and do a form of blackmail, though blackmail is not quite the right word.

MK: They would reach out to the family’s school, the daughter’s school, and accuse them of producing explicit imagery, even though it may not have been the case, and cause all these real world issues for them, or they would show up at their home and leave “gifts.” So our process of grappling with was kind of hearing what people were saying, and then going and testing that and seeing, okay, like, is that true? Kind of what is safe? And there were a lot of real world harms that were happening. And it was very difficult to say, Oh, yes, you can do XYZ, and have your child be “on social media” in a safe way. It really was a lot more dangerous and darker than we thought.

BB: Tell me if this is true. In my read, it seems like there’s a real kind of scale of what people are doing. Not every mom that’s running a kid’s influencer page is selling used clothing, right?

JVD: Exactly.

BB: There’s a real scale, right? But it seems like for young girls who are featured on these influencer accounts, especially where we’re talking about apparel, men are typically an issue. Is that the case? Is there anyone who has figured out like, hey, this is a wholesome, creepy guy free influencer project. We’ve never seen it. We’ve never had a problem. We don’t have one person in our comments that’s bothering us.

JVD: No, I would say that your assessment there is spot on. You were talking about your feeling of moral outrage earlier. A lot of people felt that way. And it is important to keep in mind that not all of these parents are selling used leotards. The vast majority, I should say, are not doing things like that. The vast majority are not selling private images or images in string bikinis. Those are definitely a factor. And I think it’s important to highlight that. But most of the parents are trying to keep men off, but they are still getting a lot of men trying to comment and follow and like their posts. And although we didn’t attempt to quantify these, even if you have child accounts that are the sort where it’s like the kids are unboxing toys and that kind of thing, they also get creepy men following them.

JVD: It’s not perhaps to the degree like the accounts that we were focused on were the ones that were only of children. We had criteria that they had to meet to be counted in our methodology here. So they had to have multiple pictures of the child in form fitting or revealing clothing. And that could range from a string bikini to yoga pants, like yoga leggings, and a cropped kind of bra, yoga top. The ones we were studying were most likely to attract men, but I think that any child with a public account is bound to, from some time to another, get a creepy male follower.

BB: Michael, I’m seeing you shaking your head yes.

MK: Yeah, I think how you started this interview is often how we start them. We just asked parents, tell us how you got into this and let them tell a chronology. We didn’t go in saying, tell us about all of your safety concerns or tell us about all the problems that you’re having with the platform that would be a bit kind of like leading the witness type. So we just say, tell us your story. And I think every single parent brought up these kind of creepy men comment safety issues on their own.

BB: I have to say that there’s a part of me that believes at the very best, while I know that not everyone is doing the extreme things. It still feels like for me, a range of commodifying children.

MK: Yeah, and we wanted to look at that and bring a bit of data or kind of test that quantitatively. And so one of the things that we did was we had this universe of 5000 accounts…

BB: Interesting.

MK: That Jen and I and a few other colleagues spent weeks manually going through. We had kind of an automated crawler that collected some that matched the criteria that we talked about, where it was like the form-fitting revealing clothing and listed that the parent was managing it. And then once we had that 5000, that’s where we got those 2.1 million posts. And so we took those images and fed them through two different image classifiers. So these are AI-type machine learning systems that Google and Microsoft offer just a part of their cloud computing services.

MK: And you give it an image and it gives you back an answer of whether it thinks it’s “racy or not.” And so we had a very large sample where we could feed in these images and compare it to the number of likes and comments and follower count from that profile. And we did see a correlation that there was a spectrum there were the ones that were posting a larger percentage of these racier photos did get higher engagement. There was a group where we heard this repeatedly from parents that the first thing they do in the morning, and the last thing they do at night is go through comments and try and block accounts and block creepy men. It seemed like on the other end of the spectrum there were some that were able to fend them off to a larger degree. But it did… That did bear out in the data.

JVD: The data demonstrated to us that if you were a parent running one of these accounts and really did spend a lot of time every day blocking men, the reach of your account was generally limited. And what we saw in this data was as the accounts got larger, they tended to have more male followers. And this supported what we were hearing in the interviews, which was that if you spent a lot of time blocking men, your reach was limited, you couldn’t grow your followers. And then at some point, either reels or images would go viral and parents would become overwhelmed by the number of people following their child and they couldn’t keep up with this amount of blocking or on the other side of the coin, they might just decide that they wanted their child’s account to have a lot of followers.

