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Behind the Influence of Influencers

Influencers are very popular in today's world. Here's how to adapt as a parent.

Key points

  • Influencers have become role models and mentors—often on subjects where they have no credentials.
  • It's important for parents to be curious rather than dismissive about the influencers their teens follow.
  • On the positive side, influencers can serve as a source of connection, validation, and belonging.

Co-authored with Cece Lipton and Krista Smith

In our modern attention economy, those who captivate us capture our most precious currency: time and focus.

We call these people influencers. Every time we stop scrolling to gaze at someone else’s content, we are helping them grow their reputation and power.

Through their followers, they influence everything from shopping behaviors, product endorsements, and the meat you choose for dinner—or perhaps your decision to go vegan. The influencer economy may be behind the song you suddenly know all the words to or the third food processor you’ve purchased this month; it may be the reason you booked next year’s vacation to Greece or decided to give Peloton another try.

But for many young people, there is another title silently bestowed on influencers: role model.

Growing up alongside social media, Gen Z has flocked to influencers as figures of pseudo-mentorship, financial guidance, and inspiration. After experiencing uniquely volatile childhoods characterized by political polarization, a global pandemic, and an epidemic of loneliness, it is perhaps no wonder teens are finding comfort in 24/7 access to their favorite influencers. These authors have spoken to many youth that seem to have found role models—not in conventional social circles, like family members or teachers—but by turning to their phones.

During COVID-19 lockdowns, influencers’ popularity accelerated. Many teens were obliged to seek education, entertainment, and social and emotional support through a screen. There were some positive outcomes from this: bound together by memes and procrastination, teens could cultivate a robust, resilient community through their phones that only people of their age group understood. No matter the chaos of the external world, teens could turn to a digital family. And they did.

Mirroring superficial social dynamics often seen in high school settings, teens quickly cultivated the “other AI”—artificial intimacy, a phrase coined by psychotherapist Esther Perel. They identified the most “popular” figures in their digital community based on the level of engagement their posts received. These influencers offered their audiences comfort, mentorship, and a kind of escapism.

While teens have been engaged fans of public figures for decades—as anyone who once had a boy band poster can attest—those public figures generally made their influence felt in monthly magazines, not daily videos. Teens today look forward to watching an influencer’s video as they would grabbing a cozy coffee with a trusted friend.

By emulating behaviors they see online, adolescents may end up trying to align themselves with the ideals and lifestyles embodied by the influencers-turned-role-models. Indulging in the minutiae of influencers’ lives allows teens, on one hand, a means of escape from the drudgery of adolescence and, on the other hand, risks diverting too much attention on influencers’ lives, rather than their own.

Yet the influencers teens rely on for emotional support and connection typically lack any education in leadership or mental health credentials. Some even secretly struggle with their own mental health concerns. Influencers, for instance, often fail to distinguish between normal unpleasant feelings and clinically significant disorders when streaming or posting to their audience. In a typical "get ready with me" video, for example, an influencer might casually mention being "depressed" or "having OCD" because they ran out of their favorite makeup product. This kind of dialogue can trivialize the experiences of those actually living with these disorders. It also poses a danger to the many teens watching these videos who, in the search for connection, misdiagnose themselves with the same disorders.

This is not to say that social media cannot provide role models. After all, historical figures have served as mentors for countless generations. Still, it is crucial for American youth to understand that we can deeply admire someone while also acknowledging the differences between their lives and our own—and that differences between one’s life and an influencer’s carefully curated life are not deficits.

Parents can’t turn back the clock. But they can act to limit the influence of influencers on their children.

  • Help teens set limits on the apps that consume most of their time. Every phone has a feature that allows you to track the amount of time spent on an app. Activate it. Chances are they will be stunned by the number of waking hours they spend on social media. (The average American teen consumes 4.8 hours a day, according to one estimate.) With this knowledge, teens can better understand and adjust their priorities (e.g., “Twenty minutes on Instagram only after I’ve finished this assignment,”) and even feel better about themselves.
  • Cultivate an environment of psychological safety in which youth have permission to feel. Many teens turn to social media in search of someone who can validate their emotional experiences. Aside from their phones, it is crucial that youth have alternative spaces—around the kitchen table, on the couch with family—in which there is permission to feel and express all the emotions that come with growing up. Express curiosity in their perspective and their feelings. Ask about their favorite influencers, and prioritize active listening over lecturing.
  • Communicate your unwavering support and unconditional love to your children. You can model for them that love and validation do not always come from a screen. Simply showing up physically and emotionally for your child can reinforce the irreplaceable value of in-person human connection. Reject the insidious push for perfection—a theme often encountered on social media—and both you and your child’s mental health will benefit.
  • Encourage kids to keep their own counsel and remain critical thinkers. This can take many forms, but it should certainly include inviting them to consider what they really know of the influencers they follow. Who are these people? What makes them generally influential—and what makes them influential in your child’s life? Hand-in-hand with this is setting emotional boundaries. Empower your child to check in with their own perspective regularly and not just accept an influencer’s opinion for fact. Honor their opinions and feelings, and encourage them to pull back from social media when they notice themselves adopting an influencer’s emotions and values over their own.
  • As parents, be curious learners. It is far too easy to dismiss the influencer economy as superficial or ephemeral, but this doesn’t make it go away. Even if you may not fully understand what your child is going through or why they would want to spend time on their phone instead of with you, it is important to understand the unique period of history in which they are growing up. Show interest in the influencers your children care about. Ask them where the attraction started; find out why they follow those influencers and not others. Though the relationship itself may seem shallow, what it represents—a form of human connection—likely is not.

However tenuous and unreal online connections may appear, the place of influencers is increasingly central to the world in which our children are growing up. Understanding not only why that is, but how kids think about it—and encouraging a bit of critical engagement among kids themselves—is a key first step in reckoning with the implications of these new role models.

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