The Influencer Is a Young Teenage Girl. The Audience Is 92% Adult Men.



The mother launched the Instagram account three years ago during the pandemic as a way to share photos of her preteen dancer daughter with family, friends, and fellow dancers and moms. It became a bonding activity, as they posted pictures of the girl dancing, modeling, and living in a small Midwestern town. A former marketing manager, the mother managed the account and watched its followers grow rapidly. Soon, photographers offered professional shoots for the girl, and brands began sending free dancewear for her to model. “It was only a month before brands asked if they could send her dancewear,” the mother said. “She became popular really quickly.”

However, the mother noticed a troubling trend: most followers were adult men. These men left comments with fire and heart emojis, calling the girl gorgeous, and some sent direct messages expressing obsessions or sharing explicit content. The mother often spent two to four hours daily blocking users and deleting inappropriate comments, even as more sponsorships arrived. “The brands weren’t just dance brands anymore,” said the daughter, now in high school. “It was actually really cool.” She enjoyed creating posts and aspired to be an influencer, considering it a dream job to pursue after school and dance practice.

“I wasn’t trying to push her to stardom, but part of me thought it could happen—it seemed inevitable,” said the mother, acknowledging her daughter’s strong personality. However, the mother faced a dilemma: to achieve influencer success, the account needed more followers, and she had to be less selective about who they were. Instagram promotes content based on engagement, which came from the male followers she had been blocking, who lingered on photos and boosted likes and comments. Disabling comments or blocking users could hurt her daughter’s influencer dreams.

There were reasons to continue. The account had brought the mother closer to her daughter, and even mid-tier influencers could earn substantial incomes, enough to help pay for college. The mother decided to press on, accepting a harsh truth: being a young influencer on Instagram attracts many men with a sexual interest in children. “I never liked it. Ever. But it is what it is,” she said. She sometimes questioned her decision, especially seeing that 92% of her followers were male. Offering Instagram subscriptions for extra content also attracted many men. Thousands of other young female influencers and their parents face similar challenges on social media, particularly on Instagram, which is owned by Meta Platforms. 


Instagram makes it easy for strangers to find photos of children, and its algorithm is built to identify users’ interests and push similar content. Investigations by The Wall Street Journal and outside researchers have found that, upon recognizing that an account might be sexually interested in children, Instagram’s algorithm recommends child accounts for the user to follow, as well as sexual content related to both children and adults.
That algorithm has become the engine powering the growth of an insidious world in which young girls’ online popularity is perversely predicated on gaining large numbers of male followers. 
“If you want to be an influencer and work with brands and get paid, you have to work with the algorithm, and it all works with how many people like and engage with your post,” said the Midwestern mom. “You have to accept it.” 
Meta has said that it has spent more than a decade working on keeping children safe online, and developed tools, features, and resources to support teens and their parents. In response to Journal articles over the past year showing how its algorithms connect pedophilic accounts and promote material that sexualizes children, the company said it took a series of measures to remove violating accounts and enhance safety.
The company has been developing technology to identify accounts belonging to potentially suspicious adults. It said it has removed tens of thousands of such accounts in recent months.
Instagram photos of young girls become a dark currency, swapped and discussed obsessively among men on encrypted messaging apps such as Telegram. The Journal reviewed dozens of conversations in which the men fetishized specific body parts and expressed pleasure in knowing that many parents of young influencers understand that hundreds, if not thousands, of pedophiles have found their children online.   
One man, speaking about one of his favorite young influencers in a Telegram exchange captured by a child-safety activist, said that her mother knew “damn well” that many of her daughter’s followers were “pervy adult men.”
“We’re all model scouts, agents and brand owners,” another man replied in jest. “We’re totally NOT jerking off to the pics.”
The Midwestern mom, in interviews by phone and at her home on a suburban cul-de-sac, said she tried to position herself as the barrier between her daughter and the pedophiles following along. After she learned that her daughter’s photos were trading on Telegram, she sought brand partnerships offering school and leisure outfits instead of tight-fitting dancewear.
Meta looms over everything young influencers do on Instagram. It connects their accounts with strangers, and it can upend their star turns when it chooses. The company periodically shuts down accounts if it determines they have violated policies against child sexual exploitation or abuse. Some parents say their accounts have been shut down without such violations. 
Throughout reporting this story, during which time the Journal inquired about the account the mom managed for her daughter, Meta shut down the account twice. The mom said she believed she hadn’t violated Meta’s policies. 
Meta offices in Menlo Park, Calif., in 2021. PHOTO: IAN BATES FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

‘Gorgeous!’