JVD: And so if you want that, you sort of have to accept these male followers. And so that’s another decision point. You of course, have the decision to go online at all, you have the decision to represent certain types of clothing or not. And you also have the decision to accept followers or not that are male or really only restrict them to other parents and kids who are in the world that your child is a part of, whether that’s dance or gymnastics or something else.

JVD: And this was a decision that some of the parents were willing to make because they wanted their child’s account to grow or they just felt that they didn’t have time to keep up with it, and still wanted to keep the account up anyway.

MK: Yeah, or they looked at it just as some people just said, “Oh, yeah, that’s just a number on the internet. We don’t really have an emotional attachment to it. We keep a distance to it. We don’t get too involved” either because it was too overwhelming, or they just had other goals in mind. We’ve talked already about these parents really grappling with it. But there were other actors in this ecosystem who were totally fine with opening the floodgates. We spoke with one very small clothing company in Florida, who said, “Yeah I do get creepy followers, but I need to have a large following count if my business is going to be successful.”

MK: So as long as they’re not really being super explicit, as long as they’re being polite, and not overly sexual, I keep them on there because I need the numbers. So I think we were trying to explore this, kind of how do we end up here. And I think those types of incentives are really at play.


BB: Our discussion of this podcast is part of a series that I’m calling “Living Beyond Human Scale: The Cost and the Possibilities.” And this is definitely a problem of living beyond human scale, of parenting beyond human scale. I don’t think, as pissed off as I got reading it, I’m not sure a single mother that I read about, I’m not convinced that they would do this in real life, that they would dress their children in this outfit and have them parade around actual men that are gawking and yelling lewd things like I think this is a human scale.

BB: Unfortunately, where it’s pretty clear that the psychological and self-worth ramifications are very IRL. And so I have to ask this question because it came up a lot and in research, we would call it like an ecological fallacy if I assign it to the wrong thing. There’s a lot of mention from the parents when they’re talking in this article about dance, cheer, and gymnastics. Is the commonality not the type of parent but the tight-fitting clothing? Do you understand what I’m asking? Like, why is it hovering around this?

JVD: A big commonality is the type of clothing because that is what is most likely to attract these men who are interested in children in a sexualized way. The more sexualized the clothing is, the more they are going to be interested in those images. But I also think that there are links actually between that and the activities in which that type of clothing predominates. So we did have parents of child actors, child models, they are definitely part of our universe. And I do think that those types of pages attract adult men as well, particularly if the child in there is modeling in an adultified way, or just made to look more grown up.

JVD: But competitive gymnastics, competitive cheerleading, competitive dance, these kinds of activities, for whatever reason, and I would actually add some child pageants in there, we had some pageant parents as well, they seem more likely to be sexualizing these girls, and also the outfits are sexualized. We did not have a lot of, say, child swimmers who are wearing tight fitting clothing, but for whatever reason, they’re not modeling it.

BB: I wonder just, I mean, this is a question, Jen, I don’t know the answer. And I know that you probably don’t have the data to support an empirically based answer. But one hypothesis of mine would be as a former swimmer, we’re never in makeup. In some sports it has been normalized to have a full face of makeup at five or six years old. And so a 16-year-old swimmer out of the pool has got green hair and no makeup and goggle eyes. It’s not…

JVD: Yeah.

BB: It’s an appearance part of the sport norm, the athletic norm. I think in some ways.

JVD: That makes a lot of sense. I think I was really interested in the concept of the sexualization of girls’ activities. Even if you think about girls’ volleyball or beach volleyball in particular, right?

BB: Oh yeah.

JVD: Yeah. And the women’s version of a lot of sports, they have much tighter fitting, skimpier clothing. And I think that it is a cultural phenomenon worth interrogating. But the point you raise about these particular activities, not only are you wearing those types of clothing, but it’s common to have a full face of makeup. And the design of the clothing seems very important. There’s a lot of stylization that goes on there. And so I think there’s an interesting intersection that’s happening here. And we didn’t report out all the details of this, but it would be a fascinating sort of academic study. I think it’s really ripe for people to take a look at.

BB: It’s interesting too, I think because… swimming’s just something I know, I know swimming and I know a couple of other sports, the influencers in a lot of sports where there’s not an over sexualization if you’re talking about apparel. So there seems to also be a tie between the apparel companies that sell into dance and cheer. And those are looking for child influencers, micro influencers, just economically, we know are very, very powerful. But a swimsuit, a Speedo, [chuckle] I would imagine is looking for a badass, probably UT Austin swimmer who broke a record as an influencer. They’re looking differently at apparel and performance. Does that make sense?

