The rise of the 'kidfluencer': how online fame impacts children's mental health

More children are achieving fame and fortune online, but experts say parents need to question the future impact of this

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JUNE 05: Ethan Dolan and Grayson Dolan attend the 2019 Fragrance Foundation Awards at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center on June 05, 2019 in New York City.   Sean Zanni/Getty Images for The Fragrance Foundation/AFP
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In early October, Ethan and Grayson Dolan, better known as the Dolan Twins, announced they were taking a break from YouTube. Their decision made global news. Why? When they were 14 the brothers started posting on Vine, a popular short-form video hosting service, and in the six years since they have amassed more than 10.5 million followers across various platforms and earn millions of dollars a year.

The break, the pair explained in a video, was due to their father's death and a need to focus on their own mental health, away from the limelight.

The Dolan Twins aren't alone in their struggles. Former teenage influencer and now global power­house Alexis Ren shot to fame when she was 15. Now 22, Ren has opened up about her mental health struggles, her disordered eating and the pressure she felt to over-exercise.

This is nothing new. Traditional child stars such as Macaulay Culkin and Lindsay Lohan, for example, who each achieved unfathomable fame in an age before social media, demonstrated how difficult it could be to manage the unique mental and emotional challenges that come with being a young celebrity. The Dolan Twins and Ren, however, are proving that while the problems are no different in 2019, the discussion needs to change. Quickly.

"Childhood and adolescence is a time when kids are forming their identity and their sense of self," explains Dr Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist and managing director of LightHouse Arabia. "If a child has only an online persona, they'll have a very weak understanding of themselves."

Social media teaches children to present a version of themselves that will be liked by others and receive attention. "Rather than asking 'what do I like?' they ask 'what will people like?' and that's the self-image they will create," Afridi says. "This creates an individual who has a perfectly built-up persona and exterior image, but knows nothing about what they actually want or believe in themselves."

This can impact a child's emotional and mental health, relationships and overall life decisions. "If you don't know who you are and you don't know your values, you don't have any internal reference point for making decisions," she says.

Family Fizz don't only have one child star, they have three (aged 1, 8 and 14), as well as mum Georgie and dad Darren. With a positive, upbeat focus, the bubbly family, who live in the UAE, have amassed 541,000 followers on Instagram and 2.2 million subscribers on YouTube. Along the way, creating a healthy environment for their "kidfluencers" has been critical, says Darren.

“We want our children to have a happy, healthy and stable home environment, which we didn’t have growing up, but at the same time we have to keep things grounded,” he adds.

This involves using social media time to artistically build their own content instead of simply looking at what other people and brands put up, while encouraging the children to limit how much time they spend online. 

He compares their use of social media to modern conveniences – done in excess, it can be unhealthy. So it's about proactively avoiding overuse. "We also eat plant-based foods, balance work and social life, have daily physical exercise, get outside for sunshine and consume positive media."

Children today are going to go online, says Darren, so "they might as well have fun and secure their futures in the process".

Sandra Sahi, 20, a singer in the UAE who started at the age of 16, couldn't agree more. She ­strongly encourages nascent talent to share content on YouTube and Instagram, but her success, which includes amassing more than one million followers across both platforms, came with challenges. In particular, she says she struggled to balance "being a normal student and teenager with being an artist under the eyes of the media".

She learnt that balance comes from a combination of time management and surrounding herself with good people – specifically those who were there for her before she found fame. "It takes only one or two people to surround yourself with good, healthy vibes," she says.

Despite any personal sacrifices she has made to pursue her dream career, however, Sahi says she still believes becoming a star at a young age can be incredibly powerful. "It could help you grow into what you dream to be," she says. "My goal hasn't changed, it's only grown bigger. Now that I am where I am, I get to finally take my dream seriously and share it with everyone."

Gehna Advani is a Dubai beauty YouTuber who started when she was 17. She now has more than 100,000 subscribers but admits she encountered several obstacles while growing up in the spotlight of the digital sphere. "People start judging you very quickly and they start expecting you to cover them on your page," she says. "Sometimes even my close friends, so it's very difficult to tell them 'no'."

Advani says she found it hard to handle the pressure at first, but now she knows to speak regularly to her parents and close friends, all in an effort to find balance and strength. She also regularly goes to the gym and practises yoga. "Now it's been three years and I've gotten used to it," she says. "Also I really enjoy what I'm doing."

Her career has, after all, given her exciting opportunities, including meeting Iraqi-­American beauty mogul Huda Kattan and partnering with known brands – all steps towards building an empire before she turns 20. 

The children should be engaging in social activities offline. This is especially important if the majority of the day is focused on themselves

There are countless examples of people across the world who became famous at an even younger age. Last year, the highest-­paid YouTube star was a 7-year-old boy called Ryan. But for children and teenagers looking to make it online, Afridi says it's critical that their entire family take social media breaks. "The children should be engaging in social activities [in the offline space]," she says. "This is especially important if the majority of the day is focused on themselves."

She also advises spending time with loved ones without their phones, engaging in therapy and keeping a journal. "This helps keep them connected to their internal voice and reflect on their daily actions."

Advani says her family helps her stay balanced and that seeing how they respond helps put things into perspective. "Also stay engaged in yoga and meditation and do what makes your mind and soul happy."

Potential social media stars should also remember to always look forward to their next project or simply a new sunrise, she advises. "Keep in mind that tomorrow will be better than today. Learn to keep your hope alive."