When they were 4 years old, Benjamin Burroughs’s kids became obsessed with a YouTube channel called Ryan’s World. The appeal wasn’t all that mysterious: In each Ryan’s World episode, a child (Ryan) would open up a bunch of toys and then play with them, allowing viewers to feel like they were playing alongside him. Their obsession with Ryan’s World went beyond the screen; almost immediately, each of Burroughs’s children asked if they could be a YouTuber, too.
“We said no,” says Burroughs, laughing. He and his wife’s concerns were fairly standard: They felt weird about monetizing their children, they didn’t want to create a digital footprint that couldn’t be erased, and they didn’t want to give mega-corporations like Google or Facebook even more information about their kids. But the experience led Burroughs, a professor of emerging media at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, to begin studying the fascinating, lucrative, and at times ethically questionable world of child influencers.
“Influencer” is now one of the most desired career paths for both children and adults. A Morning Consult poll found that 54 percent of Americans ages 13 to 38 would become an influencer if given the chance, while a Harris Poll study of 3,000 kids found that in both the US and the UK, if choosing between a teacher, a professional athlete, a musician, an astronaut, or a YouTuber, nearly 30 percent ranked YouTuber as their top choice.
So where’s the line between making safe, informed decisions and crushing your child’s dreams? “On the one hand, parents can ask, ‘Why should I stifle my child’s creativity? They want to share something with the world,’” Burroughs says. “But then when it becomes a job, that’s where it becomes a gray area.” He recommends thinking about what kind of exposure you and your kid are willing to handle. “Is the child’s face going to be on camera? Are they doing voiceovers? Are you showcasing work they’ve done, such as animation? I would put these in different categories,” he says.
These were the kinds of questions Sarah Zeiler asked herself when her daughter Ellie started making YouTube videos as a young teen. “I was extremely encouraging,” she says. “I was like, if you love it, you should make it, not just watch other people’s content.” Zeiler instituted several rules: no bikinis, no duck lips, and no bragging about stuff you have. But when kids at school started making fun of Ellie’s videos — mostly fashion hauls and other formats popular with teen girls at the time — Ellie quit. Even though so many kids want to be influencers themselves, they can be incredibly tough on their peers who try to make it happen; whether or not they make it as popular influencers, there is an inevitable emotional toll of constant feedback, both online and off.
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Then quarantine hit and Ellie began posting on TikTok, where her videos immediately went viral. The content itself was standard for the form — she danced, she lip-synced, she wore cute outfits — but her viewers were mostly fascinated by how much she resembled TikTok’s biggest influencer at the time, Charli D’Amelio. Within two weeks, the Zeilers received inquiries from marketing companies, agents, and managers offering to bring her sponsored content deals, but thanks to Zeiler’s background in PR and marketing, she knew they needed to take time before signing anything. It also helped that Ellie was in high school when these opportunities rolled around. “The reason why it worked was because she was mature enough,” says Zeiler. “She really understood what we were saying to her.” They waited six months, when Ellie had amassed 3 million followers, to sign her first brand deal. (To this day, Ellie, now 18, is managed by her mother.)
Zeiler hopes that parents of aspiring influencers will ensure that their children don’t assume they’ll get famous — or, if they do, that it will last forever. “Anybody who’s gotten to Ellie’s level knows it’s a little bit of luck turned into super-hard work,” she says. “What I would say is: Don’t quit school, and don’t quit your day job until you’re truly making a living for not just months, but years.” Even if they do hit the algorithmic jackpot, it’s important that influencing doesn’t become kids’ entire lives. “Have other things you’re spending time on that you can draw self-esteem from, because there’s no guarantee with this. We always wanted Ellie to feel like she had the option of not doing it.”
Teenagers who spend lots of time scrolling through their TikTok or YouTube feeds may find it difficult to understand that the chances of making a living from posting content is vanishingly small. When Burroughs’s freshman students enter the classroom, many of them say they want to be influencers, drawn in by the imagined lucrative lifestyle of having fun, making their own schedules, and getting free stuff. Yet one 2018 analysis showed that 85 percent of YouTube traffic went to just 3 percent of the channels, and that more than 96 percent of YouTubers make less than the US federal poverty line.
Even if money isn’t a motivation, it’s only natural that kids will identify and idolize a kid who looks just like them, playing with toys on a screen. Ironically, that’s how Ryan of Ryan’s World became a YouTuber in the first place — he watched other kids doing it, and he wanted to, too. Burroughs warns that overidentifying with influencers can set up children for false expectations about what real life looks like. “Parents should have conversations with their kids to help them be aware that they’re being marketed to through influencers,” he says. “They make it seem like it’s totally normal for children to be constantly opening up toys all day long.”
Perhaps this, rather than the particulars of a creator’s career, is what children and teenagers actually long for: excitement, beauty, a life without chores or homework, where the world is made up only of vacations and playtime. After all, who doesn’t?
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