Is the 'lonely kid' content phenomenon heart-warming or exploitative?

Daniel Harrison, who has autism, went viral on his 15th birthday because he had no friends. Daniel's dad Kev posted about it on the platform formerly known as Twitter, asking people to wish Daniel a happy birthday, and the post went nuts.

What followed was a flood of well wishes from all over the world – the tweet was viewed 15 million times, and Kev and Daniel received 55,000 messages of support and friendship – including from actors Mark Hamill, Sharon Stone, William Shatner, Ariel Winter and Russell Crowe.


Kev said the responses made Daniel "jump for joy" – especially Mark Hamill, because Daniel is a big Star Wars fan.

"It made me happy for Daniel, but you know, it's made me happy for parents and families and friends of autistic people across the globe," Kev told CBS News at the time.

It's a heart-warming story, and whether or not you saw Daniel's story online, you've undoubtedly seen other similar stories. It's a phenomenon, journalist Kathryn Jezer-Morton calls 'lonely kid content': someone shares a story about a child who is going through something tough, asking for people to "show up" for the child in some way.

"The classical form of lonely kid content is the birthday party that no one shows up to," Jezer-Morton wrote for The Cut, explaining that it's usually the mother or grandmother, or another female relative that tells the social media universe that the child is heartbroken.

"You won't believe what happens next: The post goes viral and magic ensues!"

This magic usually consists of hundreds or thousands of strangers banding together to cheer the child up in some way, just as they did for Daniel – it might be by turning up to celebrate with the child, sending them cards, tagging a favourite celebrity to ask them to get involved, or simply wishing them a happy birthday in the comments.

In the case of Arizona boy Teddy Mazzini, whose mum shared that none of the 32 kids in his class who were invited to his sixth birthday turned up, it ended with an invitation to celebrate his birthday with the Phoenix Suns basketball team, with free tickets and a spot on the local news.


Watch more on what happened to Arizona boy Teddy Mazzini on his birthday. Post continues after video.

Video via Inside Edition.

It's a win for Teddy and his mum, and it's a nice PR exercise for the Phoenix Suns, and the rest of the internet liked, shared, and then went about their days – so does anyone really get hurt? 

Critics call this type of social media interaction "performative empathy"an opportunity to connect with someone who is suffering and publicly show we're a good person, and giving ourselves a feel-good boost in the process.

Psychotherapist Shane Warren says posts like this can connect emotionally with us, but he says our motivation for wanting to help can be a little bit questionable.

"My view here might be a bit cynical, but I tend to find we all love a sad story... that we can contribute to by jumping in as a bit of a rescuer," he says.

As for the child at the centre of the post, Warren admits there can certainly be benefits but they may be short-lived. 

"I think it is a small hit of happy hormones, so that is meaningful and should be honoured," he says. "But is it a long-term solution with true meaningful impact? Usually not. It makes people feel good in the moment but unless we also address the underlying problems, then we have not really been a catalyst for meaningful change in people's lives."


As with anything that starts to garner public attention, there's also the challenge of how this type of attention can snowball and incite some stories that raise eyebrows and suggestions of manipulation.

When five-year-old Willa had nobody turn up to her party in Texas, her mum Lex took to Facebook 20 minutes in to the party to ask people to turn up and help Willa celebrate – despite Lex stating that she'd invited Willa's school class, her class from the previous year, and myriad other friends – and receiving plenty of positive RSVPs.


It seems strange that zero people showed up on the day, and it's a story that some thought was staged by Lex to get attention on social media, but this hasn't been proven. It does create a challenge, though, when the public start to smell a rat when parents share a heartfelt plea to help their child. Are some ruining it for those who are truly trying to help their child?

Kev says when he shared his request for friends on Daniel's birthday, he was trying to help his son, but also to raise awareness of some issues kids with autism face. Kev continues to share how life with Daniel is going – the good, the bad, and the challenging – and he identifies as an 'autism influencer'.

As for accusations of performative compassion and questions about the credibility of some parents, Kev says it's "nothing new really, people used to just have a smaller circle to share their deeds. I genuinely feel there are millions of quiet helpful souls who rise up when needed."

"I think sometimes posters are exploitive of their situation, but I think it's down to feeling unseen or unloved and needing to find a voice. Sometimes they don't even know they are doing it. You will see men and women constantly posting pictures of themselves. Or with their partners. I tend to think it's from low esteem and a need for validation," Kev added.


Shane Warren agrees that, although there may be ulterior motives lurking beneath the surface on all sides, there is little to be lost, and some good can come from these posts.

"Don't totally discredit the intent of performative compassion because it helps to raise awareness and challenge situations," he says, adding that authentic compassion must then follow to affect real positive change.

"When rooted in genuine understanding and empathy, [authentic compassion] has the potential to create real connections, raise awareness, and drive meaningful action."

Listen to Mamamia Out Loud where Mia, Holly, and Clare talks about the lonely kid content. Post continues below.

So, while it may be tempting to take a cynical approach to posts like these, let's consider putting the pitchforks away and considering what's going on for the parents who post about their kids' traumas and challenges. Let's see what happens when we extend kindness, give people the benefit of the doubt, and follow through with support that could be more substantial.

Are we teaching our kids to be compassionate towards their classmates – even the ones that challenge them to think outside of their own experience? Are we modelling that behaviour ourselves? What are we doing to make the world a kinder, less cynical, place?

Feature Image: Twitter @kevharrison_ Instagram @lex.fitzgerald.

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