Ditch Deepfake Parenting

The dangers of modern technology demands that parents engage in real, rather than deepfake, parenting.

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Last October, a disturbing headline caught my eye. A 14-year-old student discovered that she and several other female classmates at her New Jersey high school were the victims of explicit images created and circulated by a male classmate. 

What disturbed me most was that this wasn’t the abhorrent practice of “revenge porn,” a phenomenon that has plagued deeply misguided school-aged children and adults alike since the advent of the camera phone in the late 2000s. In typical cases of revenge porn, a person, usually an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend, circulates explicit images intentionally created by the former partner. Post-breakup, the photos then become ammunition to bully, shame, extort, or otherwise enact retaliation. 

This New Jersey case was different and far more nefarious. In this case, the unnamed male student had accessed AI software to create realistic, pornographic images and videos of this poor girl and her friends without their knowledge or consent—images and videos that were so lifelike it was difficult to tell at first that they were, indeed, fake. It was as simple as using readily available photos—for example, from the girls’ own social media accounts—and uploading them into the software that then uses artificial intelligence to create the pornographic elements, a process known as “deep faking.” 

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

As the 2023-2024 academic year progressed, I began, much to my horror, to notice an increasing number of similar headlines. In November, a nearly identical tragedy befell several high school girls in Washington state. In December, two middle school boys in Florida were caught circulating deepfake porn of their female classmates. In April, multiple Los Angeles-area school districts announced they were investigating incidents of deepfake porn at various middle and high schools within their jurisdictions. 

The issue isn’t limited to just a few locales. In response to these and countless other deepfake episodes, a number of states have rushed to enact or amend prior revenge-porn laws to cover the creation of deepfake pornography. Schools across the country have responded, too, hurrying to enact new policies to protect students and dissuade the would-be perpetrators. 

Which leaves me to wonder…where are the parents in all of this?

Many times, they’re at the subsequent school board meetings, tearfully decrying the debasement of their daughters and begging elected officials to do something to protect future students. They’re also filing lawsuits against the offenders and their parents. And increasingly, they’re standing alongside their victim children at various other public hearings, as their children implore state lawmakers to enact or change existing laws to protect victims and curtail AI’s ability to create these types of images in the first place.

This is not parenting, however. It’s activism. Call it deepfake parenting, if you want: it looks close enough to the real thing to fool these same well-meaning parents and lawmakers into thinking they’re taking steps to protect their children, all the while leaving the real cancer untouched. Parents are being reactive rather than proactively forming and protecting their children. They are blame shifting (“My child would never have done this if that evil person in Silicon Valley hadn’t created this software!”) or reaching out to the nanny-state to foresee and stop all possible evils (“Why weren’t there laws and policies in place already to protect my daughter?!”).

Don’t mistake me here—I am not victim-shaming these girls. They had no idea their innocent pictures posted to Instagram or TikTok or whatever app the kids are using these days would be so cruelly and evilly manipulated by their male classmates. In fact, even if the victims hadn’t had access to social media, these boys still could have found ways to create deepfake content. (Ponder, for just a moment, how many images of our children abound in the public forum: their fellow classmates’ camera phones and social media accounts, yearbooks, sports team pictures, even our church bulletins, just to name a few.)

These girls are innocent, and their offenders should be severely punished. And activism certainly has its place: we need solid laws in place that will help shape public morality, especially as technology like this rapidly evolves (devolves?). But laws and policies, especially those enacted by our post-Christian, modernist-infested statehouses and school boards, aren’t nearly enough and won’t even begin to touch the root of the problem. 

Kennedy Hall aptly named the root of the problem in a recent Crisis article: worldliness. Worldliness has infected even the most faithful Catholic families. And it has led to an epidemic of deepfake parenting, the effects of which are not only causing tragedies like those at the above-named middle and high schools but are ultimately making themselves felt profoundly in the vocational crisis affecting the priesthood, religious life, and marriage. 

Deepfake parenting has, at its core, worldliness. It’s an unreflective style of parenting that drifts along with the times, taking its cues from fellow worldly parents who allow their children to do all manner of things simply because “it’s what everyone else is doing” and “the kids will be alright.” It’s the kind of parenting that tries to do good but in a half-hearted and misguided way. Deepfake parenting goes beyond trying to justify why your child has a smartphone or social media accounts; it instead is the type of parenting, so common even in our Catholic communities, that subtly abdicates the responsibility to be the primary educators of one’s children and instead outsources that responsibility to the state and the child’s peer group. 

In contrast, real parenting abhors sin and the near-occasions that lead to it. Real parenting would rather be crucified by the court of public opinion (and the opinions of our strongheaded teenagers) than allow our children to simply drift along with what everyone else is doing, right out the doors of the Church. Real parenting sees the writing on the wall: our kids are not all right if left to the wiles of secular society. But real parenting also sees the solution: the creation of a home that is the first school of Christian life, where worldliness is shunned and the Eternal, rather than being merely conceptual or a check-the-box activity, is concretely embraced in day-to-day life. 

It’s important to note that real parenting still may not have entirely prevented the tragedies that befell these young girls. After all, it’s nearly impossible to predict the kind of premeditated, malicious intent these boys showed in creating the deepfake content to begin with. Further, the point of this article is not to get parents to live in constant fear or retreat from the world to live in bunker-style communes. We are still called to live in the world just not of the world, as Hall articulates so well in his article.

Instead, this article strives to be yet another wake-up call for parents. We must be willing to do the harder thing in parenting our children, especially where technology is concerned. We must be willing to make radical, difficult, and intentional lifestyle choices about how we will educate our children, what social and extracurricular activities we will allow, and what music, entertainment, and friend groups we will permit to enter the sanctuary of our Domestic Churches. Doing so may not eliminate all risk of harm to our children, but it will certainly reduce it. It is a lot of work, and it will be unpopular; but anything short of this is merely deepfake.


Join the Conversation

Comments are a benefit for financial supporters of Crisis. If you are a monthly or annual supporter, please login to comment. A Crisis account has been created for you using the email address you used to donate.

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...