The Instagram posts started three years ago, the mom said. Her daughter, whom she describes as a “little ham” who loves the spotlight, had hundreds of photos from dance practice and competitions. She and her daughter enjoyed posting them and connecting with other young dancers online.
“It felt very safe,” her mother said. “Whether or not it was, it felt that way.”
Young influencers began following the account. But many followers lacked proper names and personal photos—signs of possible burner accounts for users with sexual interest in children to consume content anonymously. Some had crude or obscene usernames. 
Meta’s guidance for content creators stresses the importance of engaging with followers to keep them and attract new ones. The hundreds of comments on any given post included some from other young fashion influencers, but also a large number of men leaving comments like “Gorgeous!” The mom generally liked or thanked them all, save for any that were expressly inappropriate. 
Meta spokesman Andy Stone said the company enables parents who run accounts for their children to control who can message them on Instagram or comment on their accounts. Meta’s guidance for creators also offers tips for building a safe online community, and the company has publicized a range of tools to help teens and parents achieve this.
The mom and daughter began putting in hours of work throughout the week to produce a steady stream of content. Some brands paid several hundred dollars for photos or Reels, with stipulations for how and when to post them.
Like many young girls, the daughter envied fashion influencers who made a living posting glamour content. When the mother agreed to help her daughter build her following and become an influencer, she set some rules. Her daughter wouldn’t be allowed to access the account or interact with anyone who sent messages. And they couldn’t post anything indicating exactly where they live. 
The mom stopped blocking so many users. Within a year of launching, the account had more than 100,000 followers. The daughter’s popularity earned her invitations to modeling events in big coastal cities where she met other young influencers. 

Closer contact

Children, often with parental encouragement, have posed and performed for money for decades in beauty pageants, modeling gigs, or acting spots. Predators have been there just as long, watching and participating.
Social media platforms have helped level the playing field for parents seeking an audience for their children’s talents. Instagram, in particular, is visually driven and easily navigable, which also makes it appealing for child-focused brands.
But the platforms also have brought children and predators into closer contact. 
While Meta bans children under the age of 13 from independently opening social media accounts, the company allows what it calls adult-run minor accounts, managed by parents. Often those accounts are pursuing influencer status, part of a burgeoning global influencer industry expected to be worth $480 billion by 2027, according to a recent Goldman Sachs report. 
Young influencers, reachable through direct messages, routinely solicit their followers for patronage, posting links to payment accounts and Amazon gift registries in their bios.
In 2022, Instagram started letting certain content creators offer paid subscription services. At the time, the company allowed accounts featuring children to offer subscriptions if they were run or co-managed by parents.
The Midwestern mom debated whether to charge for access to extra photos and videos via Instagram’s subscription feature. She said she has always rejected private offers to buy photos of her daughter, but she decided that offering subscriptions was different because it didn’t involve a one-on-one transaction.
“There’s no personal connection,” she said. “You’re just finding a way to monetize from this fame that’s impersonal.”
The content she started charging for was simply more of the types of photos and videos they posted for free, but hundreds of accounts soon subscribed. Some were other young influencers. Many others were adult men. 
The mom allowed the men to purchase subscriptions so long as they kept their distance and weren’t overtly inappropriate in messages and comments. 
“In hindsight, they’re probably the scariest ones of all,” she said. 
Stone, the Meta spokesman, said that the company will no longer allow accounts that primarily post child-focused content to offer subscriptions or receive gifts and that the company is developing tools to enforce that.

Saving for college

A straight-A student who hangs out with a small group of studious friends, the daughter talked excitedly in an interview about wanting to go to a large public university in her state. She thinks she might like to study business.
On a recent spring day, the girl was taking a break from making content for the Instagram account as she studied for her tests.  
“They do come before modeling,” she said. “I just want that 4.0 GPA.”
Her focus on the account would resume as her friends sought summer jobs babysitting, teaching swim lessons, and working in coffee and ice cream shops. 
“I definitely consider it a job,” the girl said, adding that she saves almost all of her earnings for a car and for college.