JVD: It does. Yeah.

BB: As opposed to apparel and appearance.

JVD: Yeah. And I think, again, it’s not something that we, at least I don’t feel like I can provide anybody with an answer, but I think these are all super interesting theories and it sounds like they could have some validity. We just don’t know based on our reporting.

BB: And I don’t know either, for caveats, just to let them know, these are hypotheses that I am drawing and asking them to weigh in on hypotheses, not findings. Michael, what would you add?

MK: We posed this question to some choreographers and like Jen said, we didn’t really do a deep dive into this, but it did come up. And some of them were equally concerned where they would say, “Yeah, we get some very young girls who come in here. And just the way that they move, the way that they look is just not age appropriate for them.” And I think one of the challenging things with this story, it’s a very visual story, but we don’t want to be also publishing photos of the children. That was a very difficult question of how do we communicate that?

MK: And one of the thing that we saw that was just going to be impossible to describe in a print piece, but that we obviously didn’t include the photos of, but beyond just the apparel, there was something very kind of adultified and sexualized in many of just their facial expressions and poses even beyond just dance poses in general or a lot of stretching and things like that. But just, there was something even that went a step further in a lot of this, that seems like some different behavior that you’re seeing from the adult world cast down into this younger age group. I think also plays into this dynamic of not just doing dance, but doing dance in this particular way, in communication with other parts of our culture that are more adultified.

BB: Yeah. And this is where we also get into social learning theory. This is where we get into, wow, this pouty, sexualized post got twice the likes of me laughing like a 13-year-old normally would.

JVD: Yep.

BB: And then this incredible hardwired DNA central part of social learning that says I’m more loved, there’s more belonging and I’m more valued.

MK: Yeah. Absolutely.

JVD: Yeah. You see these poses from adult influencers, adults on social media, adult women. You think about the Kardashians or a whole host of women who have made names for themselves online. And it is this very pouty winking over the shoulder kind of thing. Very adultified. And I think if you just think of that, don’t mean to.. it’s maybe a disturbing thought. But you think of that just translated down to like a 9-year-old child.

BB: Yes.

JVD: That’s what we’re talking about. And when you’re that age, you aren’t going to associate that with sex or understand exactly…

BB: Subtext now. Yeah.

JVD: No. What the subtext is, you just see that this is what adults are doing online. This is what older girls, young women who you might look up to in some way are doing online. So when somebody asks you to do a post like that or take a picture like that, you might not even know what it means when people say a creepy old man or what exactly the implications of that are. You just see that a lot of people are liking you, basically.


BB: Let me ask you this question, and this may be too subjective for y’all to answer as reporters, so y’all can say no, but I might be like pro France on the ban. Like I might be pro, it’s illegal to post a photo of your child on social media if your child is a minor. Like I might be for that. I’m curious, do you have thoughts or do you not want to weigh in?

JVD: So I’m not here to advocate one policy over another.

BB: Yeah. Fair.

JVD: I think our role is to explain to people what is that? What the heck is going on?

BB: Yeah. Yeah.

JVD: So they can consider their options. I have some thoughts about approaches that are interesting in our reporting process. We looked at some of these laws that are coming up in Europe and there are also laws in a couple of states that have been passed or are being discussed that don’t go as far as to say that you can’t post your child online, but are at least trying to make some inroads to bring influencing more like the family vlogging type of thing in line with laws that are related to child actors. So ensuring that kids get some of the money and taking that approach. And I think these are really interesting approaches for policy makers to look at.

BB: The right conversations we should be having.

JVD: Right.

MK: I would say I agree with Jen. We don’t come up with solutions, which solutions are hard, I’ll say.

BB: Yeah.

MK: But I do push back on the idea that the current form of technology and social media and the internet is the only form or is the inevitable form that these systems have to take. And I think if you think of it as, “Oh, this is just what the internet is, social media is,” you’re kind of forced to have the choice that you said of “Do I just do it or not do it?” We can have more imagination about what safe systems are. The conversation that came about a lot in the mid 2010s around privacy and surveillance influenced a lot by Edward Snowden was there wasn’t just a magic bullet to make a system more privacy friendlier or more secure.

