You and I, like many of our relatives, friends and neighbors, pop in our headphones every day (or turn up our phones) and invite into our once-peaceful minds the voice of a favorite influencer or podcaster. It could be a man chopping vegetables, a woman lifting weights, someone updating us on the whereabouts of Kate Middleton or Taylor Swift, or someone, in any one of myriad ways, telling us how to live.

As almost all social media companies now turn toward the TikTok model (endless streams of short videos), the number of options screaming for our attention becomes overwhelming.

And yet, ironically, there is a certain intimacy in all these conversations. In some cases, you and I do more than hear these influencers; we see their kitchens, their bathrooms, their bedrooms — all of which, of course, are more beautiful and luxurious than ours. They speak as if talking directly to each of us, one on one. Yet we can’t ever respond.

But what real-world influence do the voices of internet influencers actually have? The answer: too much.

A study out of the Pew Research Center showed that 3 in 10 adults who use social media have purchased something after a content creator recommended it. “When looking at users who follow these accounts that number rises to 53%,” Pew reported.

The study further showed that “younger social media users are the most likely to say influencers affect their purchasing habits: 54% of 18- to 29-year-old social media users say influencers impact their purchasing decisions a lot or a little.”

Beyond the immediately measurable impact of influencers on spending, of course, is the social, mental and emotional impact as well, which isn’t always positive.

According to a study out of Emory University’s Goizueta School of Business, researchers found that “when followers consume idealized versions of popular figures on social media there is a social comparison process that results in these users experiencing negative feelings and a substantial decline in their state of self-esteem.” This was recently seen in backlash after the woman behind the popular social media account Ballerina Farm posted glamorous photos shortly after having a baby, with some critics saying she set unreasonable expectations for new mothers.

Many of us have experienced at least a fleeting decline in self-esteem after consuming social media; we may emerge from it wanting a different house, a different body, a different job or an entirely different lifestyle. Even some prominent YouTube influencers have begun quitting streaming as a profession altogether, looking for greener pastures beyond the internet.

If even those with the No. 1 job desired by Gen Z are becoming disillusioned with social media, then why do we listen to them at all? Why do we give them our attention?

Well, the messages and voices and videos they send are enticing. Their homes and their bedrooms and their bathrooms, even their faces are beautiful (though some of this beauty is an illusion). And when our own homes are a mess, we enjoy a five-second dopamine rush by looking at their carefully curated, peaceful and orderly lives. But every one of us, the influencers included, have to return to the quiet reality of our own minds and our own homes. And that letdown can be painful.

Another reason we listen to them is the size of the followings. We see an influencer and their follower count, and we subconsciously measure the worth of their message by that number — the more followers, the more valuable the message, right? And surely there is also a little bit of FOMO involved — the fear of missing out. But these numbers, which are likely artificially inflated, are not evidence of true value.

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Consider the most famous YouTuber today: MrBeast. One of his first viral videos came in 2017 when he counted (for 40 hours straight) from 1 to 100,000. Entertaining, maybe, but not exactly uplifting or empowering or useful. It’s simply a video designed to command your attention.

Since then, MrBeast, whose real name is Jimmy Donaldson, has used his earnings from our attention to grow his ever-increasing following (now upwards of 240 million) and to build bigger and more enticing videos from “Giving My Mom $100,000″ to signing a literal 48-hour professional contract with the NFL Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

While MrBeast is certainly entertaining, and has earned a name for himself as something of a philanthropist, he still uses the basest elements of humanity against his viewers. In other words, by manipulating people into spending more time watching his videos (like all influencers in general), he gains more influence while also making us wish our lives were somehow more than they are (i.e., I wish I could give my mom $100,000).

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As the “creator economy” becomes more competitive, the content across all platforms will grow more extreme, more enticing, more intense and more pornographized, all in order to stand out in the infinite sea of voices competing for our attention.

The result is a social media feed filled with more engagement bait: more young women in their cars and in tears over a job or a boyfriend/husband; more videos filled with violence and with crime; you may even come across, against your will, a young man setting himself on fire as a political statement for the world to see.

Every influencer has a motive deep below what the silvery surface tells us. Each has incentives that you and I cannot see — most of them, if not all, are monetary. When you and I put on our headphones, or turn up our phones to listen to these influencers, what are we downloading to our minds and to our hearts while barely paying attention? And at what cost?

Whether you give your attention freely to the internet, or actively build your life as you see fit, either way you will spend the most valuable thing you have: your attention. Pay attention. Your life literally depends on it.

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