Social media is now a staple for many young teens. While it may be an essential part of the everyday communication routine, it can also be toxic, especially when it comes to the spotlight on social media influencers across many platforms. So why do we follow social media influencers? The answer is more complex than “Well, I think they look cool.”
Why Do We Follow Social Media Influencers?
Diana Graber, author of Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology, tells Parentology why teens, in particular, are drawn to social media influencers. “Teens are at a place in their lives, especially preteens, where they are starting to separate from their family of origin and starting to figure out who they are.”
Graber ties teens’ fixation on social media influencers to Leon Festinger’s social comparison theory, where individuals self-evaluate by comparing themselves to others in an effort to define themselves. “[Social media influencers are] important to teens because they’re in a place where they’re starting to compare their behavior to others and social norms, and focusing on how they feel part of a group. These influencers speak directly to where kids are developmentally.”
Many young internet users may be going online to find something they aren’t quite getting offline, or in their everyday life. This can be anything from a shared hobby to finding representation they don’t see in real life.
Social media influencers are also a large part of advertising toward a younger audience. “Traditional advertising to them [teens] just doesn’t work and marketers know it.” How social influencers make a difference? “If teens see an influencer eating or drinking a product, to them that seems way more authentic than if they were just to see an ad about that product,” Graber says.
Parents: Be Curious, Not Worried
Worried about your kids’ relationship with the social media influencers they follow? Graber advises parents change that worry to curiosity instead.
“There’s a reason children are drawn to certain things online and it’s important to find out why they’re attracted,” Graber says. “If it’s unhealthy, create a strategy. What about it is unhealthy? Why shouldn’t they give attention to that thing or person?”
Communication is key when it comes to understanding why kids are interested in the things they see on the internet, problematic or not.
Graber is also behind Cyber Civics, a digital literacy class offered in schools and discusses how the lessons extend to students’ parents. The curriculum is classroom-based, but part of the homework is having students initiate conversations at home with their parents. Graber found it’s rare for parents to take time or interest in what kids are consuming on the internet daily.
“Parenting is offline and online,” Graber states. “If a child is being drawn to something that’s inappropriate, that’s a time for a parent to know about it and maybe have a discussion. Steer them in a different direction.”
Do We Keep Following Influencers?
Influencers can come under fire for the way they behave online. Whether it be shilling diet products to young followers or engaging in problematic behavior. Instagram is now cracking down on the negative effects social media and its influencers may have, including removing likes and restricting some advertisements. After a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigation, YouTube is also changing its content for younger audiences.
While YouTube and Instagram have been the focus of many parents, TikTok has quickly joined the ranks of top social media platforms for young users. “TikTok really appeals to the young child and that’s a whole different story,” Graber says. “Those kids are a lot more vulnerable – they don’t have the critical thinking skills or the ethic thinking skills to discover something is inappropriate. That’s critical because we know kids under 13 are on TikTok.”
Not all influencers are a source of negativity. Parents can help their children navigate the internet and make informed decisions on the type of content they consume.
Why Do We Follow Social Media Influencers — Sources
Diana Graber, Author of Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology