What if you saw a picture of your baby on a social network but the picture had been posted by someone you didn't know? If you answered, "I’d freak the Hell out," then you’re a normal human being.
But, parents are experiencing this phenomenon with increasing frequency on the Instagram photo-sharing site.
The trend—known as “baby role-playing”--occurs when Instagram users steal images of other users' babies and children off the Internet, and then claim that it’s their child. Sometimes the users will even create entire fake families for the child.
Often the user will carry on bizarre baby-talk conversations with the infant in the Instagram comments section. Occasionally the fantasies involving the child become sexual or abusive in nature.
And it gets weirder.
Some of these disturbed individuals pose as adoption agencies where other baby role-players ask the “agency” for a certain type of baby--one with blue eyes, perhaps or dark hair. The fake agency account then finds a photo from someone else’s social network site—most likely without permission--and sends the photo of the baby to the proud, incredibly disturbed, new virtual parent.
While it’s a twisted trend, there’s really no legal recourse that the real parents of the baby can take if they stumble across pictures of their child on someone else’s account. Babies don’t come with trademarks.
When a mother named Jenny recently saw her baby being touted as belonging to someone else on Instagram she contacted the social network administrators for help.
“I explained that this private user had stolen photos of my infant daughter,” she said,
“Their response was that this was impersonation of a minor and I should be reporting that a minor is using Instagram. I wrote back and said this is not a minor using Instagram. She claims she’s 14 and she’s using a picture of my baby and other babies. They never responded.”
When Jenny tried to confront the baby role-player online the virtual baby thief changed her profile name.
After more complaints and an inquiry from the Washington Post, Instagram responded with a written statement:
"This type of content violates our terms. Once a parent or guardian reports it to us, we work quickly to remove it."
While most of the offending accounts are run by anonymous users, some believe that the baby role-playing community may be heavily populated by teenage girls and tweens, possibly from broken homes.
“The idea that an adolescent can create an identity online and take advantage of that anonymity does not surprise me,” said psychiatrist Gail Salz, who is the author of the book “Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Secret Life,”
“These role players have a desire to try on the fantasy of being a family person, a mother, whatever it might be that they’re searching for or void they’re trying to fill.”