MK: You had to take these principles of privacy by design. You had to build a system. And at every step think about what are the privacy and personal data implications. The equivalent in this space is safety by design. And it took a long time even for these privacy by design ideas to get into the software and internet space. I think safety by design is even further back than that.

BB: Oh yeah.

MK: But what would it be like if we built a system that was just as fun, just as cool? You could still share images, connect with people that you care about, keep up with the conversation. But if every one of those features had a sense of how does this affect privacy? We could not have this kind of false choice of either opt in, opt out, be on the internet, be completely off the internet. If we push the boundaries of what we think is possible for the values that we want.

BB: This is definitely every single person I’ve talked to in this series so far, William Brady on Moral Outrage and Algorithms, S. Craig Watkins on AI scaling injustice or combating it depending on who’s at the table when we develop it. I mean, basically what you’re both saying is exactly what I’m hearing, is that there’s a false dichotomy about all in or all out. We can reimagine it. I’m just wondering, just personally, this is my opinion, Brené’s, me, my opinion, is it’s going to require moral imagination that’s going to bump up against commerce. My money is on our ability to morally imagine. My money is not on the people that have control giving away commerce in favor of safety right now. So I hope that happens. In general, the influencer economy. I’ve almost gotten to this point in my life where everybody on there is a grifter.

BB: I’m like, just like I have two buttons, one that says like, “Sit the fuck down.” And the other one says, “Shut the fuck up.” Like that. I mean, those are my social media buttons. Am I allowed to… I’m, I mean, I’m saying that on the podcast.

JVD: This is your…

BB: Yeah. This is my podcast. Yeah.

JVD: This is your podcast. This is not…

BB: I’ll get an E for that, but that’s okay. It’s worth it. But I do have these two buttons when I’m listening because when my mom was first, and you’ll relate to this Michael, because of your studies, probably when my mom was first diagnosed with dementia and it was rapid onset and was deteriorating fast. And I would scroll through Instagram and it would be like a person in a white coat that was so reputable. Like we have figured out how to reverse dementia.

BB: And it’s like I had dementia and now I had a blueberry a day mixed with some quinoa and now, I’ll call my sisters and I’m like, I’m making mom a daily quinoa blueberry shake. And even right now with the… [chuckle] we’re in the path of totality. This will have already passed hopefully for the preppers who I’m getting ready to talk about. I’ll still be alive. But literally I was just reading an article about, I have some family members that are like prepping for the… Like they’re going to have spam like at Y2K. And then they sent me a link to the TikTok and then I dig into this TikTok and this asshole is a battery and flashlight salesman. And I am a smart, critical thinking media literate person. But when I’m sad because I just visited my mom, I’m making those smoothies. What is happening?

JVD: Yeah. I think one of my big takeaways from reporting on this story is that social media has just broken everyone’s brain. I think, [chuckle] you are talking about a couple of facets, misinformation, bad healthcare information.

BB: Vulnerability.

JVD: Yeah. Vulnerability. Just the drive to get what we now know are these dopamine hits from social media interaction, the drive in this economy to attain what is perceived as some sort of measure of success and possibility of a career that is stable and generates additional income. There are a lot of different drivers behind what we were exploring with these parent-run accounts that you are seeing elsewhere in social media. I don’t think this is just the story of here are some terrible parents who are putting their kids online. And I understand the judgment and I think there are parents who have been in fact arrested that we talk about in the story. But I think it’s really important for us to talk about how these are changes that are affecting all of us.

BB: Yes.

JVD: And even if you’re not putting your kids online, you’re not making these particular decisions, you can feel some of these changes being wrought on our society overall. And so I am hopeful that readers would not simply say, “These parents are terrible, we’re just going to dismiss this. None of this could ever affect me or my kids in any way.” Because at some level I think it is affecting all of us. And I think that’s one reason we wanted to talk about it. And you also mentioned you don’t think that we’re going to be able to stop this drive for commerce. And that’s a concern I have too. I think that Michael’s point about trying to reimagine things was great. And I completely agree with it. I have no earthly idea how we can get not just these people to stop influencing, but the platforms to stop seeing as their reason for being, having people spend more time on their platform. I don’t know how we get around that. And that is also what’s driving a lot of this.

MK: Yeah. No, I agree.

BB: Michael thoughts. Hit us with some positive moral imagination hopefulness.

JVD: No. I’m sorry.

BB: Hit us.

