As anyone who has spent a few minutes with children over the past few years will tell you, the absolute ubiquity of TikTok for today’s children cannot be denied. With TikTok surpassing 2 billion downloads in Q1 of 2020, the most downloads for any app in any quarter in history, the cultural capital of its flagship creators is unparalleled and continues to grow. While the centrality of these new child stars — Charli, Addison, Loren, et cetera — to the cultural zeitgeist is indisputable, the implications of the platforming of these children, both for our digital discourses and for these child-stars themselves, are rarely discussed.
The industry that has emerged around the new ‘kidfluencer class’ is far from the double-denimed Disney Channel red carpets of our childhood, but is likely just as insidious. The dark shadow of the entertainment industry that has traumatised child stars for decades is well publicised and widely criticised. TikTok stardom differs in striking ways, but the spectre of harm still looms just as great. The problem begins with the almost total absence of regulation. No one could have predicted how rapidly these child stars would reach their position of primacy in online culture. In some areas, the global community has tried to respond proportionately; the French parliament passed landmark protections for child influencers, related to their ownership over their assets and their “right to be forgotten”, meaning the immediate erasure of their content from every platform upon their direct request. However, the United States remains more or less silent on the working hours and activities of the creators in this immensely profitable industry. Moreover, while public engagement with child celebrities has always been intrusive, separation between the private and professional lives of social media stars is totally absent. The public’s access to their lives is relentless and, more so than any other form of celebrity, unmediated. For these young social media stars, accessing their millions of followers on an account that still uses their Club Penguin password, their autonomy is noticeably greater, but in embracing their platforms they have abrogated their right to silence.
The first problem emerging from this culture of consistent visibility is a societal one: the online political discourse. As our political conversations have infiltrated the digital domain, the participation of influencers is increasingly deep-rooted, validated by blue verification marks that seem to act as some universal qualification. Teenage influencers have been the most visible participants in many crucial political conversations over the past year; conflicting opinions around compliance with social distancing were fought out around the ‘Hype House’ and Bryce Hall’s 100-person 21st. Online engagement with the Black Lives Matter protests in June last year was in some part preoccupied with which teen stars changed their profile pictures or posted for #BlackoutTuesday. In a society used to emulating its celebrities, it is unavoidable that our support for stars is related to our agreement with their political opinions. But handing the airwaves to child stars, who experience a professional invincibility due to their cult following, an economic reward for scandal, and a validation for their wildest opinions validated by their follower account, has degraded our online political conversations to shallow contributions and underinformed infographics. While this phenomenon is not wholly harmful, it is certainly positive to have messages of tolerance and equality preached to young, and perhaps unengaged, audiences by people whose opinions they respect. However, expecting teenagers to understand and not butcher their words around complex global issues is obviously problematic and actively redirects leadership away from experts.
While it’s easy to blame influencers for the ‘sideshow’ that has emerged in digital spaces, it is equally important to recognise the effects that being platformed has on these young people in real time. It is too soon to say if the ‘toddler-to-trainwreck pipeline’ has reached a new incarnation. However, the detriments of online fame are becoming increasingly manifest. The essence of TikTok fame is offering instant gratification to the audience. Your quirks, sense of humour, dress sense and interests are only valid to the extent that they grow your following. While I’ve acknowledged that, to an extent, a cult following will be quick to absolve macro-influencers of their crimes, a large peanut gallery of digital citizens is prepared to ridicule and condemn the most benign of activities, from vaping to swearing. Charli D’Amelio, the largest creator on the platform, lost 1,000,000 followers in the span of a few hours for acting “bratty” to a home chef in a video. Treating their platforms as a diary, and their followers as friends, obviously has psychological implications for these child stars. While their audiences may have a fleeting attention span, the internet has a long memory and the real cost for these influencers living out their worse impulses in the public domain is yet to be seen.
We should exercise restraint in a digital era that ages up young people and forces them to participate in conversations they have no qualification, beyond their follower count, to enter. In defence of a well-functioning digital community, and of children who stumbled into a digital following they were unprepared to control, we should be apprehensive about our engagement with influencers. More than anything else, I petition that we should show these children the same, perhaps weary, kindness that we wish that someone would show our 15-year-old selves.