Facebook Twitter

Zoë Petersen, Deseret News

Why I won’t turn my kid into an online influencer

I didn’t want to foist a public identity on my kids at a point when they really couldn’t comprehend or consent to what that would entail.

SHARE Why I won’t turn my kid into an online influencer
SHARE Why I won’t turn my kid into an online influencer

The first time I thought I might turn my oldest daughter into a social media influencer happened just a few weeks after she was born. She was lying on the floor and had accidentally raised her hand to her chin, making her look like the thinking face emoji.

I took a picture, added the emoji and posted it to my Facebook story. 

The likes poured in.

“Lolololol,” one friend replied. 

“This is PERFECT!” another said. 

“We need more of this,” yet one more friend typed. 

And suddenly, I was wondering if maybe the world actually did need more of this. 

In the lead up to having a kid, I hadn’t really thought a lot about how she might appear on social media. A few days following her birth I posted the typical, generic announcement photos on Facebook. But after the unexpectedly big response to the emoji pic, suddenly I started getting ideas.

Like Galadriel in “Lord of the Rings,” when she briefly imagines the terrible powers she could draw from the One Ring, I began imagining a life of fame and fortune.

But then that didn’t happen. In fact, over time — and as my family grew — I actually posted fewer and fewer photos online of my kids. Part of it was concern over privacy; I’ve occasionally written about cybersecurity and I’m well aware of the perils of oversharing. But there was something more too, a kind of gut feeling that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

Why didn’t I want my kids to be influencers? 

I think the most basic answer is that I didn’t want to foist a public identity on my kids at a point when they really couldn’t comprehend or consent to what that would entail. Put another way, kids typically don’t become influencers without significant intervention, or prodding, from their parents and guardians. And it didn’t feel like I should be the one making the decision about my kids’ careers, especially when the career in question comes with numerous perils. 

Those perils do seem to be legion. The most recent and high-profile exploration of life in the limelight comes from Jennette McCurdy, the former star of Nickelodeon’s “iCarly” and “Sam and Cat.” McCurdy, who is now 30, began acting at age 6 and landed her starring role on “iCarly” when she was 15. She recently recounted her life as a child star in the eye-catchingly titled, bestselling memoir “I’m Glad My Mom Died.” Among other things, the book recounts McCurdy’s experience developing anorexia at age 11, being sexualized as a child and having a lack of future job options because her acting career limited her education. As one might guess from the memoir’s title, McCurdy’s mom — who died from breast cancer in 2013 — was the force driving her acting career. 

“It didn’t feel like I should be the one making the decision about my kids’ careers, especially when the career in question comes with numerous perils.”

There are scores of other examples of children who were thrust into the spotlight at a young age and lived a hard life as a result. Lindsey Lohan and Amanda Bynes both drew praise for their early performances before eventually facing an array of legal, financial and mental health issues that ultimately overshadowed and derailed their lives. Britney Spears spent nearly a decade and a half in a restrictive conservatorship — a conservatorship that ended just last year amid allegations of abuse on the part of Spears’ father and others. Actors such as River Phoenix and Corey Haim struggled with drugs before ultimately dying young. The list could go on and on. 

Influencing and acting aren’t the same thing, of course. But they’re increasingly intermeshed, and in any case they’re both jobs that require participants to hustle in the limelight. And there are plenty of horror stories from the world of influencing too. 

There’s the Bay Area mom influencer who is facing criminal charges for inventing a story about an attempted kidnapping of her kids. There’s the example of the YouTube family who “rehomed” their autistic child. And there was the Arizona YouTubing mom who allegedly starved, burned and pepper sprayed her kids, among other abuses, before police finally got to her. If anything, the influencer family stories are more horrific than the child acting stories, which I suppose makes sense; as bad as child acting can be, there are at least labor laws that govern what kids are allowed to do on professional Hollywood sets. But so far, those laws don’t apply to parents who decide to put their kids on YouTube or TikTok. 

Taken together, these kinds of tales make a pretty compelling case for not forcing a public career on your kid. But that can’t be the whole story. Of course many famous children have hard lives, but the opposite is true as well.

McCurdy herself mentions her former Nickelodeon colleague Ariana Grande, who has gone from child acting to one of the most successful careers in pop music in recent memory. And many families were first introduced to Christian Bale when he was the teenage star of “Newsies.” Now, Bale is an Oscar winner and one of the most celebrated actors of his generation. Grande and Bale both surely experienced hardships, but early fame didn’t ultimately stop them from having a successful and seemingly well-adjusted life later on. 

There are also child influencers who also appear to be doing all right.

I was first introduced to Nandi Bushell in 2019, for example, when I saw a video of the then 9-year-old girl playing drums to Nirvana’s “In Bloom.” It was incredible, and Bushell has since gone on to become a well-regarded drummer who has played with bands such as the Foo Fighters. On TikTok, I follow Zeth and Saylor, a father and his toddler daughter who have podcast-like discussions about music and film. They’re adorable.

“There appear to be flavors of influencing, or just generally of fame, that don’t automatically lead to terrible outcomes for everyone.”

And, significantly, in these examples kids have hitched their wagons to their authentic talents; Bushell isn’t a “Real Housewife,” for instance, who is famous for being famous. Rather, she’s closer to an artisan, known for the work she does; despite having watched many videos of her drumming, I don’t know much about her personal life. And that’s probably a good thing.

