In comments, the fantasy comes to life. Users have conversations pretending to be the parent or the baby. The babies “say” things like “Mes wove fwowers!” while other users might ask what the babies favorite color is or if it wants to be held. Users talk about feeding and disciplining the child as though it were their own. They use hashtags like #openrp, #babyrp and #kidrp so other enthusiasts can play along. Some users have entire fake families. Others create Instagram accounts where they invite followers to “adopt” babies, posting stolen photos along with made up profiles.
It’s called baby role-playing. Fast Company called it “The Creepiest New Corner of Instagram.”
A photo posted by @adoptionrp of a baby tangled in a toy is captioned “Name: charlie Age: 1 Likes: pjs She’s stuck and she’s really scared.” Below commenters wrote things like “Oh let me see you need a band aid here *slowly puts a band aid on her booboo” and “Can I take you out *smiles and starts to untangle ropes*.”
Randi, a Los Angeles-based photographer whose last name was not reported, told the Daily Dot she stumbled on the role-play community after she had a baby.
“Some seem pretty harmless and do not bother me too much, besides the fact that they are stealing photos,” she said, “but the accounts where people are playing out sexual or abuse storylines are just awful. These people clearly are not right in their mind. Who knows how many of these weirdos have molested children in real life; obviously they think about it and it is a ‘turn on’ for them. I don’t understand how it is OK for people to run accounts like this. It’s basically child pornography.”
Some commenters dwell on breastfeeding and being “nakey” (baby talk is big in role-playing), according to Fast Company. Others write things like “Can I have a private with a dirty baby?” Or “I need mommy and would be nwaughty with me and tell me things,” as the Toronto Star reported.
Many of the followers of accounts like @adoptionrp, which has been identified in several news reports but remains active, are private and don’t use real names. Other followers appear to be teenage girls.
Gail Salz, a psychiatrist and author of “Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Secret Life,” told Fast Company role-playing isn’t uncommon in teens or tweens that come from broken homes. “The idea that an adolescent can create an identity online and take advantage of that anonymity does not surprise me,” she said. “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.”
The problem isn’t new. A Change.org petition asking Instagram to deactivate baby role-play accounts has been circulating for more than a year.
What is Instagram doing to stop this? “This type of content violates our terms,” an Instagram spokesperson told The Washington Post in an email. “Once a parent or guardian reports it to us, we work quickly to remove it.” However some parents report difficulties getting the offending accounts removed. A mother from Charlotte, N.C., told Fast Company she contacted Instagram to report a private user who had stolen photos of her 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.”
Last year, an Instagram spokesman told the Daily Dot the company has a team that reviews content violations reported by users. They also scan every photo uploaded to the site with PhotoDNA, a software that helps law enforcement track child molesters. However, PhotoDNA only works to identify child pornography law enforcement is already aware of. It looks for copies of offensive material by scanning code attached to online images.
Meanwhile, Instagram has disabled accounts of mothers who posted photos of their own children. Courtney Adamo, who blogs for Babyccino Kids, reported her account was disabled after she posted a photo of her 18-month old daughter lifting her shirt to inspect her bellybutton. Her account was later restored. Instagram has also disabled accounts of mothers who posted photos of themselves breastfeeding and the account of a fashion photographer who posted a photo of her bikini line.
Instagram users such as @babyrp_revealed and @stop_babyrp have started policing accounts themselves. They “out” baby role-play accounts on Instagram and encourage followers to report them. There is also a hashtag #downwithbabyrp.
“A mother’s worst fear is someone taking their child; in my mind, this ranks right up there close. People are fantasizing about owning my baby,” Elizabeth Harper, a mother who found photos of her child on an Instagram role play account, told the Toronto Star.
Updated: This post was updated to include a comment from Instagram.