A growing number of youngsters aspire to be social media influencers for fame and fortune. But experts warn about a narcissitic trend that can be devastating for youths. Wang Yuke reports from Hong Kong.
If Hong Kong’s big-time fortune tellers can strike gold by amassing a huge following over time, there’s a group of young go-getters trying to take a leaf out of their book — social media influencers.
But the luck and instinct that may guarantee one’s success in any field of endeavor simply don’t fall from the sky. It could be a make-it-or-break-it move.
Kenson, 10, is nothing short of a toy influencer in Hong Kong despite his tender age. “I often come across strangers recognizing me on the street. They would leap at me, excitedly shout out my name and ask for selfies,” says Kenson shyly. “I was happy about it but it, somehow, set me on edge.”
While many young YouTubers wallow in stardom and the glee of being lionized, being a household name is not on Kenson’s priority list.
Along with his father, Kenson started a channel on YouTube three years ago. Their videos largely feature toys sharing, unboxing and gameplay. They’ve so far created 16,000 videos and amassed almost 95,000 subscribers, mostly children.
“Many parents tell us their kids do enjoy our videos, and want to buy the same toys Kenson shows in our videos,” says Kenson’s father, Ken Fung.
While Kenson tries to keep a low profile, he’s not immune to harsh criticisms. “Someone said, ‘What rubbish! Go away! Do you really know how to play games? If you don’t, leave here! Can’t believe a popular YouTuber plays such a bad (video) game'”.
“And there’re viewers who bombard me with thumbs-down emojis,” says Kenson. “Every time I get such a hostile reception, I feel frustrated, wronged and badly hurt.” Angered, he would immediately block those messages and confide his disappointment to his father, who’s not only his YouTubing partner but a guardian as well.
“Many children messaged us asking to play online video games with Kenson. But they have to get my approval first. I would talk to the child individually to decide if he or she is a bad or good influence,” says Fung, who is well aware of the hazards on social media.
Ashely Su, 8, launched her YouTube channel in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Her video content ranges from toy sharing and do it yourself to hotel room tours and dancing shows. “I felt bored then, so I thought of doing something exciting,” says Su. “My favorite YouTubers are Kaycee and Rachel and I want to do the same.” Kaycee and Rachel are YouTube sister stars who’ve racked up 3.85 million subscribers with videos of toy reviews, princess makeovers, presents unboxing and vacation vlogs.
Su dreams of being an online star like the YouTuber siblings. “I want to be famous. If I become a superstar, more people will subscribe to it and tune in to my channel. Creating something funny for my audience makes me happy.”
Online influencer a dream job
According to a survey conducted by US market research company The Harris Poll and iconic Danish toymaker Lego in 2019, up to one-third of 1,000 children aged 8 to 12 in China, the United States and the United Kingdom aspire to be either a vlogger or YouTuber.
A separate poll by UK-based online travel agency and tour operator First Choice Holidays in 2017 found that nearly three-quarters of 1,000 children aged 6 to 17 showed they would go for some sort of a career in online video, aiming to be either a vlogger, blogger or YouTuber.
To meet the growing needs of youngsters with online influencer ambitions, Media 21 (or M21) of the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups launched a program specifically for KOL (key opinion leader)/YouTuber training. “To be a YouTuber and an influencer has become one of the most sought-after jobs of youths this decade. But there’ve been few systematic or well-established training courses available for them,” says M21 Director Chan Wai-ting.
The program drew more than 50 participants for the elementary-level class, and about 10 for the intermediate level within a year.
“We all learn by modeling. There’s a saying that if we can see it, we can be it, as manifested on social media, where content posted by stars dominates a bulk of what we see,” says Lucy Clyde, a London-based psychotherapist whose research interest covers social media’s impact on people’s lives and people-to-people relationships.
Popular YouTubers and online personalities are very accessible. “Their age, appearance and the capacity to provide content almost in real time makes them seem almost like known friends,” explains Clyde.
Along with the emotional identification is a deeper psychological desire, which has been long studied, called “wishful identification”, says Clyde. Wishful identification moves beyond merely adoring a character to the extent of imagining oneself as becoming the character. “It’s about ‘I wish I were more like you’,” she says. This makes it understandable that children and even adults sometimes get the impulsion to emulate whoever they admire.
Being a YouTuber and an online star, or simply engaging actively in social media can be substantially rewarding. This could make us “wonderfully connecting, communicating and creative, which is at the heart of everyone’s existence”, Clyde says.
Su’s mother, Tiffany Tse, is pleased to see her daughter enjoying her newfound interest, which she thinks, has brought transformative benefits to the girl. “She used to be shy and timid. I remember her crying in her first week in primary school. Now she’s more outgoing, talkative and confident. She likes sharing and expressing herself more,” says Tse.
Su has not only emerged from her shell since taking to YouTubing, but has also developed a problem-solving mindset. “Her curiosity and eagerness for seeking answers are piqued. For example, she marveled at some fashion vloggers changing their clothes in a split second. So, she tried to find out the camera trick on the internet,” says Tse.