To date, she has saved about $20,000, her mother said.
Most of the comments the daughter has seen on her posts are encouraging reactions from other young influencers she has gotten to know through the account. Her mom filtered some of the comments from men, and direct messages have been funneled to inboxes that only her mom had access to. 
Still, the girl knows that men have accounted for tens of thousands of her followers, and said she sees it as inevitable.
The mom has spoken frankly with her daughter about the fact that most of her followers are men, many potentially dangerous. Several times, the mom has explained how to identify sextortion attempts and warned against responding to anyone trying to make direct contact. She has warned her daughter to be wary of anyone claiming to have nude photos or other means of blackmail.
“We’ve never taken a bad picture. That’s stupid. I would just block them,” the mom recalled her daughter responding.
“But I’m like, these people are really smart and they could try to trick you,” the mom said. “We have conversations like this.”
The mom saw her daughter, though young, as capable of choosing to make money as an influencer and deciding when she felt uncomfortable. The mom saw her own role as providing the support needed for her daughter to do that.
The mom also discussed safety concerns with her now ex-husband, who has generally supported the influencer pursuit. In an interview, he characterized the untoward interest in his daughter as “the seedy underbelly” of the industry and said he felt comfortable with her online presence so long as her mom posted appropriate content and remained vigilant about protecting her physical safety.

No swimsuits

The mom knew there was opposition to accounts like her daughter’s. Some child safety activists argued that parents running such accounts exploited their girls by knowingly accepting money from users who were sexually interested in the content. 
Some criticized the Midwestern mom specifically, in messages or reports to Meta. She felt unfairly targeted. She saw other accounts featuring skimpier outfits or more risqué poses. She also had heard stories about parents selling custom photo sets to fans willing to pay substantial sums.
She had at first been vaguely aware from other influencer moms that men traded photos in private chats, she said, “but I didn’t really know what happened.”
That changed last spring when an anonymous person professing to be a child safety activist sent her an email that contained screenshots and videos showing her daughter’s photos being traded on Telegram. Some of the users were painfully explicit about their sexual interests. Many of the photos were bikini or leotard photos from when the account first started.
The mom tried to better tailor the photos and videos to reach young girls and moms. 
“I try to keep it girlie. I always have bows in my hair and cute stuff,” the daughter said. “Girls obviously want to see fashion inspiration and hairstyles. I also never post in swimsuits, ever. That’s the No. 1 way to attract men, so that’s a big no.”
Still, the mom realized she couldn’t stop men from trading the photos, which will likely continue to circulate even after her daughter becomes an adult. 
“Every little influencer with a thousand or more followers is on Telegram,” she said. “They just don’t know it.” 
In one exchange saved by child-safety activists about another young girl who now has more than 300,000 followers on Instagram, a user digitally altered a photo of her wearing a tank top to make it look like she was wearing a micro-bikini top, with only small triangles of fabric.
“You guys like my improvement?” he asked the group.
“Beautiful breasts,” another responded. “How old is she?”
A person in the group used Google to identify the girl and determine if she was 13 or 14 years old.

Assessing the risks

Early last year, Meta safety staffers began investigating the risks associated with adult-run accounts for children offering subscriptions, according to internal documents. The staffers reviewed a sample of subscribers to such accounts and determined that nearly all the subscribers demonstrated malicious behavior toward children.
The staffers found that the subscribers mostly liked or saved photos of children, child-sexualizing material, and, in some cases, illicit underage-sex content. The users searched the platform using hashtags such as #sexualizegirls and #tweenmodel. 
Meta headquarters 
The staffers discovered that some accounts with vast numbers of followers were selling additional content to subscribers who paid extra money on Instagram or other platforms. Moreover, some of these accounts engaged in sexual discussions about their children with subscribers. In every instance, the parents managing these accounts were aware that their subscribers' motivations were for sexual gratification. In the following months, the Journal conducted its own review of parent-run modeling accounts and found numerous cases where Meta failed to enforce its child-safety policies and community guidelines effectively.