Which is to say that there appear to be flavors of influencing, or just generally of fame, that don’t automatically lead to terrible outcomes for everyone. And in my brief and terrible vision of my daughter’s influencing future, Bushell was one of the first examples that came to mind. So I was left wondering: Is there any empirical evidence that influencing would plunge my kids into drug abuse and mental illness rather than create a life of comfort and success? 

As it turns out, I learned, there’s not a lot of research on what being an influencer does to kids’ lives or mental states. 

But there is research on what happens to kids when they’re immersed in technology and social media. Academics and institutions such as the Mayo Clinic have long found connections between screen time and obesity, developmental delays, attention problems and other negative outcomes. One study found adolescents who spent at least three hours a day looking at screens were “approximately two- to threefold more likely to have” things such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Another found screen time is adversely associated with sleep outcomes for school-aged kids and adolescents in the overwhelming majority of academic studies on the topic. That study also found the problem appears to have gotten significantly worse over the last two decades — which happens to coincide with the rise of pocket-sized screens and social media.

This will be old news for a lot of parents today. I don’t think I’ve ever taken my kids to the doctor, for any reason, without also getting a mini-lecture on the ills of too much screen time. 

But unfortunately, the problems also don’t stop there. Researchers from Harvard and Dartmouth have found that social media use, specifically, can have “negative effects on mental health,” and that it potentially exposes users to “harmful content and hostile interactions.” More alarmingly still, the Institute for Family Studies at the University of Virginia has noted that suicide, depression and self-harm also spiked over the last decade, which also happened to be the period in which social media use effectively became mandatory for teens. 

None of this is to say that technology and social media are solely responsible for the myriad perils facing kids today. Technology can be awesome. For example, the researchers who explored social media’s negative mental health impacts also noted that online platforms can be a useful way for sufferers of disorders such as schizophrenia to connect with people, including others facing similar challenges, and socialize more easily. More generally, the technological advances of the last two or three decades have created a more interconnected world where people can empathize with those suffering from, say, flooding in Pakistan or war in Ukraine. A generation or two ago, none of that would’ve been possible. 

But when I think about my role as a dad and what I want for my kids on the individual rather than the global level, I’m struck by the fact that a lot of smart people at least think our connectedness might be playing some role in the struggles kids are facing right now. 

I suppose it’s conceivable that someone could become an influencer without spending massive amounts of time online. But in the same way that we’d expect a painter to look at more art than the average person, or a filmmaker to watch the most movies, it’s not much of a leap to assume that kids who are working on social media are also spending above average amounts of time in front of their screens. And indeed while the peer-reviewed research on influencers is nascent, there are numbers available: Marketing firm Influencer Agency reported in 2020 that the influencers they work with on average spend an astounding 9 hours per day on social media — more than twice the amount of time the average American spends looking at a mobile device.  

And then there are the bleak odds of success. A 2019 study from Queen Mary University of London found that among actors, unemployment hovers at 90%, while a mere 2% are able to actually make a living in the profession. Influencing is more entrepreneurial — you don’t need an agent or a casting director’s blessing to start a YouTube channel — but a slew of reports in recent years have suggested that there are tens of millions of people trying to make it on social media, while only tiny percentages of those would-be influencers actually succeed. If anything, the pool of potential influencers is larger and the typical payouts smaller, meaning that among fame-oriented professions its presumably harder to build a durable career on social media than it is in older professions such as acting. 

“In the end, I want my kids to have at least as much happiness in their own childhoods as I was fortunate to have in mine.”

When I watch videos from people like Bushell, they really seem to be having fun. Which is great. But when I think about what I want for my own kids, I’m struck by the anecdotes of abuse, the toxicity of the tools of the trade and the extremely poor odds of actually making it big. That doesn’t seem like a recipe for a successful or happy life. Sure, some people buck the odds. But that’s true of anything; you can race cars without crashing, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to start driving like I’m on the autobahn with my 4 year old. 

That my oldest is only 4 is perhaps the final piece of this puzzle. She started at a new preschool this month, and before she walked out the door I took a bunch of pictures. As I crouched down with my phone, I noticed that her hair was hanging over her face. Her backpack was crooked. The lighting in the room was bad and overall I was just taking a technically poor photograph. But it didn’t matter because she doesn’t know why any of that would be important. 

My daughter doesn’t know anything about lighting or poses. She doesn’t know that taking a picture from a slightly higher angle will make you look thinner. She doesn’t even know that some people might want to look thinner in the first place. She’s never heard of duck face or hot dog legs or ring lights or Instagram filters. Some day she’ll probably learn about life online. Maybe when she gets older she’ll even choose to pursue a life as an influencer. At some point — and I’m really not sure when that point will be, but it’s a long way off — it’ll be her decision to make. But right now, the only way for her to make such a decision would be if I intentionally pushed her into it. Which is to say, it’d hardly be a choice for her at all. I’d be gambling her mental health, her privacy, her sense of self for what? A long shot chance at fame? A potential fortune for myself? 

In the end I want my kids to have at least as much happiness in their own childhoods as I was fortunate to have in mine, before there was anything resembling social media or smart phones. That strikes me as the most basic goal of parenthood. The old world is gone of course, and it’s only a matter of time before my kids begin to understand the world in terms of “content” and “consumers.” But if I can make it possible for just a moment longer, I want my kids to run, wild and free.

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Britney Spears’ name as “Brittney.”