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Baby role-play, or virtual kidnapping, is the most disturbing Instagram hashtag ever

Creating a virtual reality seems like a relatively harmless enterprise, until your fiction borrows from the actual lives of others. And in what may be the most disturbing trend to hit social media ever, some parents are discovering that their children have become victims of what is essentially virtual kidnapping, or baby role-play. While the constant digital documentation of children’s lives has become something of a mainstay in social media, the sickening phenomenon of baby role-play finds the perpetrators claiming other children’s photos as their own, and then creating elaborate backstories for them. While some are relatively harmless (though still creepy) in nature, others detail gruesome kidnapping plots that, when discovered by the real parents, can be truly traumatizing.

Hashtagged on Instagram and other channels as #BabyRP, the disturbing “game” involves its players essentially stealing others’ content, and then reposting it to their own accounts, adding a new name and a new history to the youngster’s life. According to Instagram, “This type of content violates our terms. Once a parent or guardian reports it to us, we work quickly to remove it.” But still, this hasn’t stopped thousands of individuals from participating. A cursory search of the hashtag on Instagram returned over 57,000 posts, with additional results coming in from variations of #BabyRP.

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One mother, identified only as Dana, documented her own experience as a victim of the trend on a blog, writing, “While browsing my notifications one day, I noticed that a person had “liked” an awful lot of my photos. As in hundreds. Why was she fangirling me? I clicked on her profile and there they were. Photos of MY son. I scrolled through her feed and was horrified by what I saw.”

Not only did the individual claim that she was the mother of the child (and renamed him), but she’d also added some truly alarming captions, like “Someone kidnapped Liam, they have him tied up in their car.” Dana continued, “Other role-play accounts would jump in with comments like ‘I found the car, I’m following them.'”

While being part of the public domain always carries a risk with it, there are a few steps that can be taken to somewhat lessen the threat — for example, be sure to keep your Instagram account private, only accept follow requests from people you’re acquainted with, avoid posting locations, and watermark your photos. It’s not a catch-all to the creeps of the Internet, but hopefully it’ll keep them and baby role-play at bay.