MK: Well, this isn’t a positive thought, [laughter] but I mean, just to go piggyback on what Jen was saying, I think just how things got broken. I often, I just really think a lot about, I’ll get to the positive part, I promise.

BB: Let’s go.

MK: I think a lot…

BB: I love that.

MK: About how we’ve lost the normal signals of trust and authority that we learn in the offline world. And this applies to social media, but also just to sites like Amazon too, where if you were going to get confronted with like a bad salesman or a bad product, a harmful product, you would have to walk into a store. You’d be able to see like, okay, have they invested in this store? Do they have salespeople? They, you’d have to do all this stuff. Which again, the tech world would call that was unnecessary friction. But it came with a lot of signals of authority and signals of trust.

MK: Now when you see something online, it’s all in the same kind of shiny box that looks really nice and undifferentiated from everything else. I think that’s just a big factor of why things get broken. We just don’t have these ways to sift out good from bad. And that applies both to products that you can get online that aren’t good or kind of gray market stuff, and also to people, you get these messages and they have this avatar and they’re in this very nicely designed interface on your phone that’s extremely personal. So I think that’s kind of a bit of the mechanism…

BB: Smart. Yeah.

MK: For what we’ve lost. The one positive thing of just kind of thinking how things may be able to change. Although there is a caveat, a lot of the safety conversation does remind me of the privacy conversation from 10 years ago. And at that time it was just accepted wisdom that no one cares about privacy, no one values privacy, and you could never get the platforms who are built around advertising to have that as a value. Apple has since come out and made privacy a selling point and have decided that like actually we do want to push that. The cynical counter argument, [chuckle] is that if you sell privacy and encryption then it gives you a free pass for moderation. So I’m not going to say that there are not also some self-interested things that could be at play. But it is interesting to see over kind of the span of 10 years how some of these things that are very easily dismissed as, oh that’ll never happen, does slowly come around because the culture starts to value that. That’s not super optimistic. I think there’s still a lot of cynicism you could put onto that as to why that change came about.

MK: But I still do think that at least I try and find some optimism that the way the world is now is not the way it will be in the future. And I think it kind of goes to why, I think we do this work as we try and put information out there. One of our colleagues once said that journalists aren’t cynics. It would be cynical to think that nothing will change. We’re actually optimists. Because we think that by exposing things, by shedding light on them, it does cause the world to change in hopefully ways for the better.

BB: I think that’s true. And I think one of the things that was so compelling about this article was the mix of data, the stories that brought it home, and then also the ability to understand the methodology and the scope. And I will say if you think about privacy, Snowden era privacy and later, it’s what Craig Watkins said, there’s going to have to be policy intervention.

MK: Right. It’s not so much, how much can you put on the individual? I think that’s also a question of framing is companies love to say, well this is really all on you to sort this out and there’s another way of thinking about it. And yeah, the developments in what Europe is doing is super interesting from a policy perspective that you can nudge it from the supply side, from the company side.

JVD: Yeah.

BB: The other two things I think are interesting when we talk about your work in the intersection of the earlier podcast in the series is William Brady, who was at Yale and now is at Kellogg, Northwestern, talked about algorithmic honesty. So on everything that you see, it tells why you’ve seen it. And then Craig Watkins talking about how it’s indefensible now to build algorithms and AI that don’t have ethicists, people with lived experience, humanists, safety people, privacy people at the table, that engineers and mathematicians can… computational scientists, this cannot be their domain anymore.

JVD: It requires a mix of approaches. And we’ve had, as you saw, with privacy as Michael was saying, like there were policy changes, particularly in Europe, California, and so forth. And it’s slow. Michael is so optimistic. I am actually, I feel like so much, I feel like great now, [laughter] with this like teeny tiny bit of optimism, right?

BB: Me too.

JVD: It’s like…

MK: It’s not my, not my normal role that I play.

JVD: No, it’s not and that’s why I’m…


BB: Jen’s like, “Who are you?”

JVD: Yeah. Right. Yeah. Yeah. So I’m feeling like, “Oh wow, we are actually making a difference.” It’s just that it’s slow and the pace of technological change is so rapid that sometimes I think it probably feels that we are making no difference whatsoever. But if you look at it over a span of decades, we could maybe… If you look at it over a span of decades, we could maybe catch up.

MK: I’ve closed all my calendar apps and yet it is still doing notifications.


