My kids have this idea that they want to be social media celebrities — my 8-year-old daughter, Georgia, on kids' YouTube channels, and my 10-year-old son, Maxx, on Instagram. For Georgia, who makes pretend YouTube videos talking into the mirror, it’s still imaginary, similar to the way I used to lip sync Olivia Newton-John songs into my own mirror as a child. But Maxx, who does extreme trampoline tricks and is among the burgeoning crop of freestyle athletes called Gtrampers (short for “garden trampoline”), has built a modest following on Instagram (I own and moderate his account).
He spends several hours after school on weekends on the trampolines in our backyard, perfecting his flips and adding new ones. He wants to share his skills and be noticed — in the form of more followers, invitations to high profile events, and some nebulous thing that he can’t exactly articulate, but will somehow signify that he’s “made it.”
As a writer, I understand the desire to be known and recognized for hard work and talent, and I wouldn’t want to stop my kids from pursuing their goals. Still, their digital dreams — and the way they share their lives with the world — feel like uncharted waters for me.
And many parents join in my discomfort: According to a recent Common Sense Media report on family internet use, two of parents' top worries were how much time tweens and teens spend online and the oversharing of personal details. A close second was over-sharing personal details. But for Generation Z, made up of kids born from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, the internet is less of a worry than an opportunity. Meridith Valiando Rojas, cofounder of DigiTour Media, the largest producer of live events featuring social media talent and author of Selfie Made: Your Ultimate Guide to Social Media Stardom, claims that "one of the top five career aspirations of Generation Z is to be a social media star."
YouTube says that children be at least 13 years old to create an account, but that doesn't stop many parents from opening and managing channels for kids much younger. In fact, some of the most popular YouTube channels, such as Kids Diana Show and Ryan ToysReview (whose pint-size star reportedly made $22 million in a recent 12-month period), feature kids as young as seven. Often, it’s a family affair, with popular family channels such as ZZ Kids TV (a young family with boundless energy for playing and doing challenges) and 8 Passengers (the daily life and drama in a family of eight).
Earlier this year, YouTube came under fire after a user posted a video describing the ways the platform facilitates the sexual exploitation of minors. As a result, YouTube banned comments on most videos that include children 13 and younger.
Caroline Knorr, Common Sense Media's senior parenting editor, advises a quick gut "well-being" check when your child comes to you with a plan for creating a YouTube channel. What's their "why" for creating the channel? How much do they look to others for validation? How are they doing in school? And even if you're satisfied with their answers, keep a close eye on the channel and your child. "Remember that this is a new frontier for parents and for kids," says Knorr. "It's like the Wild West."
Plenty of tweens and teens have big ideas for YouTube content. Rojas, who has helped many young social media influencers build brands, notes that — based on her experience — there is a big difference between the number of kids who start a YouTube channel and the number of kids who continue to create content regularly after making their channel.
“It’s a lot of work, and really has to be led by the child,” says Yvonne Bartels, mother of actor, musician, dancer, and YouTuber Jayden Bartels, 14, of Los Angeles, California. Jayden currently has about 2.9 million Instagram followers and 675,000 subscribers on YouTube, where she uploads videos featuring pranks, challenges, clothing hauls and performances. “Jayden works hard. She does all of her own editing and concepts. YouTube is a fit for her personality and creativity and motivational level,” Yvonne says. Jayden, an A student, is tucking away the income she’s earning from YouTube for college, as well as using it for opportunities like traveling (YouTubers make money both from partnering with brands to do sponsored posts and from ad revenue YouTube pays them based on views of posts). “It’s a job, and it takes time, commitment, and perseverance,” Yvonne says. She has had to commit, too, stepping down from her job as the manager of a yoga studio to manage Jayden’s career.
Yanping Zhao, mother of 16-year-old Jasmine Shao, better known as "studyquill" on YouTube and Instagram, didn’t understand the success her daughter had found on YouTube until she was featured in the Wall Street Journal. When she was about 13, Jasmine asked her mother’s permission to start posting her videos featuring study tips, bullet journaling, hand-lettering and calligraphy, and Yanping agreed. “I worried about things like cyber-bullying. But on the other hand, we have to build something positive in this YouTube community,” Yanping says. Jasmine’s success on social media (she has about 430,000 YouTube subscribers and 262,000 Instagram followers), led to a book deal. Study With Me (Quarto), co-authored with fellow YouTuber 17-year-old Alyssa Jagan, is due out this fall.
