- Good looks, frequent content, and many followers can create the illusion of expertise on social media.
- Social media can satisfy narcissistic needs for people who seek recognition, loyalty, and admiration.
- A false sense of confidence with little accountability could amplify the use of fear to control behavior.
- Social media pressures will likely be only one part of the Franke abuse story.
Momfluencer Ruby Franke was arrested on suspicion of child abuse after eight years of dispensing "no-nonsense" parenting advice. Her regular vlog about raising her six children with her husband, Kevin, attracted 2.5 million followers to her YouTube channel and generated, by some accounts, a six-figure income. Negative assumptions about social media make it hard to separate accusations of child abuse from Franke's role in dispensing parenting advice as a YouTube star. How important is social media in the Ruby Franke story? If her parenting was abusive, why did we watch? Our attention generates monetizable sponsorships and ad revenues. Does this make us complicit?
From Parenting Styles to Momfluencer Advice
Parenting content is very popular across many social media platforms. Parenting styles and effective child-rearing have long been debated, and social media has given new life to the topic, amplified by the isolation of COVID. The early literature on authoritarian, authoritative, permissive, and uninvolved parenting (Maccoby & Martin, 1983) has given way to a bevy of approaches where the only requirement to be an expert is posting regular content and, presumably, having kids. Whatever their proposed style, momfluencers wet our curiosity by letting us see into their lives while providing their homespun nuggets of insight and often setting unrealistic standards for "good" parenting.
The bottom line is that promoting your maternal identity and featuring your kids on social media can be a profitable business if you can attract and keep followers. Whether we're driven by our natural curiosity to see how others live, the desire for inspiration, or just normalizing the difficulties of parenting, our attention has elevated momfluencers, like Ruby Franke, into a billion-dollar industry.
Expert or not, something about Ruby Franke's content must have been compelling, given the number of followers. Her "strict" parenting style is more aptly labeled "punitive." It's disconcerting to think people took her advice because of her seemingly excessive tactics for behavioral control. Withholding food and threats to cancel Christmas is child abuse, by my standards. However, hindsight is great, and many stories and interpretations are coming forward, but with social media, it's very hard to know what's reality and what's make-believe.
We Believe What We See, But We See What We Believe
Influencers are created by selling themselves on social media. Celebrities take on roles, but influencers are supposed to be authentic. An influencer invites followers into their lives to see how they "really live."
While we are increasingly aware of the artificiality of social media, with influencers' heavily curated, filtered, and image-altered content or outrageous behaviors to attract attention, we viewers are at a disadvantage. Without engaging in critical thinking, our emotional and social brains are driving the show. Social media is just another form of reality TV. The illusion of intimacy captures us thanks to our innate biases.
People tend to believe in visual information. It's not that we're dumb; we're just cognitively lazy and inclined to trust visuals. Physiologically, visual information tends to be more reliable than other sources. According to Witten and Knudsen (2005), information received from optical signals is rarely distorted or corrupted by the environment.
Yet this belief is increasingly misplaced. We are not very good at detecting misinformation in video form—even if we think we are. The bias toward believing what we see reduces our skepticism, even when it comes to deep fakes. Our own emotions, interests, and experiences influence our interpretation. It's no big surprise when old content takes on new meaning.
Our judgment can be further misplaced by our unconscious reliance on cues like frequency-created familiarity, attractiveness, emotional triggers (like children and puppies), and the sense that influencers are looking us right in the (camera) eye. The popularity of an influencer can further enhance their appeal—social validation visible by a large and active following and the sense of inclusion in the group can make us believe someone is worth following or at least worth checking out. How many times have you looked at a popular social media account, trying to figure out why other people like it?
Did Social Media Play a Role in Child Abuse?
Social media can be extremely profitable for the parents of child influencers with a significant number of followers, generating big dollars through sponsorships and commissions. This can lead to child abuse when a parent neglects their parent role, and a child feels responsible for the family's financial stability and is forced to take on adult responsibilities when they lack the emotional or psychological maturity to do so. When parental incentives are skewed, decisions are made to support the social media image, not the child's well-being. The Franke case seems more complicated than that.
Researchers have speculated on the relationship between social media use and narcissism, trying to understand if social media provides a chance to display grandiosity and get wanted attention or if it may be a catalyst toward increased narcissism. Whether chicken or egg, social media provides a chance to satisfy narcissistic needs by building a successful character, an expert who gains the recognition, loyalty, and admiration of others. On social media, however, there is no in-person reality check or pushback to bad behavior other than comments. For Ruby Franke, we can only speculate. She seemed to have a low tolerance for children not toeing the line, but malnutrition and physical abuse don't fit with social media success as a motive.
Child Abuse Has No Single Cause
Child abuse is a complex phenomenon with many potential precursors. While social media may have amplified Ruby Franke's desire for attention and admiration, given her a false sense of confidence, or increased the use of fear to control her children's behavior and maintain their social media front as they aged, the story is likely much more complex. The physical evidence of malnutrition and abuse tell a powerful story, but Internet detectives and other "experts" should exercise caution in interpreting previous content and drawing conclusions, especially now that Franke's arrest has been made so public. Social media is not reality, and only the authorities on the case know if, how much, and how long the abuse was going on. (And there are a lot of unanswered questions about the father's role and the estranged daughter at college whose LinkedIn profile positions her as an influencer.)
It would be a mistake to chalk this up to YouTube stardom. It would be equally problematic to ignore the psychological pressures on influencers, especially children, and how that can play out in the competitive influencer space. And finally, we must own our role in all this. Whether by complacency or lack of critical thinking, if we're horrified by the thought of the abused Franke children, we have to quit supporting potential perpetrators. Our viewing choices are powerful. However salacious or bizarrely entertaining we find something, we need to be mindful that we reward content with our views and comments.
Maccoby, E. E., & Martin, J. A. (1983). Socialization in the context of the family: Parent-child interaction. Handbook of child psychology: formerly Carmichael's Manual of Child Psychology/Paul H. Mussen, editor.
Witten, I. B., & Knudsen, E. I. (2005). Why Seeing Is Believing: Merging Auditory and Visual Worlds. Neuron, 48(3), 489-496. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2005.10.020