This past April, a TikTok of a colossal toddler bouncing on his father’s back was the viral video of the month. The child became an internet sensation when the video started circulating on social media via a popular tweet: “is anyone else just absolutely REPULSED by this giant baby.” Some Twitter users were horrified that someone would write so negatively about the physical appearance of a child, but many more enjoyed the tweet—as of late May, it has been liked or retweeted by over 400,000 people. Since then, the big baby has been the star of several other viral tweets, as well as multiple pieces published by The Cut, Buzzfeed, Daily Mail, and more. The articles all pose the same question: why do so many people feel so averse to this particular baby? Personally, I believe the answer lies in the size of the viewer rather than that of the subject. When I asked a friend who is six feet tall about the video, he said that big baby seemed like “a good guy.” Yeah, well, it’s easy to say that when you know he couldn’t bench-press you. Being just five foot one myself, I’m not totally sold. That kid could take me out with one direct hit.
Unfortunately, there is a darker underside to this admittedly hilarious example. The big baby from TikTok is just another in a litany of sensational children, dating as far back as Jackie Coogan in the 1920s and as recently as Ryan ToysReview today. Despite the many years between them, what all of these children have in common is that they are extremely vulnerable to exploitation, by nature of both their age and their celebrity status. Historically, the mistreatment of famous children has taken a variety of forms, including emotional abuse, financial manipulation, drugging, and sexual violence—and in the virtual age, things have become only more and more complicated. In order to protect the viral children of the present, we must consider their predecessors, the child stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Jackie Coogan and Shirley Temple were two of the earliest and most celebrated child actors; both began performing at three years old, and were featured in dozens of films before the age of 18. Despite retiring from film over 70 years ago, Temple remains a symbol of the wholesome, “all-American” child to this day, and she has the eponymous mocktail to prove it. Her first film credit, aptly titled Baby Burlesks, was a series of shorts in which child actors parodied popular films and other current events. By today’s standards, and even the standards of some initial viewers, the shorts were in unfathomably poor taste: the children were made to perform as prostitutes, lovers, and heavily racialized “savages.” While costumed from the waist up, they wore nothing but safety-pinned diapers below. In Temple’s own account of the production, described in her 1988 memoir Child Star, the films were a “cynical exploitation of our childish innocence.” After years of abuse from critics, producers, and her own husband, actor John Agar Jr., Temple officially announced her retirement from the film industry. She was just 22 years old.
Coogan’s story is equally heinous. His fortune was squandered by his mother and stepfather before he could legally access the money, leaving him virtually penniless. The California Child Actors Bill, frequently referred to as the “Coogan Law,” was enacted in 1939 to protect future child stars from a similar fate. However, no such law exists for the viral children of modernity, who perform on YouTube and Instagram instead of the silver screen. Those who don’t regularly interact with children may be unaware of this, but as all modern moms and babysitters know, kids are absolutely obsessed with a subculture of YouTube known as “unboxing videos.” These are videos of children, usually anywhere from four to ten years old, unboxing and playing with a variety of toys, including slimes and putties, action figures, full playsets, and “mystery eggs.” And these videos aren’t just for fun: they are an extremely lucrative business model. In 2019, the highest-paid YouTuber was eight-year-old Ryan Kaji, or, more accurately, Ryan’s parents Loann and Shion Kaji—in that twelve-month period, the family made $26 million off their YouTube channels alone. While Kaji’s parents have stated that this revenue is being put toward Ryan and his sisters’ futures, there is no law requiring them to do so.
In light of recent scandals such as influencer Myka Stauffer “rehoming” her adopted autistic toddler, and “family” YouTuber Machelle Hobson being arrested for child abuse, it is not unreasonable to be concerned about the potential physical, emotional, and financial abuse of these so-called “kidfluencers.” This thought is especially chilling when it is considered against the backdrop of pre-Coogan Law Hollywood. Horrifyingly, Shirley Temple and Jackie Coogan’s experiences don’t even scratch the surface of that abuse; despite their traumatic experiences, both turned out to be fairly well-adjusted adults. While this may seem surprising, perhaps it is less so when compared to the extent of what their contemporaries suffered. Both child actors Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney were regularly drugged with an alternating diet of amphetamines and sleeping pills—amphetamines to finish long shoots, and then sleeping pills to take the edge off. Both would struggle with lifelong drug and alcohol addiction as a result, with Garland dying of an accidental overdose at just 47 years old.
Where does the big baby factor into all of this? Well, hopefully nowhere—his fame appears to have been rather short-lived, and his parents have shown no interest in monetizing their son’s viral moment. However, the massive response to the TikTok, which currently has over 15 million views, proves an unfortunate fact of late-stage capitalism: children sell. And some parents, from the traditional overbearing stage mother to the chic, “relatable” Instamom, will do anything for a price. Their children, some of whom have had Instagram profiles since before they were born, are their product—and a legal reckoning just waiting to happen. As both YouTube and Instagram headquarters are based in California, it can be argued that a revised Child Actors Bill—expanded to include children who are virtual content creators—would apply to all minors profiting off these platforms, regardless of the state in which they themselves actually live. The only question is whether this legislation will be updated before or after the next Jackie Coogan—a child you may have already seen on your Explore page—grows up to discover they have been exploited by the very people who are supposed to love them most.
By Isabelle Robinson