March 30, 2022
By Dr Cassie Rhodes
Last week’s Wednesday Wisdom was all about letting the light in, looking outwards and appreciating the wonders of the natural world. This week, after mulling over my recent interview with Dr Miriam Rahali, Visiting Fellow in the Department of Media and Communications and Professor Sonia Livingstone, Professor of Social Psychology at LSE, my reflections turn away from the healing attributes of nature and once again consider our digital environment.
In response to an ongoing Digital Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee inquiry into influencer culture, Dr Rahali and Professor Livingstone have produced a fascinating and extremely readable report, examining the impact of influencer culture on children. Given the impending Easter holidays, where our offspring are likely to be kicking back after a busy term and perhaps spending a little more time relaxing in front of screens, their #SponsoredAds report provides a timely nudge about the importance of building children’s digital (and specifically advertising) literacy from a very early age.
Like everyone, I already knew that YouTube was an extremely popular platform, but I was less aware of the all-encompassing scope of its influence, especially among the very young. Recent research showed that 97% of British children aged 5-15 use video-sharing platforms with 58% of children and young people spending an average of 2.5 hours a day watching their favourite vloggers play games, unbox toys, review products or go about their daily routine.
Even within the UK, the top ten British ‘kidfluencers’ have an incredible 57,824,000 subscribers and have accumulated more than 19.18 billion video views between them. Worldwide, Ryan Kaji (of Ryan’s World) is currently the most popular and highly paid child influencer, with 30 million subscribers to his YouTube channel. In 2020 alone, he earned nearly $30 million for reviewing branded toys and products. He’s currently only 10 years old.
These are mind-boggling numbers, and they mean big business! These days, any company striving to have a top-selling toy will promote it on social media and video-sharing platforms. In a change to the strategies of only a few years ago, toy manufacturers now allocate most of their marketing budget to influencers, not TV channels.
Dr Rahali and Professor Livingstone note that 97% of videos aimed at children under the age of eight feature adverts. Alongside the traditional adverts which appear automatically before videos start, more insidious non-traditional techniques are used. Much of the marketing that children are exposed to is not explicit or obvious like the ad break on TV. Instead, adverts are often cleverly embedded into video content, presented conversationally by influencers who children tend to view as authentic, honest, friendly and relatable. In fact, 45% of videos on YouTube feature or promote products for children to buy.
So, does it really matter? We all saw adverts when we were little didn’t we, on billboards, on the TV or at the cinema? I certainly remember asking Father Christmas for the next big toy because I watched the adverts sandwiched between my favourite Saturday morning TV programmes.
Well, we’ve probably all heard of the much-watched ‘unboxing’ trend, where child influencers open branded toys, play with them and comment on their experiences (Ryan’s World is one example). Research shows that a significant proportion of these videos, many of which don’t clearly state any commercial arrangement, promote a materialistic lifestyle which may negatively influence children’s ideas about play or the ownership of goods.
Children often feel strongly attached to their favoured YouTubers, and frequently develop what psychologists term a ‘parasocial relationship’ with them. It’s not uncommon for children to think that they have a genuine and empathetic friendship with these on-screen personas, strengthened by their fun and engaging presentation style and the ability to interact through likes and comments.
Feeling strong emotions towards a character or famous person is not new, and nor is it damaging in and of itself. But, in the relatively unregulated world of influencers, the potential for commercial distortion or exploitation is high (for both the kidfluencer and their followers), leaving children even more vulnerable to the persuasive effects of advertising. Executive functions, such as impulse control and self-regulation, take many years to develop. Without our help, children of this tender age are unlikely to have the critical thinking skills required to differentiate between entertainment and advertising, especially when the boundaries are so blurred.
The current government inquiry into influencer culture will consider the absence of regulation on the promotion of products and services in this new and developing marketplace. As Dr Rahali and Professor Livingstone note, there is certainly much to be done in terms of strengthening policy, making algorithms more transparent and ensuring that adverts are properly and explicitly labelled. But in the meantime, what can we do at home or school?
Thankfully, they have some simple suggestions. Firstly, let’s remember that kidfluencers aren’t all bad guys and not all influencer culture has a negative impact. In fact, some influencer content is known to benefit our children by imparting useful and important information, particularly in the areas of health and help-seeking!
Secondly, we should endeavour to monitor young children’s screen use and reduce their contact with advertising where possible, by checking what they are watching or watching some videos together.
If they have a favourite influencer, talk about them with your child. What do they like about them? How do they feel after watching them? What words or images do they use that make them feel really interested and engaged? Why do they want to watch them in another video? Gently explain that producing these videos is the influencer’s job and that they are making money by promoting products. Watch videos together and explore where products are being mentioned. Why might they unwrap certain toys? Why might they play certain games or make in-app purchases on their videos? Turn it into a game of ‘spot the advert’! One of the most beneficial things that we can do is to sensitise children to these embedded messages and help them to become critical consumers.
Another great tip, particularly with older children, is to explore the power of algorithms on our viewing choices. Having a family audit of the content that YouTube recommends to each of you and assessing how it differs from person to person can be an enlightening exercise.
Ensuring that children always have a high quality and enriching experience online is almost impossible. However, as parents and educators, it’s our job to attune to their digital worlds, strengthen their thinking skills and encourage them to be discerning about what they see and read.
Please note: this is the last Wednesday Wisdom until after the Easter holidays. Enjoy some R&R!
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Dr Miriam Rahali and Professor Sonia Livingstone are our current Researchers of the Month. You can find out more about their work here or listen to our podcast interview. If you’d like to be inspired with some conversation starters to kickstart these important conversations about digital literacy, check out our Internet Safety prompts, which are aimed more at younger children, or browse through 50 Questions to Ask Teens about their Digital Diet. We’d also recommend establishing some digital ground rules for the whole family – take a look at our Family Digital Values template for guidance.
If you want to decide to audit your digital habits, or anything else in family life, why not use our Family Audit Template and tips to help? Younger children might enjoy filling out our family life reflections activity.