In response to the Journal's inquiry about several accounts that appeared to violate platform rules by promoting photos of children, Meta deleted some of these accounts and others while addressing safety issues. Meta's internal report also highlighted a Midwestern mom's account during a review of subscribers to hundreds of popular tween and teen influencer accounts. Approximately 42% of her 428 subscribers exhibited problematic behavior, according to the staffers.
The Midwestern mom was unaware of Meta’s internal investigation at the time but became concerned about the prospect of losing her account after Meta, without explanation, removed several photos of her daughter dressed in casual clothes and athletic wear. She expressed her worries and confusion over these removals in a story posted on her account. When the Journal asked Meta about these actions, the company's subsequent response included disabling the account’s subscription feature and eventually shutting down the account without providing a reason. 
The removal of the account caused a disheartening week for the mom and daughter, with the mother feeling incensed at Meta's lack of explanation and suspecting false reports of inappropriate activity. She felt torn about her next steps, particularly as the account had about 80% male followers at the shutdown. She reflected, “If I could go back, I don’t know if I would do it all again. There are too many flaws in it all.” 
Her daughter lamented the disappearance of her hard-earned following overnight but decided to rebuild using another account they had set up as a backup. “It was disappointing,” the daughter remarked. “I didn’t want to quit, but if I didn’t have the backup, I don’t know if I would have kept going.” 
Conflicted, the mom thought of the Telegram screenshots, the concerns from child-safety activists, and an attempted blackmail email she received, which she showed to brand sponsors despite not responding to it. Yet, not wanting to disappoint her daughter, they rebuilt their following, which soon topped 100,000 followers, about 92% male. Within months, Meta shut down this backup account too, citing violations of its child exploitation policies without specifics.
Meta’s Stone noted that once accounts have been shut down by the company, they are not allowed to resume similar activities on new accounts. Now, the mom and daughter are debating their next move. While they offer some subscription content on another platform, most of their followers are on Instagram. The mom is considering allowing her daughter to open a new Instagram account with oversight and limits, believing that Instagram would permit this. She noted, “She just wants to figure out how to keep working with her brands and do her job. I would love to boycott Instagram altogether, but that’s really hard if you’re trying to work with brands.”  

At the corporate office of Suntory Global Spirits in New York’s Flatiron District, I visited the liquor giant’s research and development lab, where I sipped on cocktails including an Old Overholt whiskey sour and two libations made with Cruzan rum.  

But there’s no bartender in front of me. Instead, I’m with Eric Schuetzler, head of global R&D for Suntory Global Spirits. And he tells me the goal of these ready-to-drink (RTD) cocktails, under the On The Rocks brand that Suntory acquired in 2020, is to get the flavor of a margarita, cosmopolitan, or Negroni as close as possible to what a mixologist would concoct. 

“In the cocktails where it is spirit-forward, we tried to be spirit-forward with cocktails,” says Schuetzler. “Where it’s more fruit-flavored forward, like a strawberry daiquiri, then we lean into that.”

[Photo: Suntory]

On The Rocks is a key pillar of Suntory’s goal to notch $3 billion in RTD sales globally by 2030, a market it expects will grow to $50 billion by that year. RTDs grew by 27% last year, according to spirits trade association Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, the fastest growing spirits category by revenue.

In fact, RTDs have been growing so strongly that it is helping mask the flat or declining sales across all alcoholic beverage categories in the United States. For the 52-week period ending in early April, sales for all RTDs—including those with a beer, wine, or spirits base—grew by 6% in dollar sales, data from consumer intelligence firm NIQ shows. 

Younger drinkers in the millennial and Gen Z demographics love that RTDs are convenient. RTDs are strong sellers at grocery and convenience stores, and while initially popular for picnics in the park or a day at the beach, increasingly these brands have made inroads in bars, sports stadiums, airports, and hotels.

“DIVERSIFICATION IN FLAVOR”

In the early years, hard seltzer brands like White Claw and Truly propelled the category and flavor innovation was focused on staples like citrus, berry, or tea, but some RTD makers have taken riskier bets on turmeric and hibiscus.

“One single flavor probably isn’t going to cut it for most consumers,” says Jon Berg, a VP at NIQ. “They want that diversification in flavor.” 

