The death hoax of a child influencer: Lil Tay's recent infamy shines a light on a bigger problem

The narrative around "the youngest flexer of the century" raises troubling questions about who's protecting her

By Nardos Haile

Staff Writer

Published August 17, 2023 8:34PM (EDT)

Child guitarist making video lessons and tutorials for internet vlog (Getty Images/m-gucci)
Child guitarist making video lessons and tutorials for internet vlog (Getty Images/m-gucci)

The 14-year-old social media personality, Lil Tay, was pronounced dead on her Instagram on Aug. 9. The news sent tidal waves all over social media and people mourned the life that was seemingly taken so soon. But she's very much alive, according to a statement from TMZ. The news was revealed to be a hoax, and Tay said she is "safe and alive." 

Tay became an internet sensation when she was nine years old for being a foul-mouthed child flashing stacks of cash.

Even though Lil Tay, whose real name is Tay Tian, is confirmed to be still alive people online began to speculate that there were troubling circumstances surrounding the death hoax. Some even said that her family faked her death for online clout and notoriety. A spokesperson for Meta told TMZ the Instagram account was hacked by a third party.

While the Tay hoax did not confirm people's suspicions, it did open the floodgates for a larger conversation on the treatment of child social media personalities who are still under the jurisdiction of their parents. Child influencers or children who are a part of the content that their influencer parents film and post are susceptible to being financially and emotionally exploited by their family – and in Tay's instance, it feels like both.

Tay became an internet sensation when she was nine years old for being a foul-mouthed child flashing stacks of cash, dropping the n-word, and starting feuds with other social media personalities like Bhad Bhabie, aka Danielle Bregoli. Bhad Bhabie is another young overnight internet star who went viral for her infamous phrase "cash me ousside, how bout dah."

The death hoax isn't the first time people online have shown concern for the young influencer. In 2018, Tay's Instagram went dark — her posts were deleted, and she's been inactive ever since. In order for an influencer to have a successful career, engagement is crucial, and going dark is never good for a brand. People Magazine obtained records that showed the influencer's parents were entangled in a contentious custody battle over Tay. She was court-ordered to move back to Canada with her father in 2018. Two years later, a judge approved that she move back to Los Angeles with her mother. She's been completely dark on the internet ever since.

Being the face of a brand or persona for purely monetary gain compromises a child's digital safety.

Before the indefinite hiatus from her socials, Tay was claiming to be worth millions. But she still wore clothes with tags on them. And the mansions she filmed her videos in were allegedly just a part of her real-estate agent mother's listings. The red sports car seen in her most popular Instagram video — also not hers. It belongs to her mother's boss, who then forced her to resign when he found out Tay used the car without approval.

A video also leaked that showed Tay's older brother, Jason Tian, coaching her on her lines for YouTube videos, telling her she needed to be "more ignorant" in her delivery. When asked about coaching during a "Good Morning America" interview, Jason said, "A lot of people are going to say this and that, we just keep going." Tay and her mother, Angela Tian, were both asked to clear up misconceptions about the child's controversial internet persona during the on-camera interview. Tay's mother urged that she was a "wonderful child" and a "top student." Angela said she was even present when Tay drove in a car illegally for her videos. Tay insisted that this is all a persona that she has concocted and that she actively participates and enjoys the lifestyle even though it seems her responses are a bit shaky or flustered. 

Tay's circumstances illustrate a troubling pattern that children who are exposed to this type of visibility are susceptible to not only financial exploitation but emotional and physical abuse and/or exhaustion too. The persona Tay put on was clearly something that she had to be trained to do through her family members. But being the face of a brand or persona for purely monetary gain compromises a child's digital safety and their ability to be healthily socialized as a growing adolescent.   

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Child influencing is a whole other monster in the fame machine but similarly, many child stars have faced parallel levels of exploitation from their families, the industry and the surrounding general public. High-profile celebrities who began their careers as child stars have all experienced the downfall of their starhood while people have made money from their trauma. People like Britney Spears, who just recently has been relinquished from a 13-year-long conservatorship controlled by her father, and Jenette McCurdy, who last year wrote the NY Times best-selling memoir "I'm Glad My Mom Died" dived into the abusive relationship the former "iCarly" child star had with her mother, are both examples of how deeply injuring the industry can be when you are not protected as a child but only taken advantage of.

Even though laws are slow to change and safeguard children, Illinois has now become the first state to enact a law that protects the compensation of child influencers or children of influencers. The law states that content creators in the state are mandated to set aside a portion of earnings that include "likeness, name, or photograph of the minor" in a trust for them to access when they are of legal age. How much the children earn is based on how heavily the minor is in the content. They can even earn money if their names are mentioned in a story told about them without their image being shown. The law is meant to supposed to kickstart a chain reaction so other states across the country follow suit.

The industry is an ever-changing space and as child influencers become hypervisible through Instagram and TikTok it's more important now than ever to implement secure and impenetrable safeguards so children aren't taken advantage of by the people who are seemingly there to protect them. We should not enable these cautionary tales of child fame's ugliness. As an audience, we can no longer participate in the same violent cycle when we engage with their content just because they serve as our entertainment.

By Nardos Haile

Nardos Haile is a staff writer at Salon covering culture. She’s previously covered all things entertainment, music, fashion and celebrity culture at The Associated Press. She resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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Britney Spears Child Stars Commentary Death Hoax Exploitation Influencers Jenette Mccurdy Lil Tay Social Media