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  • Writer's pictureCyberlite

Influencer Culture: Helping Kids Become Savvy Consumers

"Oh, it's an #ad

With those four simple words, social media influencers are required to disclose any sponsored content or product promotions. But this little disclaimer is nowhere near enough to truly signal to young audiences when they are being advertised to. In the increasingly blurred world of influencer marketing, we need to teach kids and teens to develop a critical eye.

The influencer economy has exploded into a $15 billion dollar industry that has disrupted traditional celebrity and advertising as we know it. Social media stars have cultivated highly engaged audiences of devoted followers who look to them as trendsetters and lifestyle gurus. Kids often feel a strong parasocial connection and urge to emulate these aspirational online personalities.

This sense of authentic relatability and trust is then monetized through sponsorships, brand deals, affiliations, and other subtle "baked-in" advertising woven throughout an influencer's content. While regulations try to enforce disclosure, the Federal Trade Commission in the US has warned many influencers routinely fail to properly disclose paid promotions.

Even when they do use #ad hashtags, preteens have a very hard time reliably identifying influencer marketing as such. They often feel misled or betrayed when realizing an authentic online persona was fundamentally cultivated as an advertising vehicle all along. This erosion of trust and blurred lines are concerning as young people shape their identities, values, purchasing habits and more through social media.

Here are some ways parents and educators can promote digital media literacy and the understanding of influencer culture: 

  • Explain that influencers are paid money or given free products/services to promote brands and lifestyle experiences through relatable storytelling and sharing highlights. What seems authentic is actually incentivized.

  • Point out disclosure hashtags, overly promotional captions/comments, and other telltale signs that a post is really an advertisement. Watch for quid pro quo situations where freebies or coding discounts clearly entail promotion obligations.

  • Critique common monetization tactics like constant brand shout-outs, link sharing, sponsored travel experiences, and more. Discuss why someone would agree to partnerships that so heavily commercialize their personal life.

  • Remind kids that video production quality and showing off aspirational lifestyles doesn't inherently equal authenticity. Famous influencers curate meticulously for their income stream.

  • Urge them to consider with skepticism influencer advice, reviews, endorsements and more that could be biased or misrepresented based on backdoor financial motivations.

  • Develop broader media literacy skills to identify misinformation, unhealthy messaging about body image/wealth/etc., and better understand marketing psychology tactics like creating FOMO or urgency.

  • For older teens interested in becoming influencers themselves, have frank discussions about moral and ethical quandaries involved with building personal brands around advertising and undisclosed promotion.

With greater education and understanding, kids can find value in positive influencers worth following for entertainment or aligned interests. But they'll also develop a more critical lens to see through the inherent commercialism and inauthenticity of other creators and protectively manage their media consumption. In the cloudy world of influencer culture, savvy navigation is key.


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