BB: And I feel like that’s the universe dinging a little bell. Like in the movie when someone gets his wings. Okay. Rapid fire. I’m going to go… I’m going to switch between who goes first and second. Are you ready?

JVD: Okay. Yeah.

BB: Okay. Jen, you’re called to be really brave, but your fear is real. Like you can feel it in the back of your throat. You have to be brave. What’s the first thing you do?

JVD: Just take a deep breath. [laughter]

BB: Yeah. Michael, first thing you do, you’ve got to be brave. You can feel the fear.

MK: Probably just remain silent like I just did.


BB: Yeah. I was like, he’s modeling it, folks.

MK: Yeah.

BB: It’s right here. Okay. Jen, last TV show you binged and loved.

JVD: Oh gosh, we haven’t finished it yet, but we’ve been watching, an old season of Survivor, which I had never watched before because I hate reality TV and I’m really weirdly into it. This is just my family has been into really old reality TV lately. We also watched The Amazing Race, so that. I’ll just go with that.

BB: I like it. Michael?

MK: I was super late, but like this month I watched the first season of Love Is Blind and I thought it was fascinating. [laughter] That was really, really interesting. I’m now looking forward to doing the internet archeology of finding all the past discourse and how it aged. But I thought it was a very in-depth analysis of human behavior.

BB: So just for a split second, we’re like, no, these are not investigative journalists. These are like people, but then within a second, we’re reminded that they’re nerds. Okay. Favorite movie, Jen.

JVD: Oh, like of all time?

BB: Something you wouldn’t turn off. Well, something you wouldn’t turn off if you came across it.

JVD: Something I wouldn’t turn off. I never turn off… we’re big Star Wars households.

BB: Oh yeah.

JVD: Also the Shawshank Redemption. Just because, you can’t ever turn it off. [laughter]

BB: You can’t turn it off.

JVD: Even though I don’t know that either of those are my fav… I don’t know that I would say they were my favorite movies, but I wouldn’t turn them off.

BB: If I asked somebody who knew you really well, “What’s your favorite movie?” What would they say?

JVD: They would say, I don’t really watch movies.

BB: Got it. Okay. I’m going to go with Shawshank Redemption folks. Okay. Michael, you’ve got to have a favorite movie.

MK: I love LA Story, which is an old Steve Martin movie from like 1992. That is just, I find it… It’s just still so funny and touching and kind of absurd and it’s, it’s very weird. And I think probably most of its jokes have not aged poorly, which I think for many old movies, [laughter] is hard. So I think it’s still good. I think it’s a weird one and it reminds me of LA so I like it.

JVD: Yeah. Michael as the LA not resident, but…

BB: He carries the vibe with him. Yeah.

JVD: Whatever. Former resident of LA is much better with movies.

MK: Resident LA booster.

JVD: Yeah. Yeah. And LA booster. Well you do kind of boost LA, yeah.

BB: I mean LA Story says so much about you. I’m going to have to think about it for a long time. Okay. Favorite meal, Jen.

JVD: Ooh, can I say just like favorite food instead?

BB: Yes.

JVD: Okay. Oreos and milk. It’s not a meal.

BB: That’s so wholesome.


BB: And it can be a meal. I’m for it. Okay. [laughter]

BB: Michael.

JVD: I’ve had it as a meal before.

BB: Wait, do you dip or do you eat and swish?

JVD: Oh, definitely dip. And dip until like a certain amount of time. Like the cookie actually has to be soft.

BB: How many do you lose? What percentage do you lose in over-dip?

BB: It’s low percentage. I try to time it so that they’re not like falling off.

BB: Okay. I lose half.

JVD: Oh, half? Oh that’s a lot. [laughter]

BB: Yeah, it’s not good. Michael, favorite food or meal?

MK: I have another LA one. There’s a slice of chocolate cream pie from this place in LA called the Apple Pan, which is a very old, I mean, ancient for LA. It was from the ’40s, which is before time started. And yeah, they have a wonderful slice of Chocolate Cream Pie with fries. Very controversial, but if you kind of salt the fries and then dip them in the whipped cream, it’s a sweet, salty, hot cold combination. You may get a lot of looks, but just stay the course.

BB: Oh wait, [laughter] the universe loves it.

JVD: Yeah.

BB: And I’m from Texas where everyone here dips their Wendy’s french fries into Frosties.

JVD: Oh, I was going to say, yes into the chocolate Frosties. Yes, I do that too.

