Shiny Happy People

Inside The Reckoning Facing Christian Mommy Bloggers

The heirs to these digital fiefdoms have grown up, and they’re not happy with what they’re inheriting.

Growing up as the eldest of nine kids in a Quiverfull family, I had to help raise my siblings from the time I turned 12 until I left for college at 18. I co-parented and kept house and cooked, and I did all this all without pay, all without any discussion about my needs or desires as if they had any real value. This was my obligation to my parents for keeping me alive and fed.

Longing for the outside world, I turned to the internet, making friends online until I was old enough to leave home and escape that isolation. There, I found other home-schooled kids who, like me, were blogging about their lives. I followed Christian mommy bloggers (Shauna Niequist, Jen Hatmaker, Kristen Howerton) and aspired to mimic faith-and-lifestyle writers like Ashleigh Baker, Rachel Held Evans, Elizabeth Esther, and Sarah Bessey. Eventually, I also began writing about my own relationship to my faith (and then about my departure from it), which later turned into writing about my journey away from Quiverfull teachings in the context of my own marriage (and then, too, about the ending of that marriage).

Because of my experience with Quiverfull life, when the Duggar family TV show, 17 Kids and Counting (later 19 Kids and Counting), became a running series on TLC in 2008, I never really tuned in. I was 19, and finally living away from family and attending college. I’d lived that life, and I’d escaped it. I knew what those girls were going through. I knew how tired they were. But I thought that, at the very least, they were getting paid to do it all for the cameras. Maybe that made their labor easier to swallow.

Blogging was my way out of fundamentalism. But blogs, social media — and their close cousin reality TV — can be a trap for children as much as a source of liberation.

The recent release of Shiny Happy People on Amazon Prime has made that clear. In the four-part docuseries, Jill Duggar — the fourth Duggar child, and the only member of the immediate Duggar family who agreed to appear — says she wasn’t ever paid for her time on the show, or her spinoff show, Counting On. All proceeds went straight to her dad, Jim Bob Duggar. “No check, no cash, no nothing,” she says in the docuseries. “For seven-and-a-half years of my adult life, I was never paid.” Neither TLC nor Jim Bob Duggar replied to Bustle’s requests for comment on the claims made in this story.

Long after Jill had grown out of her adolescent homemaking duties and built her own home to tend, the obligation to support the family brand kept her under her father’s thumb.

Jill Duggar and her husband in Shiny Happy People.

Inside the home-school world, especially in the fundamentalist world, there’s always been a microcosmic cultural ecosystem: conventions where home-schoolers mingle with each other, like the summits and camps for the Advanced Training Institute; indie music labels that publish only Christian music; magazines by home-schoolers for home-schoolers, full of ads for small, Christian-owned businesses.

When everything moved online in the early aughts and reality TV took off in 2008 (following the last major WGA strike), the potential audience for media by and about home-schoolers, and particularly fundamentalist home-schoolers, exploded. The outside world was fascinated with the logistics of raising such a big family, how so many kids could be that well-behaved — and the abuse driving the perfect facade was easy to hide if you only showed the good stuff. 19 Kids and Counting became a ratings juggernaut, and many home-schooling mommy bloggers leveraged the interest in the Duggars to build their own audiences; some blogs managed to become small businesses, supported by display ads, coaching services, and more.

I imagine that many of the fundamentalist mommy bloggers I was reading and admiring during that peak period (roughly 2005-2012) wished that they, too, might land a brand deal or have their content turned into a show. They never reached the Duggars’ level of success, even on their home turf, social media. But on a smaller scale, those mommy bloggers sold the same thing: brands built around shiny, happy families.

Estimates of what Jim Bob Duggar made from 19 Kids are imprecise, but most sources agree that the number is in the millions. Some put that number around $1.7 million per year, which would put his overall take close to $11 million — not counting what he might have made from seasonal specials, speaking engagements, and sponsorships from various brands that advertised on the show until eldest child Josh Duggar was accused of child molestation and eventually convicted of downloading and possessing child sexual abuse material. (Various brands continue to do small-scale sponsorship deals with various adult Duggar children, but the brand has been tarnished significantly.) All of this was made on the backs of Jim Bob’s 19 children, at least some of whom — if Jill’s allegations are true — were never compensated.

It’s even messier when trying to calculate what specific mommy bloggers made. There was a whole world of reasons why people shared (and continue to share) their family lives online, and not all home-school mommy bloggers set out with the intention of using their cute kids to make money. But that lack of transparency was part of the problem: Viewers couldn’t tell how much money was being made off of a blogger’s content, or if the children featured in that content were getting a cut, or how the children felt about being featured in the first place.

Exploiting minors for content is hardly new (just ask Drew Barrymore), but when social media use was widely adopted, suddenly you didn’t have to hustle your child around other people to profit off of your cute kid — you just needed a smartphone and an internet connection.

When social media use was widely adopted, suddenly you didn’t have to hustle your child around other people to profit off of your cute kid — you just needed a smartphone and an internet connection.

In Shiny Happy People, Jill alleges that her father asked her to sign something on the morning of her wedding, without explaining what it was. Later she discovered that she’d inadvertently signed a contract that obligated her to continue with the spinoff show, Counting On, for a certain number of years — despite her desire to leave the series. At one point, Jill says, she appealed to TLC in hopes of at least getting reimbursed for the out-of-pocket expenses for her child’s birth — which she says she and her husband filmed for the show after receiving pressure from producers — but TLC explained that her father was being compensated for her participation and would be responsible for disbursements. (Jill mentions her dad offered her $10 per hour at this point; in a 2020 YouTube video, she says she threatened her father with a lawsuit, after which she was still paid only “a little more than minimum wage.”)

