Last week, a malnourished 12-year-old boy with visible lacerations and duct tape around his wrists showed up at a stranger’s front door in Ivins, Utah, begging for help.

He had climbed out a window of the home of Jodi Hildebrandt, the business partner of his mother, Ruby Franke. Police later found his 10-year-old sister inside the home, also malnourished and wounded.

Franke is best known for her now-defunct YouTube channel 8 Passengers, where she documented her life with her husband and six kids, amassed 2.5 million subscribers and shared her seemingly draconian parenting style.

In recent years, criticism grew over Franke’s extreme parenting style and incidents she chose to share with her followers — refusing to bring lunch to her 6-year-old at school, telling her youngest children they would not receive Christmas gifts, taking away her oldest son’s bed and threatening to not give her children dinner. The channel was ultimately removed from the platform in 2023. Whether YouTube or the Frankes took down the channel is unclear.

Then in 2022 Franke joined Hildebrandt’s YouTube channel ConneXions — where they offered life-coaching and where she continued to talk about parenting. There, her advice on parenting seemed even more extreme than what she had shared on 8 Passengers.

Now, both Franke and Hildebrandt face six counts of child abuse felony charges each.

Their arrest may be our most unambiguous warning yet of the dangers of “sharenting” — oversharing about our children online — and using our children to make money. While most people who write about children and parenting online do so without visible harm, all of us would do well to heed that warning.

A self-perpetuating cycle

Instagram launched in 2010, and a year and a half later, I had my first baby. The first post on my account was a picture of my baby, with whom I was head-over-heels in love. I wanted to share my daughter with friends and family, the majority of whom were hundreds of miles away at the time.

I’d heard that it took a village to raise a child. I found easy access to that village online.

As my child grew, I compulsively shared photos on my Instagram account, which had only a few followers at the time, and took to the internet with questions about how to best parent. I found myself gravitating to accounts from fellow moms who seemed to know what they were doing and had a lot of followers.

As the app grew in popularity, so did my number of followers, and I became familiar with (and maybe addicted to?) the dopamine hits from engagement on every post. I didn’t give much thought to whether or not I should be sharing every detail of my kid’s life online because it seemed everyone of my generation was doing it. Social media was a brand-new frontier, and no one handed any of us a manual on how to raise kids in the digital age.

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But then I started to notice how “sharenting” seemed to become a self-perpetuating cycle. The more influencers shared about their children and how they parented — on Instagram, YouTube and Facebook — the more they were rewarded, both financially and in validation.

It seemed they had the best of both worlds — staying home with their kids and making money while doing so. But I also witnessed many of those influencers becoming more extreme in order to keep our attention in an increasingly crowded market. And they were rewarded for their extreme content, with more followers, more money and validation.

Meanwhile, my kid got older and started to have a life beyond the walls of our home. Where before it felt like the story I was sharing online was about me as her mother, my daughter began to have her own story, and I wasn’t sure I deserved to be the narrator anymore. That was her story to tell if she wanted to.

In a piece for Wired titled “Nothing is protecting child influencers from exploitation,” Ellen Walker wrote, “Those of us who were introduced to social media during adulthood were still able to carve out our online presence from scratch, whether it be as an anonymous lurker on Reddit or a brazen oversharer on Instagram. The next generation are not afforded this freedom of choice.”

Even so, in the 2010s, parenting accounts like Franke’s continued to grow in popularity, and the parents running them landed lucrative sponsorship deals wherein they agreed to incorporate products into their content. Often the content is footage or photos of children using those products. Some called this practice exploitation, and conversations about a child’s right to privacy began to surface more frequently.

Only recently, more than a decade after the birth of the “sharenting” phenomenon, have governments started to take action to protect the children of influencers from unfair labor practices and violations of their right to privacy.

Earlier this year, Illinois lawmakers passed legislation to ensure that children of social media influencers are compensated. Under the new law, children in Illinois may be entitled to a percentage of the money their parents make through social media content. A spokesperson for Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said of the bill, children “deserve to be shielded from parents who would attempt to take advantage of their child’s talents and use them for their own financial gain.”

The concerns are not limited to America. In February, the French National Assembly law committee drafted legislation that would go even further, protecting children’s rights to their own images. The legislation’s author, Bruno Studer, told Politico, “The message to parents is that their job is to protect their children’s privacy.”

But for the children of some influencers, this is far too little, far too late.

In March, Teen Vogue published a piece titled “Influencer parents and the kids who had their childhood made into content” featuring an interview with the child of influencers, whom they call Claire. Her family’s YouTube channel has over a billion views. Her parents left their jobs to run the YouTube channel, which primarily featured videos of Claire.

“I try not to be resentful but I kind of am,” she told Teen Vogue. “That’s not fair that I have to support everyone.” Claire claims that when she once told her father she no longer wanted to be in YouTube videos, he told her the family would have to move out of the house and they would not be able to have nice things. She tells the publication she is considering ceasing contact with her parents when she turns 18.

But perhaps no one can testify better to the dangers of growing up in a family where nearly every moment is uploaded to Youtube than Franke’s oldest child, Shari, who on the day of her mother’s arrest posted on her Instagram story a photo of officers outside the Hildebrandt home and wrote “Finally.”

“Today has been a big day,” she wrote in another story. “Me and my family are so glad justice is being served.”

Thinking twice

I don’t think it’s reasonable to ask parents to not share anything about their children online, ever. For many of us today, our communication with other humans is mostly through devices, and the online village is an essential part of parenting. And I certainly don’t believe that everyone who shares photos of their children or monetizes their family accounts will be exploiting their children or, worse, abusing them like Franke has allegedly done. Plenty of social media users seem to have struck the right balance between respecting their children’s privacy and celebrating milestones with friends and family.

Moreover, I believe every parent can, and should, decide where the line is when it comes to how much of their children’s lives is appropriate to share on the internet. I also believe that a lot of parenting is about making mistakes and learning from them, and I am in no place to throw stones at parents who I believe are sharing too much online.

But the Ruby Franke incident demonstrates that there is a line that can be crossed and that children can become collateral damage in the quest for content creation and monetization.

I’ve heard some claim that Franke’s arrest could be the beginning of the end of “sharenting.” I don’t know if that’s true. But I do know that I’ll think twice before making any post that features my children, and before following any account that seems to have parenting all figured out.