In the olden days, practitioners of scaaaary magic used to be called witches (or wizards), but today, one might call them… influencers. After all, these social media stars amass vast followings through both paid advertising and algorithmic hocus pocus, and proceed to influence culture and commerce for good… or ill.
As Glinda said to Dorothy, “Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?”
The question facing us in 2019 is, “Are you a good influence, or a bad influence?” And perhaps most importantly, who are you influencing? A truly alarming number of today’s influencers – hawking products, improvising sometimes obscene content – are influencing kids, who have the run of sites like YouTube through their smartphones. And (perhaps worse?) many young children – toddlers, even – are spending significant chunks of their everyday lives on camera to become influencers themselves.
Now that’s a jump scare!
Most adults – millennials and older – will readily admit that they have a social media addiction problem, getting sucked into (at minimum) Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter on a regular basis. But the culture of Gen Z is already emerging as different by an order of magnitude (as generational shifts perhaps always do?). The wave beyond the much-maligned millennials are consumed by apps like Snapchat, Tik-Tok, and of course, the platform YouTube.1 It’s not an exaggeration – seriously, not at all an exaggeration – to state that for Gen Z, YouTube has replaced TV.
In fact, one writer at Bustle who asked teens ages 13-19 from around the world where they consumed media, not a single one of them listed TV.2 It was all social – all online. And what many older folks fail to understand is that there’s an entire subculture, an entire landscape, of YouTube celebrities who have essentially packaged themselves as Gen Z’s reality TV stars by cleverly staging and editing scenarios from their own lives.
At least, until they gain large enough followings that brands swoop in, and the influencers get invited to sit front row at major fashion shows, partner to develop tie-in products, and generally become instruments of corporate PR. Being a YouTuber is the real deal.
Which is why recent polls have indicated that becoming a YouTube star is the most popular career aspiration, currently, for America’s youth.3
Again, good thing? Bad thing? Maybe it’s just a different thing, a “the times they are a-changin’” thing. However, I think it all depends on the kind of content these influencers put out and what kids are consuming.
One of the most popular influencers by far, for example, is Emma Chamberlain, an influencer who has over 8 million subscribers on YouTube (8 MILLION!).4 One of her most popular uploads features a top makeup artist turning her into (as the subtitle reads) “an LA b****.”5 Parts of the video also feature her dropping f-bombs like people drop those little exploding snappers on the Fourth of July (but this is Halloween – what a fright!). Of course, she’s technically an adult at 18, but I’m pretty certain the vast majority of her viewers aren’t, and some of them might not even be teens yet.
Because – as I’m sure any parent knows – the Internet is the scariest playground we’ve ever devised. Forget the creaky swings or the wooden monkeybars with splinters – at least you can sit on the park bench and watch what your kid does! On the Internet, monitoring your children can sometimes seem impossible. Safeguards exist, but they’re imperfect, children have friends who also have phones, and goodness only knows what happens when they’re out of your sight.
Of course, the good influencers do exist. A crop of young Mormon influencers is also making its mark online, and most of them participate in the same goofy antics as other popular YouTubers but without the obscenity and occasional sexualization.6 They’ve been open and share their struggles around having boundaries on what they will do for “likes.”
Either way, it’s a winning formula, and even elementary school kids are chomping at the bit to cash in – literally. A 7-year-old named Ryan is making $22 million dollars a year from his YouTube channel reviewing toys – a salary to scare the pants off of most CEO’s!7 Multiple camps now exist that allow children to learn the tools of the trade for this form of media production, camps that promise to give them the tools to turn themselves into stars.
Important to note: some of these camps have taken children as young as 9, when YouTube will not register a YouTube account with anyone younger than 13.8 Administrators of at least one of the camps claim that the younger kids can have the videos uploaded by their parents.9 Yeah, right.
Well, I don’t want to be too much of a Negative Nancy – it’s undeniable that this is where the future of media is. It would be shortsighted of us adults to deny our kids the ability to adapt, learn, and succeed.
But influence can certainly be black magic. And corporate exploitation of young children definitely is.
Bennett, Willa. “YouTube Is Gen Z’s Version Of TV – And Here’s What They Spend Hours Watching On It.” Bustle, 6 Sept. 2019, www.bustle.com/p/youtube-is-gen-zs-version-of-tv-heres-what-they-spend-hours-watching-on-it-18181256
Tenbarge, Kat. “Most Kids Today Dream of Influencer Fame, but YouTubers Are Warning Their Young Fans about Anxiety, Exploitation, and Burnout.” INSIDER, 7 Sept. 2019, www.insider.com/youtuber-top-career-choice-for-us-kids-teens-2019-8.
Bennett, Willa. “YouTube Is Gen Z’s Version Of TV – And Here’s What They Spend Hours Watching On It.” Bustle, 6 Sept. 2019, www.bustle.com/p/youtube-is-gen-zs-version-of-tv-heres-what-they-spend-hours-watching-on-it-18181256.
Chamberlain, Emma. “TURNING ME INTO AN LA GIRL FT. JAMES CHARLES & THE DOLAN TWINS.” YouTube, YouTube, 19 June 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=pxiGfyeCJZU.
Julian, Jordan. “Meet the Mormon YouTube Influencers Shaping Teen Minds.” The Daily Beast, The Daily Beast Company, 7 July 2019, www.thedailybeast.com/meet-the-mormon-youtube-influencers-shaping-millions-of-teen-minds-church-is-a-big-part-of-our-life.
Lynch, John. “A 7-Year-Old Boy Is Making $22 Million a Year on YouTube Reviewing Toys.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 3 Dec. 2018, www.businessinsider.com/ryan-toysreview-7-year-old-makes-22-million-per-year-youtube-2018-12.
Davis, Dominic-Madori. “Parents Are Spending Thousands on YouTube Camps That Teach Kids How to Be Famous.” The Daily Dot, The Daily Dot, 25 May 2019, www.dailydot.com/upstream/youtube-camps/.