TLC has yet to comment on Jill’s new allegations of her father’s manipulative and predatory treatment of her role on the show.

The Duggar family on the set of Extra in 2014.D Dipasupil/Getty Images for Extra

Children’s rights aren’t really taken seriously in the United States — thank the fundamentalists for that, too — and the U.S. government is notoriously slow-moving when it comes to regulating the internet. There are some protections for child actors, as some states require a portion of child actors’ income to be set aside in a trust for their future — but crucially, reality TV stars are mostly exempt from these laws, and the social media world is even further afield. Right now, The Atlantic reports, “no state or federal laws entitle the children of these family vloggers to any of the money earned.”

In vlogging and social-media influencing, abuse is easy for parents to hide, whether the abuse is financial, violent, or otherwise exploitative in nature. It’s especially easy when posting from home. Choosing to home-school gives parents an additional layer of buffer from those legally obligated to report anything suspicious, like teachers or school nurses. And unless presented with evidence to the contrary, most people will assume that well-behaved, healthy-looking kids are fine if their parents are present — and in a way, the decision to home-school even looks like an increased investment in your child’s well-being. But that assumption is dangerous as it leaves home-schooled kids at the mercy of their parents’ whims, and uniquely vulnerable to being taken advantage of, as Jill Duggar’s claims bears out.

As social media platforms age into their teens, children of parenting influencers are also coming of age. And as they mature, they’re realizing, like Jill seems to, that the exploitation they experienced was essentially a labor rights issue. Some are pushing back on the privacy issues, examining the exploitative environments they were raised in, and opening up a larger conversation about how their parents committed a legal form of wage theft. And some are banding together.

As they mature, they’re realizing, like Jill seems to, that the exploitation they experienced was essentially a labor rights issue.

In 2013, home-schooled alumni founded the nonprofit Coalition for Responsible Home Education (CRHE), which is dedicated to advocating for the rights of children to be just that: children, with an open future and safe from exploitation. (Full disclosure: I’m on CRHE’s board and joined the organization a few years after it began.)

CRHE considers home-schooled children who are forced to work full-time, often starting at ages 12-14, as doubly exploited: “These children are frequently not paid for their labor, and are thus both deprived of an education and exploited,” according to the nonprofit’s page about abuse in home-schooling environments. “This is considered a form of human trafficking.”

Some of these former children are returning to social media — but this time, on their terms. On TikTok, Hallie Ray Ziebert talks about her upbringing as the child of home-schooling parents, and particularly what she considers the duplicity of her father, Brian Ray (of the National Home Education Research Institute), who’s notorious for producing methodologically unsound research on home-schooling outcomes. She accuses him of beating her with electrical cables and coaching other home-school parents in how to similarly abuse their kids, among other things. (Through a representative, Ray denied Ziebert's claims. He also noted that his research has been published in peer-reviewed texts across the span of 35 years.)

Another is Jacob Roloff, a reality TV star who spent his childhood on TLC’s Little People, Big World, who’s now raising awareness about the dangerous environment he was put in. In December 2020, he alleged that he’d been molested by someone involved in the show’s production and begged his audience to reconsider “the entire enterprise of reality television,” particularly as it pertains to children: “[Is] it simply taken as granted that we should be capable of watching someone grow up week by week on TV?” he said in an Instagram post. “How does the environment of prying eyes, both lens and audience, affect self-perception? How are material amenities weighed against the subjective psychological affects [sic]? Has anyone defined these lines? Studied it? Should we need to study it?” (At the time, TLC responded that they were supportive of Jacob and investigating the allegations.)

And some children still have not told their stories yet. Last year, a teen who has spent their childhood making monetized content for their parents’ family vlog wrote an anonymous letter to a popular TikTok comedian, expressing distress at how they were being exploited, saying, “I never consented to being online.” This teen, and presumably others, are waiting until they’re old enough and financially independent of their parents so they can speak out openly and safely.

Audiences are becoming savvy to this issue, which is fortunate for some of these kids. Some fans have reported abuse, initiating interventions that have rescued kids from increasingly dangerous household dynamics. And many of the pieces of proposed legislation to protect children of influencers from exploitation, including bills introduced in the Washington and Illinois state legislatures, have been kick-started by former consumers of such content.

Crucially, changing audience attitudes threaten the very core of influencers’ business models: If their own followers turn on them, the money will go away, too.

The author in Shiny Happy People.Courtesy of Prime Video

I participated in the Shiny Happy People documentary as an expert commentator in hopes that people who hear my story will become more aware and proactive about checking up on the children in their community who might be experiencing exploitation and abuse. We’re on TikTok and Instagram; we’re writing newsletters, blogs, and articles like this one — all to take back the power that we never had as children and tell our stories truthfully.

And Jill? Jill will publish a memoir in September telling her side of the story, called Counting the Cost, a play on the title of the spinoff show she co-led, Counting On. She’s worked hard to reclaim her story (she says this is part of her motivation for participating in Shiny Happy People), but speaking out cannot give her back her childhood or restore her lost privacy.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story used incorrect terminology to refer to child sexual abuse material. It has been updated to include the correct terminology.