Children and the Peril of Internet Fame

Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

A parent records their child doing/saying something moving/saddening/remarkable. The parent then posts the video of their child to social media. Social media reacts strongly to the video, and before you know it, the video—and the child—are “viral” digital sensations. They start trending on Buzzfeed, being re-shared by celebrities and athletes, and almost everyone seems to be talking about this child and what he or she said or did.

Unfortunately, the people of the internet start looking for some information about this child and his family. When they find some, it turns out that the family, and especially the parent who recorded the viral video, has some unsavory, even morally offensive social media posts on their account. Just as it did with the original video, the online “community” ensures that the new information about the family, including screenshots and pictures, goes viral.The same internet that was just a few days ago sharing the video with captions of admiration and appreciation is now outraged that any family or adult with such offensive ideas/posts could be given a platform.

This is precisely the story now of the video of Keaton, a young boy whose tears have been shared by many people in my social media feeds. Keaton is bullied at school, and his mother decided to record an emotional moment for her son and post it online. Oceans of sympathetic well-wishes poured in from millions of people who watched the video. But some Twitter users found the mother’s own Facebook account, where she posts pictures of her kids holding confederate battle flags and screeds against black NFL players who kneel during the national anthem. Just hours ago the online world wanted to support Keaton. Now they wish he and his family would go away.

Perhaps we need periodic reminders that children and the internet are not usually a good combination. I’m not trying to be holier-than-thou here. I’ve posted photos and videos of my son online, too. But this episode with Keaton and his family reminds me that I probably shouldn’t be comfortable about that fact. My concern is not that this family is being treated unfairly by an outraged online mob (though I think there might be a point to make about the inherently non-redemptive outrage of the internet). My concern is that Keaton’s vulnerable, emotionally fragile moment, a moment that thousands of other kids identify with every day, was broadcast to millions of strangers, the overwhelming majority of whom do not really care about him. The online fame paid off in one sense, and backfired horribly in another. Keaton’s grief over being bullied by people he knew in flesh and blood at the school is now compounded by the angry crowd that wants to hold him accountable for political and racial ideas likely far beyond his comprehension.

This just isn’t how it’s supposed to be. There are deeply troubling dynamics to online fame, and they only get worse when applied to children. Keaton’s anguish belonged off-camera. His very real heartbreak should never have been given to the masses. If Keaton’s mom thought online fame would balm her son’s wounds, she may have been right, but then what does that mean for Keaton going forward? Is the only suffering worth living through the suffering that can help us go viral?

The internet is a double-edged sword. Its greatest strength is that it can get anywhere. Its greatest threat is that it can get anywhere. Its pervasive presence in all aspects of public life is what gives the social media age its power for good, and its power for evil. When we stop thinking seriously about the costs of online life, we will start to sacrifice much, much more than our privacy.

I wish the best for young Keaton. I hope that he will understand that bullying is not the last word, that he is loved and fearfully and wonderfully made. And I hope he will learn quickly not to test that truth against the approval, or outrage, of the digital age.