How one mom got internet famous without sacrificing her kids’ privacy

By: Candace Jackson

Jessica So never set out to be a viral video maker, but her approach to protecting her child’s privacy is something to follow.

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Photo credit: Pascal Shirley

At the table one night, Jessica So’s 3-year old son started eating the corner of a napkin to make his baby sister laugh. Like most parents would, So told him to stop. Unlike most parents, she explained what could happen—in medical terms—if he didn’t. “You’re going to get a bezoar.”

“What’s a bezoar, mommy?”

As she explained the condition to him (it’s an accumulation of undigested material in the stomach) and how it could require an operation to repair, So’s son was rapt, pelting her with questions about the body and the concept of fixing the body with surgery. That led to So explaining, on a 3-year-old’s level, how surgery works then watching a YouTube video of a gallbladder removal procedure with him. Instead of being grossed out, her son “was fascinated; it was like, ‘more! more!,’” she says. That’s when an idea struck: Perhaps his curiosity would best be satisfied by doing.

That’s right, doing surgery.

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So, who is a board-certified dermatologist, set up a mock gallbladder surgery with a Play-Doh flesh torso covering colorful organ-shaped pieces. So researched the procedure by reading up on the relevant anatomy, then recreated the setups as accurately as possible with Play-Doh and whatever else was on hand, including toys and rescued bits and pieces from the family’s recycling bin. Her son made a careful incision through the torso with a plastic knife and carefully removed a green ball filled with yellow beads using chopsticks.

So says she’d rather not share all the details of her tech setup for proprietary reasons but that it’s pretty minimalist—no professional sound or lighting equipment needed. She simply filmed the whole thing with her smartphone, then edited the video for length. With online privacy in mind, she posted it on Instagram under her handle, @thebreakfasteur.

It became a viral sensation. A year later, she and her son have performed dozens of Instagram Play-Doh surgeries—from cleft palate repair to colectomy (colon removal)—and gained 130,000 followers.

Experienced surgeon; viral newbie

As inventive as the setups are—orthopedic procedures involve little hammers and toy drills, and plastic wrap sometimes stands in for fascia tissue—what’s just as remarkable is that So has figured out a way to balance viral internet fame with her kids’ online privacy. Viewers never see her now 4-year-old son’s full face or a mention of his name. So shoots the smartphone videos from overhead to capture just his hands and the surgical setup. His precocious and often hilarious observations make up the soundtrack. “Mommy does the poop go all the way around there?” he once asked, pointing to the large intestine. (Answer: “yes!”)

Photo credit: Pascal Shirley

“It was a little piece of me I wanted to share with the world in a way that felt safe,” So says. “We intentionally did this in a way that could not risk my child’s online privacy.”

Elizabeth Milovidov, a digital parenting expert and lawyer says So’s instincts not to be an “oversharent” are spot on. Parents, she says, should read and understand the terms and conditions of social media sites like Instagram or TikTok and make sure they’re comfortable with them. (Some sites’ terms allow companies to use any publicly posted images for promotional purposes, or they may show up in viral memes, much to the surprise of most users.)

When it comes to deciding what’s OK to post, parents should consider their kid’s online privacy by asking themselves if they think their child would be embarrassed today or in the future if they knew about it. Would you be OK if the image was on a billboard in the middle of town? When kids get old enough to understand, asking their permission is a must.

And then there’s the fact that the internet is forever, a fact that worries So. “In 20, 30 or 50 years, maybe he will have said something that was cute and silly at the time that brings him torment from colleagues,” she says. In other words, something that sounds harmless today could come back to haunt in a decade or two. This is why being mindful of your child’s online privacy is important.

Photo credit: Pascal Shirley

Milovidov says the psychological impacts of becoming social media famous as a child aren’t yet known, but early research shows the impacts could include anxiety or fame addiction if not handled thoughtfully. “I also believe technology can be a force for good,” she says. “So, if an influencer mom or dad shares images in a mindful way, engaging in critical thinking … over potential stardom, then I’d hope the child’s online privacy is protected.” So’s careful Instagram presence is a great example of this, says Milovidov.

From Breakfasteur to influencer

So’s goal, she says, was never to become an “influencer.” Like many parents, So says she started using social media as a creative outlet. She originally started her account to share snapshots of the artful, kid-friendly breakfasts she’d make for her kids (think toast with faces and armadillo-esque quesadillas). The hobby scratched an artistic itch that So says was missing in her grown-up life as a mom and physician—and the breakfasts helped her feel less guilty about going back to work after maternity leave when her youngest was born.

Photo credit: Pascal Shirley

She started sharing the Play-Doh surgeries publicly under the same handle. She thought they could be a fun way for other kids and grown-ups to learn about surgery with cuter, easier-to-stomach visuals than the blood and guts involved in YouTube videos of real procedures. Though her son can handle them, So says she knows many kids and some adults cannot. Through trial and error, So’s learned not to make the Play-Doh replicas too lifelike, particularly faces, which further helps eliminate the squeamish factor. “If it’s too realistic people start to have an aversion response,” she says. “So I’ll just make it look like a potato with eye sockets.”

Learning to be a digital parent through play

So far, one of the best parts of her viral fame has been being able to help other parents explain scary-sounding procedures to their children before they undergo them themselves. “I feel honored that our videos have been used this way,” she says. So’s father recently had a hip replacement, which inspired a Play-Doh case to teach her son about it.

Though the vast majority of feedback so far has been positive, a handful of comments have been critical of So for pushing her son to learn about medicine and surgery at such a young age. “Being a parent makes you so vulnerable to other people’s opinions about you,” she says. For those who are critical, So says she knows her son and what he can handle and that the surgeries are led by his enthusiastic requests for them.

Photo credit: Pascal Shirley

So says part of the reason she was so open to the frank discussions that lead to the Play-Doh surgeries was that she used to ask her mother similar questions when she was a little girl. One of her first memories is watching an open-heart surgery on TV with her mother, a registered nurse. “I wasn’t grossed out. I didn’t have any kind of reaction in a negative way, but it fascinated me,” she says. “It triggered an interest in me in the ability of human beings to help other human beings in such a tangible way.” So says that early interest was likely what led her down a career path in medicine.

At this point a skilled Play-Doh surgeon, So’s son has only grown more enthusiastic about the workings of the human body over the past year. He’s also curious to learn more about the human aspect of medical care—what kind of pain is a person in? What happens to the body post-surgery? “This approach of learning through play has nurtured his love for learning and respect for his own body and others while protecting his online privacy,” So says.

And when people ask him what he wants to be when he grows up, he has an answer: a surgeon.

Looking for a way to bring your child’s interest to life? Get tips from the pros.

About the author(s):

Candace Jackson is an award-winning journalist who spent more than a decade as a staff writer for The Wall Street Journal. She has written hundreds of stories across a range of beats—from art to travel to real estate—including numerous front-page features and profiles. She’s appeared regularly on TV and radio programs to discuss her work and related topics.

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