For Kenson’s and his father’s channel, many of the videos that attracted some 1,000 views were Kenson’s originals, says the father.
All human beings, including children, demand sincere validation and attention from others to realize self-worth, which is a survival mechanism, contends Clyde. The classic Harry Harlow experiment showed that baby monkeys would prioritize love and comfort over food and water. And social media just provides the ease of accessing and seeking the validation, she says.
However, if one is excessively dependent on approval from others online to reinforce one’s self-worth, that’ll be problematic.
A YouTuber tends to check his or her video’s viewership, subscriber count and comments regularly. An uptick makes his day, while a flat result or a negative response will crush his day. “That’s where the damage happens. It’s called, in psychological terms, ‘narcissistic injury’,” says Clyde.
Children are more vulnerable to being addicted to seeking attention and approval, warns Clyde, because they’re psychologically unfledged and still in the process of exploring their self-worth by trying to make themselves as endearing as possible.
In media interviews, Niu Yinuo — an 11-year-old Chinese Tik Tok star who boasts more than 3 million fans — once feared becoming a has-been someday.
The most poisonous thing on social media could be the ever-present posts of heavily filtered and white-brushed images, stresses Clyde. “We tend to believe what we see are true perfection and beauty, and then we’ll feel dull and inadequate by comparison.”
“Young people are particularly susceptible to such an illusion. Their compensation for feeling so inadequate can be joining the race of perceived perfection by pursuing social media ‘likes’,” she notes.
“Social media is a minefield and young users are trying not to step on any IEDs (improvised explosive devices). That’ll hurt them psychologically and send them into a downward spiral,” remarks Larry Rosen, a psychologist and professor emeritus at the California State University, Dominguez Hills.
There’s also a risk of developing a set of materialistic and warped consumerist values, given that celebrity-driven consumption is running high.
Also, optimizing one’s “success theater” is physically tiring and mentally depleting, says Richard Rogers, a professor in new media and digital culture at the University of Amsterdam.
First, there’s visibility labor. You’ve to ponder over how to render your perfect shots, looks and content to make them visible. Then comes the relational labor “to maintain your fan base”. Finally, you feel compelled to embrace the “permanent update culture”, which creates an extra load of pressure. “We may find some people’s online behaviors becoming more extreme and adventurous because they’re desperate for the ‘numbers’. And this happens often to youths,” Rogers says.
The youth cult of YouTubing, vlogging, blogging, posting unblemished selfies, and uploading videos with no great yarns has drawn criticism that today’s young generation is more self-obsessed and narcissistic than their antecedents.
Clyde argues that this isn’t necessarily true, but it’s the advent of social media that allows the “expression of narcissism” — a common human nature.
“Self-centeredness is a developmental phase, one that can dominate until we’re mature,” she says. What is different now is that since children inhabit the online sphere on a daily basis, their self-centered and attention-seeking developmental phase becomes more conspicuous.
Social media is not so much a manufacturer of narcissists as an amplifier of pre-existing narcissism, Clyde argues. A healthy dose of narcissism is good because it boosts one’s self-esteem and confidence, “giving us enough emotional security to deal with the various knocks that life deals us.”
Nevertheless, “social media may also make someone highly narcissistic seem normal or appealing, which is devastating for the young,” Clyde warns.
“All of us have a bit of ‘normal’ narcissism, but when it gets out of hand, often online, the symptoms are exacerbated,” notes Rosen. “Narcissists are, on the whole, modeling the rest of society where all media appear to show that our culture, or at least part of it, is becoming more about ‘Me, Me, Me’ all the time.” And real narcissists require constant adulation, he notes. “When those accolades are not there, they go into a narcissistic rage.”
Attachment to social media in the quest for validation can turn one into a real narcissist “who, by his/her nature, is self-focused, negating the need and desire for empathy from others”, Rosen says.
Nobody wants to see vibrant youths becoming a generation wrapped up only in themselves. But how to stop that from happening?
Parents play a pivotal role in navigating youngsters through the journey of exploring their self-worth and an integral identity, says Clyde. “It’s about the quality time spent with children in a loving way, which stops them from seeking validation from outside to compensate for the lack of love and recognition.”
Chan, director of M21, stresses that the KOL/YouTuber training program places a high premium on ethics and moral education. “We hope our up-and-coming online KOLs/YouTubers could use their platforms with an appropriate point of view and attitudes.”
“Be considerate” may sound cliche, but that’s always true, no matter being a content creator, KOL or simply a media user, he says.
Social media platforms have evolved into a place for exhibition of the self. How successfully we get engaged on social media is scrutinized and assessed by “vanity metrics” — the number of “likes”, views and comments, Rogers says.
If one is so bent on becoming an online celebrity, he or she will go to great lengths to curate his or her posts and prune his or her facade or front-stage behaviors, to conform to the vanity metrics and followers’ interests.
But when one finds he or she’s not doing well with the metrics, it’ll be a great blow to one’s self-esteem. And, over time, one could lose the authentic self.
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