MK: Great. I’m not the only one.

JVD: Completely. I didn’t know that was a Texas thing.

BB: Totally. So this, I’m really interested in this question. Michael, you can go first. What’s on your nightstand?

MK: Assortment of books and a lamp. That’s pretty much it.

BB: That’s it, Jen?

JVD: Yeah. I have a small nightstand and I’m in my… I have books, a couple notebooks that I use for work, Kleenex box, and lamp. It’s not very interesting. I have a very small nightstand though also, so it doesn’t… It’s not fitting a lot. I guess most nightstands should be small.

BB: I think they’re mostly small. I have like a leaning tower Pisa of books. And I always try to go for the fiction, but I usually end up just reading nonfiction.

JVD: Yeah. I have a Kindle actually now that I’m looking at it.

BB: Oh my God. Do you really?

JVD: Yeah.

BB: I can’t do it.

JVD: You can’t do the Kindle? Well, I for a long time thought as a technology reporter, I am often a Luddite because I’m covering privacy intrusions and whatnot. But you know, we’re in New York and carrying a large book on my, in my purse just to read on the subway was just too much. So the Kindle is, is really space efficient.

BB: I appreciate that part of it. It just doesn’t smell like a book. Okay, last question Michael, what’s one thing you’re grateful for right now?

MK: That it’s about to not be freezing cold and it’s a pretty pedestrian answer, but the sun out. I can see the sun came out. It’s been raining here for three days and I think that’ll be nice. And I have a couple days off, so I’m grateful for that.

BB: I love that. I wish you sun and good days off. Jen, what are you grateful for right now?

JVD: Well I don’t like to talk about my family very much, so I’m not going to be too specific about it, but, I’m grateful for my family. I know that’s a pedestrian answer as well.

BB: Y’all hold yourself to very high answers. I think your answers are really good. Yeah. Like it must be like, used to be interviewing really fancy people because like sun and some time off and family. I mean that just pretty much does it. That’s it. I’m grateful for y’all being on and I’m really… It was a hard piece to read, but a really important piece. And to Jen, one point you made, I hope we’ll send everyone to it. I hope you read it. I hope for those of you listening, you’ll read this piece if you haven’t already read it. It was kind of wild fire across the communities in my life, but I saw my own struggles and myself in it and it’s really easy to demonize people, but I don’t know a person who doesn’t believe that social media is kind of a dangerous addiction. And of every… Of the 100% of the people in my life who agree that’s true. None of us have stopped using it. So be careful throwing your phone into glass houses, right?

JVD: Same.

BB: Yeah. Thank y’all so much for being on Unlocking Us. I appreciate it. And thank you for the work you’re doing.

MK: Thank you. I really appreciate being on.

JVD: Thank you for having us on. Yeah, it was a great conversation.

BB: Thank you.


BB: Tough topic. I mean, I will say that I really appreciate the thoughtfulness in which Jen and Michael really approached this difficult topic, their decision to not use photos. I mean, go check out the article in the New York Times. Again, the link will be on They just handled this in such a… It was such integrity. You can learn all about the episodes, the show notes, all the links on We’ll have comments open on that page. You’ll find more links to read work from Jen and Michael. We’ll have a transcript up within three to five days of the episode going live. Also, we are starting to, based on really interesting demand, in addition to our monthly newsletter, we’re doing a weekly digest about the podcast and the stories that we’re covering and looking at, what I’m listening to, watching, what I think is interesting going on in the world. So feel free to join up for that if you’d like another thought-provoking email in your box every week. That’s it. Stay awkward, brave, and kind. And I’ll be interested to read your comments on this because I know I’m having a knee-jerk reaction, but kind of if you’re under 18, I wonder what kind of problems it would solve to say no minors on social media. Something not good is happening. And I’m curious about it, staying curious. Okay. Thanks y’all.


BB: Unlocking Us is produced by Brené Brown Education and Research Group. The music is by Carrie Rodriguez and Gina Chavez. Get new episodes as soon as they’re published by following Unlocking Us on your favorite podcast app. We are part of the Vox Media podcast network. Discover more award-winning shows at


© 2024 Brené Brown Education and Research Group, LLC. All rights reserved.

Brown, B. (Host). (2024, April 10). “A Marketplace of Girl Influencers Managed by Moms and Stalked by Men”. [Audio podcast episode]. In Unlocking Us with Brené Brown. Vox Media Podcast Network.

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