Yanping works as an engineer, and acknowledges the San Francisco Bay-area family has a busy schedule. The expectation was always that Jasmine keep up with her schoolwork, which hasn’t been a problem (especially considering that she makes videos about being more organized for school). Yanping sees her job as less of a manager and more a chief supporter. “Every night, I say, “’What can I do to make your life easier? And occasionally, if she is not happy, I hug her and we talk, take a walk, or I make her favorite almond cookie.”
Jayden and Jasmine both seem to have good temperaments for the business, and their experience as influencers has been full of more peaks than valleys. But what about when the ride isn’t so smooth? I know a little about this from following one of my son’s heroes, Tanner Braungardt. Tanner is an 19-year-old from Augusta, Kansas. He currently has 4.4 million subscribers on his YouTube channel, which features pranks, lots of flips on trampolines and off of buildings, and general zaniness.
“I always knew Tanner’s future was in storytelling; he can take two hours of blah footage and turn it into 10 minutes that will crack you up,” says his mom, Kim Braungardt. The past few years haven’t been all laughs though.
Tanner’s rollercoaster ride with YouTube stardom is why Kim started a podcast called, “Mom, I Wanna Be a YouTuber,” a free-flowing discussion about how YouTube affects the entire family. “It’s kind of a PSA for parents, because our family has been there and we’ve seen the other side,” she says. In January 2016, Tanner set a goal to have 3,000 followers on his YouTube channel by the end of the year. He made high quality, heavily produced episodes (almost like a mini television show) and uploaded new content nearly every day. By May, he had 10,000 subscribers; by July he had 100,000. “That summer was euphoric for Tanner,” Kim says. He was working eight to 10 hours a day, she says, but he loved the work, and by September, he hit 1 million subscribers.
The family — including Tanner’s older brother, Tristan, and younger sister, Taylor — took a trip to Los Angeles to meet with various people in the entertainment industry including managers and agents.
Shortly after, Tanner’s channel got hacked and his money flow was shut down for months. It created a huge amount of anxiety, Kim says. “His euphoria was so short-lived. The weight of that stress is what changed everything.”
Eventually, Tanner got his YouTube channel revenue stream back up and running, and continued to grow his fan base and earn money. While he still enjoyed what he was doing, he was becoming increasingly motivated by the metrics. At one point, YouTube changed its algorithm, and Tanner’s views were suddenly cut in half. “I said to him, ‘Son, it’s a computer. You can’t get your value from it,” Kim says. There was also the issue of the money Tanner was making. Kim had been a single mother for 13 years, and ran a successful real estate appraisal business. “I had provided a good life for them on my own, with a career I loved,” she says. That got interrupted when Tanner bought his family a $1.2 million home in nearby Wichita. “The roles aren’t supposed to flip flop like that. I never allowed myself to fully enjoy the home because I knew I could never afford it,” Kim says. Tanner’s sister, Taylor, was also very bothered by all of the attention, while his brother, Tristan — an actor — was seeking his own big break.
Though Tanner was making a lot of money and continuing to grow his fan base, the pressure of expectations got to him. In 2018, he was living in Los Angeles — he moved there because he thought it was where he was supposed to be — and was intensely depressed. At his lowest point, his mother was genuinely concerned for his safety. Kim asked him to come back home, which he did shortly after — and got some real help for his anxiety and depression. He also did a mini reinvention of his channel, getting back to the roots of why he loved making YouTube videos, adding videos about topics like mental health.
Now, Tanner is on the other side of something, chasing inner wisdom rather than metrics. “For two years, every moment of our whole lives was social media. It feels like we are finding the balance again,” Kim says. They’ve been making the podcast together as a family, though it’s moving in fits and starts, and Kim has been able to return to her career. Also, they sold the mansion and bought back their old (smaller) home; until recently, Tanner was living in his old bedroom in the basement. “That’s what a 19-year-old should be doing,” Kim jokes.
What Kim has always told Tanner — and continues to tell him — is this: “Be you, and wake up every day knowing what your values are.” She also has some advice for parents of kids who are chasing those digital dreams, moving full-speed ahead and undaunted by the thought of all the work. “If it does take off, hope and pray you’ve done everything you can to keep them grounded. You be their safe spot and don’t treat them any differently.”
I like that advice a lot, no matter what my kids do on YouTube, Instagram, or the next great platform yet to be invented. Likes or trolls, exciting brand events or quiet family dinners, metrics that go up or metrics that go down — whatever comes our way, I’ll keep our circle safe here at home.
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