Like most 3-year-old girls, Wren Eleanor loves playing with dolls, snuggling her stuffed animals and playing dress-up. What sets her apart from her peers, however, is the more than 17 million followers who tune in to her adorable daily antics on TikTok.
As the mother of one of the youngest and most powerful "influencers" on the internet today, Wren's mom Jacquelyn Paul, is currently under fire. Content creators and experts alike are calling her out, stating the single mom's videos have taken a turn from adorable toddler moments to exploitative content that may be putting Wren's safety at risk in more ways than one.
How did the Wren Eleanor TikTok account start?
Paul launched the account to save memories of her daughter as she grew, says a 2020 report from News Now Omaha: At just 18 months old, Wren had over 4 million followers who were watching her grow as well.
The article explains that, as their social media platform grew, Paul realized in addition to creating content for fun, the account could be a way for her to make money. This realization may be where the trouble began for the mommy-and-me account.
Today, searching for Wren on TikTok will bring up her platform, as well as hundreds of videos, explaining just how detrimental the situation is. Creators showcase the vulgar comments and inappropriate video duets (a way of responding to a posted TikTok video) the girl receives each day. And that's just the start: Many have reported photos and videos of the child are surfacing on child pornography websites as well.
Yahoo Life contacted Jacquelyn Paul for comment but did not receive a response.
The side of content-sharing parents may not know about
Sarah Adams, the Canada-based TikToker behind @mom.uncharted, has posted multiple TikToks about the controversial account. "I want you to pause for a minute and think about how we, as a society, have normalized and accepted grown adults, specifically males, following children, specifically females, on social media," she says in one TikTok. "Every day I see grown adult men commenting and liking photos of little girls."
Adams says it's important for parents to remember exactly who they're opening their kids up to when they share images and videos of them on social media. "If you're sharing your children publicly on social media platforms, you're allowing the worst of society access to images, videos and information of and about your children," she tells Yahoo Life. "It's sad and sick to think about, but parents need to be aware that not all eyes on these public platforms are looking at your children through the innocent eyes in which you view them."
"We need to start prioritizing our children's safety online," she adds, "just as diligently as we protect them in the real world."
The possible price of social media fame
Andrew Selepak is a social media professor at the University of Florida who says as adults continue to share more of their lives — their children included — they should proceed with caution. "Posting videos of your underage child to achieve the fame you cannot get yourself is exploitation," he says, "and it is non-consensual exploitation. Not only are TikTok users saving the videos of an underage child to watch over and over again, but they are also creating duets with videos of Wren that are sexualizing a child."
Colleen Colodany, the United Kingdom-based CEO of Kids Wiki, shares that, as someone who works with children and as a mother, seeing Wren's story has left her deeply concerned. "The internet is full of pedophiles who are making disturbingly inappropriate remarks about this 3 year old," says Colodany. "Even after being aware of this, Wren's mother is continuing to make videos with sexual innuendos — for example, eating a hotdog — for the money."
Colodany feels money and internet fame are not as important as parents prioritizing the safety of their children — especially on social media. "[Parents] should act smarter when deciding which footage of their kids they post online, if they cannot stop posting altogether," she says. "Privacy is a child's right. By not giving it to them, we're putting their safety at stake."
Are there laws to protect young children on social media platforms?
Family law attorney Sabrina Shaheen Cronin shares that, although there are child labor laws in place in entertainment, even in more progressive states, laws on social media still have not caught up to give child influencers the protection they might need.
"The California Child Actor's Bill requires a portion of a minor's earnings be set aside in a trust account until they reach the age of majority," she explains. "Each state has its own set of laws that pertain to child performers. Still, in California, that leaves 85% of the performer's income at a parent's discretion."
"Currently, there is nothing like it for the young stars of social media," she adds.
A representative at TikTok tells Yahoo Life the app does have some general safety guidelines for children and families. "[The] policies focus on [TikTok's] commitment to the safety of minors, and offer a robust set of recommendations to offer a safe user experience," they say, "including a family pairing feature and a new Guardian's Guide to TikTok."
The brand shares that, "if [it was] to become aware of content that exploited or endangered minors, it would be a violation of [its] policies and [it] would remove the content."
Stephen Balkam is founder and CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), an organization dedicated to protecting children online. "The best way to approach online child protection," he says, "is by facilitating as much early digital literacy as possible, coupled with open communication and parental control features depending on the child's age."
FOSI offers digital parenting resources, which provide parents and caregivers tools needed to navigate the online world with their families, helping them assess both the opportunities and challenges that come with being online.
Why hasn't the account been removed?
But if multiple policies are in place and there are a plethora of educational safety tools available, why hasn't Jaquelyn Paul's content been removed from social media platforms? Unfortunately, the situation isn't completely black and white, as technically, nothing posted by Paul violates current community guidelines or laws.
Some users say they didn't even realize how scary the videos were until someone else pointed it out to them. Claire Grayson, a social media user who lives in Denver, Colo., says thanks to open conversations from creators on TikTok, she's now viewing the content Paul makes of her daughter through a different set of eyes.
"I've watched videos of Wren Eleanor in the past and I found them cute without giving them a second thought," says Grayson. "Watching the creators point out how Wren Eleanor's mother exploits the 3 year old, I couldn't help but open up my eyes a little more to these child stars, especially the really young ones."
While Grayson explains she does enjoy some cute kiddo content online, she believes there's a right and a wrong way for parents to share their little ones with the world.
"I wouldn't say it's a bad thing to share your child on social media, but I have a problem with parents centering their entire online persona around their underage children," she says. "And, with the amount of sick comments I've seen on the child's page, it's worrisome she hasn't addressed them or made some efforts to protect her child."
How could this type of exposure affect a child in the long run?
And there's an additional risk to kids who are shared online: Selepak says beyond worries for the girl's safety, the exposure may cause emotional damage for her as she grows older and more aware.
"We have no idea how children will be affected in the future when their entire embarrassing lives have been online for strangers to see from the day they were born," he says. "But we can probably be assured it will not have a positive impact."
Although she once loved the content, Grayson says it's now taught her a valuable lesson in online safety for children. "All in all, Wren Eleanor does not serve as a cautionary tale, but her mother serves as a cautionary tale," she says. "There's a thin line between promoting your child and exploiting them."
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