The followers were the first sign of trouble. There were 20 new ones following Jenny on Instagram–an unusually large burst of attention for the married mother of three from Charlotte, North Carolina. Then two private messages arrived, with warnings that barely made sense. “The women told me they saw a photo of my baby daughter, and a user named ‘Nikki’ was saying it was her son, Wyatt,” says Jenny, who, concerned for her privacy, asked that her last name not be used. “Nikki said he was a preemie, she gave his weight, length, everything. All made up.”
Jenny had become a victim of a growing–and to many, alarming–new community that exists primarily on Instagram: baby role-players. Instagram users like Nikki steal images of babies and children off the Internet, give them a new name, and claim them as their own. Sometimes they create entire fake families. Others then interact in the comments of each photo, role-playing as they virtually feed, burp, swaddle, and even reprimand these virtual children. Some Instagrammers even portray themselves as virtual adoption agencies, where followers can request specific babies and toddlers they’d like to adopt–“Looking for a two-year-old girl with blonde hair, green eyes, and who is feisty”–and the adoption agency then finds a photo, usually without permission. Role playing ensues.