There is also a growing emphasis on making sure that RTDs taste good. Consumers were initially willing to sacrifice on the flavor delivered by these drinks in favor of portability. Industry experts say that’s no longer the case. Sales have softened for hard seltzers and malt-based RTDs, while products made with actual vodka or tequila are resonating more with drinkers today.

“Consumers have said, ‘I really want to have something that’s more authentic,’” says Berg. “Something that tastes like a margarita should have tequila in it. We’ve seen some shifting.” 

Heather Boyd, managing director of RTDs in the U.S. for Suntory, says there was a time when drinkers were willing to make a sacrifice on flavor for a lower-calorie count or less sugar.

“We’re seeing consumers start to reassess that,” Boyd says.

This year, Suntory began a global expansion of the company’s -196 RTD (pronounced “minus one-nine-six”), which had been sold in Japan for nearly two decades but is only now entering markets like the U.S., Germany, and the U.K. -196 is made using whole fruits that are picked at peak ripeness and frozen in liquid nitrogen, then crushed and infused into vodka. 

[Photo: Suntory]

“There is a larger trend that we’re seeing, and this isn’t just specific to RTD but in total, and seeking to have a better understanding about what you’re putting into your body and asking for more transparency,” says Boyd.

The final -196 product is fuller in flavor than what’s available on shelf today, Suntory says, and it doesn’t take a uniform approach to the levels of sweetness, carbonation, or alcoholic content. Those variables are localized by geographic region.

ESTABLISHED BRANDS MAKE THEIR PITCH

Liquor giant Diageo’s RTD strategy is to lean on a broad range of brands to address different trends that are emerging in the category. Some RTDs focus keenly on flavor, while others hone in on lower calorie or sugar content for those aiming to make healthier choices.

Diageo has launched new RTDs under the Captain Morgan and Smirnoff brands this year, with eight new flavors including watermelon lime, Pineapple Daiquiri, and raspberry peach. Diageo also redesigned the packaging for its hard seltzer brand Lone River and launched a new blackberry flavor.

[Photo: Diageo]

“What we have to do is have great-tasting, crafted products that can really break through in flavor in whatever whitespace that consumer is looking for in terms of ABV, format, in terms of amount of sugar, in terms of ingredient profile,” says Laura Merritt, chief marketing officer for Diageo Beer Co. 

Diageo used malt for the company’s Captain Morgan cocktail-inspired drinks to lure more price-conscious shoppers, but in other cases, uses spirits like vodka. “We’re definitely seeing a shift toward people saying, ‘Hey, actually, what’s in this?’” says Merritt. 

Funny Water’s formulations include cucumber mint, ginger lemon, and blueberry acai. “We don’t want to be so risky that consumers shy away from us without even trying,” says Matt Giese, chief operating officer at Funny Water. 

Funny Water’s base is malt, because the brand wanted to keep the price point at a more affordable range, around $10 for a six pack. When RTD brand Funny Water initially launched, founder PJ Loughran says his initial inclination was to focus on flavors and then add booze to it. That turned out to be a bit too simplistic, and the brand has made adjustments to flavors. like turning down the heat in the jalapeño lime.

“I really look at our flavors in our product like little art pieces,” says Loughran. “We’ve made adjustments at times just to make sure what we’re doing is more distinct and more appealing.”

The Finnish Long Drink, a gin-based alcoholic beverage, recently received an investment from Marcy Venture Partners, a venture capital firm cofounded by rapper and entrepreneur Jay-Z. The brand was already backed by celebrities including actor Miles Teller and Norwegian DJ Kygo, though Finnish Long Drink cofounder and CEO Evan Burns says he is skeptical about such tie-ups.

“I really think there’s too many celebrity brands,” says Burns. “I don’t think customers wake up and say, ‘I want to drink my favorite celebrity’s tequila.’”

The brand spends about 40% of its budget on tastings to raise awareness, as Burns says it only has about 2% brand awareness nationally. “The game is just getting liquid on lips,” says Burns. “We spend a lot of money on that.”

He also takes a bit of a contrarian view on what consumers want from RTDs. For all the hype around new flavor extensions, Burns says less is more. The Finnish Long Drink only has three flavors on the shelf today: citrus, cranberry, and peach.

“You know what customers want? Something that tastes good, at the right price,” says Burns.

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