Meme's the word: what it's like to raise an internet-famous child

Have you heard of Gavin? You should have: he's internationally famous. For his parents, though, it can be a struggle.

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Kate Thomas is talking to me on Skype from her home in Minneapolis, Minnesota. “It’s kind of hard at six years old to grasp what’s going on,” she says. Thomas is explaining what life is like for her young son, Gavin. When they go shopping, people stop them every few minutes to take his picture. Kids and teenagers get excited to see him and parents turn to Thomas to ask why their child is so interested in hers. “Sometimes I keep him at home, because it takes a lot longer to get through the store [if he comes],” she says.

You might not have heard of Gavin, but he is internationally famous. Gavin is a meme – a picture that is popular on the internet, to which users add captions. His pained facial expressions went viral in 2013. If you’re unsure what a meme is, don’t worry. So is Gavin.

“We asked him recently what it means to be famous and he said, ‘That’s when people want to take pictures with you.’ Then we asked him what a ‘meme’ was and he didn’t know what that meant.”

Photos of Gavin first became popular after his internet-famous uncle Nick Mastodon featured him in a Vine, a six-second video clip. “That was the start of us realising he can make these really relatable and humorous facial expressions,” he explains. Since then, Gavin has become so well known that even the pop star Katy Perry has shared his picture.

As with so many children who go viral online, Gavin’s fame was accidental. Unlike most others, however, his family now cultivates it. Kate Thomas (who tells me that Gavin’s father “doesn’t know what Twitter is”) has joined the ranks of “meme mums”: mothers who manage and profit from their children’s internet celebrity. Gavin is signed to a modelling agency and Thomas sells T-shirts of his face for about $20 each. She says that the money is being saved for Gavin’s college fees and she still works full-time in childcare.

I have interviewed many parents with internet-famous children, and the claim that the profits are being saved for the child’s education is common. But meme mums are often criticised for exploitation, and also face abuse from those who worry that the children will be haunted by the pictures when they are older.

Angharad Rudkin, a child clinical psychologist, says we don’t yet know the long-term effects of online exposure on children: “Securing the basics of a balanced childhood will mean children are more equipped to deal with feedback – not getting too carried away with positive feedback and being able to rationalise negative feedback.”

So, internet-famous children risk having their ego either damaged or inflated. In August on Twitter, Mastodon shared an anecdote about keeping Gavin grounded. “We always say, ‘Well, that was strange,’ after Gavin gets recognised in public so that it doesn’t go to his head,” he wrote.

“No, I made that up, actually,” he replies, when I ask him about it. “I thought it would make for a funny tweet. I think he’s as self-aware as he could be. I think if we did that, it would have felt a bit more like The Truman Show.”

Thomas says she ensures that Gavin consents before strangers take a picture with him. What troubles her, however, is when people associate his image with political, sexual or offensive messages. On the day after the US election, a fake picture of Gavin drinking bleach upset both her and Mastodon.

“I called it out and a whole bunch of people were, like, ‘Well, you were the one that put him online in the first place and you can’t be mad about it,’” Mastodon says. “But we can be mad about it, because as long as he’s treated with respect, we’re not going to take issue with it.”

Despite these concerns, it’s clear that Gavin won’t be disappearing from the internet any time soon. Mastodon says that YouTube has approached the family and that Gavin could make funny videos for the site when he “becomes less cute”. For the time being, Thomas says Gavin wants her to take photos and videos.

Though many question whether a child can consent to living the life of a meme, it’s worth noting that it’s quite hard to get six-year-olds to do anything they don’t want to do. “Can you say hi to Amelia?” Thomas asks Gavin, who has just wandered in from playing outside with his cousins. I am greeted with silence. And then he turns and walks away.

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh

This article appears in the 15 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016