Your latest deeply unnerving Internet phenomenon: the practice of "baby role-playing." Participants generally hijack new parents' photos and use them on Instagram to enact fantasies about adoption and basic childcare tasks—though sometimes it gets much, much darker.
Fast Company has a report on the practice, leading with the story of North Carolina mom Jenny, who discovered someone called "Nikki" was stealing Instagram photos of her son, assigning him a new name and claiming as her own, offering fabricated details about his birth weight, for instance. Obviously this freaked Jenny right the fuck out. But it's just the tip of the iceberg:
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.
Often you'll get users commenting and the OP responding in character as the baby; for instance, from one Fast Company example: "Your so adorable how old are you" "Tank oo." It doesn't take that much empathy to understand how this might be deeply upsetting to someone whose kid's pics are stolen.
While it's hard to say for sure due to the anonymity of Instagram, according to Fast Company many of the role-players seem to be teenage girls. And it's almost like a psychologically fraught game of Tamagotchi for girls from rocky backgrounds. Said psychiatrist Gail Saltz:
"It's more exciting to be testing these fantasies online and not in their minds because there's some follow through online and yet they're behind the safety of their computer in their bedroom. This is another variation of that. 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."
There are corners of the Internet where it's better controlled. Fast Company points to BabyNames.com, where they noticed the practice early and corralled it into a "fantasy families" forum. (Where other people's photos are verboten.)
But it can get much, much darker. The Toronto Star and Daily Dot both covered the trend back in December 2013, when several moms banded together and launched a Change.org petition calling on Instagram to take action. (They also launched @babyrp_revealed and @stop_babyrp to report specific accounts.) And according to the Star:
"As time went on the posts we were seeing went from disturbing to vile. Some were being abused both physically and sexually and some were being even killed off," says Corinne Chaimovitz, a Toronto-area mother who started a campaign last month against the practice using the hashtag #downwithbabyrp. "When this began, we just wanted to get the stolen pictures removed. None of us ever expected any of this."
A survey of the #babyrp and #adoptionrp hashtags on Websta suggests the practice is still kicking, with at least a few related posts every day. It doesn't take much for the comments on a post to give you the absolute creep-out shivers. There is way, way, way too much emphasis on breastfeeding.
And now if you'll excuse me I'm off to forward a privacy-settings tutorial to my entire extended family.
Photo via Edler von Rabenstein/Shutterstock.