I heard an interesting comment from a young person to an adult the other day.
The adult had congratulated them (and indirectly themselves) on doing a great job: “We’ve obviously raised you well!”
The young person’s reply: “You didn’t raise us, social media did!”
And that’s true, in a sense. Up to around the age of 12, the parent or carer is the main influence in their lives, from then on, in a lot of cases, we start to lose our grip, it’s peers and media that start to take the wheel.
The rise of Social Media ‘influencers’ – a term, personally, I can’t stand, now holds sway. These are the people who tell you what you should wear, eat, look like, buy and visit just so you can keep up with all the other people who are being told what to wear, eat, look like, buy and visit…
I began to see this more and more in class during my time in teaching.
“What do you want to do with your lives when you leave education?” I would ask my students.
“Be on Love Island.” (Worrying when you realise I was teaching Primary…)
You can see where we’re going here…
What Social Media has told us is that you can set up your own YouTube channel and people will sit and watch you play video games online; you get sponsored by large corporations and make money from it. A lot of money.
It has told us that you can start your own beauty tips channel and become a Social Media Influencer and that Estee Lauder will send you products to try out (and advertise for free) online.
What it’s told us is that a 7-year-old can make $22 million, opening boxes and reviewing toys online and make the Forbes rich list. (If you haven’t seen the viral sensation of ‘unboxing’ then you’re in for a treat).
What is hasn’t told us is that it’s incredibly difficult to do; that it takes hours and hours and hours of preparation and research and trial and error and time and money and luck and that millions of people have tried the same thing over the years and failed or simply just given up.
There are currently around 23 million YouTube channels available.
Of those 23 million, around 8000 channels have more than 1 million subscribers – most of these took years to amass this number of subscribers.
Of those 8000, around 200 of these channels have more than 10 million subscribers.
Most of these are run by groups or large corporations such as India’s T-Series (a music record label and film production company with 109 million subscribers), SET India (Sony Entertainment India with 53 million), Worldwide Wrestling Entertainment (47 million) and so on…
These are not channels solely devoted to Chloe straightening her hair or Charlie doing keepy-uppies in the local park – these are generally, well-produced, finely-polished channels that use expensive equipment to create a slick viewing experience. Imagine your iPhone’s holiday videos going up against a BBC travel documentary.
The most subscribed channel run by just one guy is the [absolutely dreadful] Felix Kjellberg – known to your kids as PewDiePie – a video gamer influencer, currently sitting at 99 million subscribers. He reportedly earns around $3,400 an hour and this is the kind of content he excels in: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kEGaLDmQD8M
Of note, recently, both Disney and YouTube stopped sponsoring his channel due to his use of racist language, Nazi imagery and anti-Semitic jokes. Nice…
This guy is pretty much the burning beacon for why our children want to drop what we might term ‘real goals’ and record themselves playing video games all day – PewDePie has shown it can be done, in the same way that Ronaldo has shown that you can become a professional footballer. If we look at the estimated 39 million children who play football worldwide – how many will go on to earn £365,000 a week? There’s no doubting PewDePie has done well – he has excelled in his field and made a LOT of money from it. He is an icon and a brand name within the internet community, like him or not.
Of course, PewDePie is just one of many YouTubers or Social Media ‘Celebrities’ your children are watching, being influenced by and aspiring to be.
“I could do that – easily,” our children may say. “I could easily get a million subscribers.”
I currently have 9 subscribers. It hasn’t changed since 2008. One of them is my Mum.
These arguments are (from our perspective) largely hypothetical – for our kids, it is not. My son and I were often butting heads over his dreams of competing at X-Games or becoming one of the top ten motocross riders on the planet (especially, when he’d never even sat on a motorbike before!) My argument was that at the age of 18, he had completely missed the boat and was 10-15 years behind his would-be competitors – his argument was that I wasn’t supporting him in his dream of touring the world with Nitro Circus. He’d been fed the dream by watching Social Media and shown that any kid from the backwaters of Louisiana could one day compete on an international stage – what he hadn’t recognised was that neither of us owned motorbikes, we had no idea how to build, repair, maintain or even ride a bike, we didn’t know any motocross riders and there was no bottomless pit of money to build a garage and start touring the world doing incredible stunts (that we also didn’t know how to do). It was just me being an appalling Father for not supporting him.
It’s a difficult conversation to have. A conversation where we tend to react rather than respond.
Much like the YouTubers, competitive video gaming or electronic sports (eSports) has its own superstars and the prize money is huge.
eSports Competitor ‘N0tail’, otherwise known as Johan Sundstein from Norway, has so far amassed $6,889,591.79 by winning video game tournaments. That’s a lot of button mashing.
American teenager, Kyle Giersdorf, made the news in July after winning $3 million taking the top prize in a tournament for the popular online video game Fortnite (a game all your children will be familiar with).
My son, now at the age of 21, is STILL resentful that I stopped him playing video games in order to study – his argument is that he could have been a world champion. (There’s no way. I’m 48 and even I battled him to a draw on Call of Duty last week – this is not the stuff of world champions).
Alongside children wanting to be YouTubers are the children who want to play video games for a living. As responsible adults we can see the restrictions in this – our children cannot.
The Psychology Behind What’s Going On?
Most of us, adults and children alike, at some point, suffer from something called the, The Dunning Kruger Effect; it’s what makes programmes like Pop Idol, X-Factor, Britain’s Got Talent and The Apprentice, popular and so uncomfortably cringe-worthy to watch. It’s partly the innate belief that we are far better than we actually are and supported by the people around us that feed that fallacy. We often can’t imagine that the more diverse, wider-world audience is more sophisticated than our own family and friends.
You may be the best Karaoke singer in your local but up against the rest of the UK, or the world?
Not so much.
It is the same for our children – they enjoy success within their group of friends – they come top in a Fortnite Battle Royale, are they ready to travel to Las Vegas and compete for a world title? Should they ditch school at 13 and spend 18 hours a day hunched over a controller ‘training’ for the million-dollar prize?
I would suggest not – but try explaining that to them.
Someone has to win it, is often the argument and they are right, someone does have to – in the same way that someone has to win the Lotto Rollover next weekend.
What we do know is that the more you know, the less you know. There is a reason Professors don’t get into slanging matches, on MumsNet, about climate change and the environment.
The less you understand about a subject, the less you believe there is to know about that subject.
It’s only when you have a really good understanding of a subject do you actually realise how much more there is to understand within it and how much you just don’t know.
Compare you child’s knowledge of the solar system, after a 6-week science module, compared to Stephen Hawking’s. Ten-year-old Jack will tell you that Jupiter is the largest planet in the solar system and that Pluto is now considered a dwarf planet – Stephen Hawking would have told you that compared to what he thinks there are still vast amounts of data he has no clue about.
What We Could Do Differently
We live in an age where media shows our children that they can do whatever they want, that anything is achievable – as parents many of us are guilty of telling our children you can be whatever you want to be, do whatever you want to do, be whomever you want to be, the sky is the limit.
Mum said I’m the best – so I must be!
Positive reinforcement and encouragement in a child’s life is absolutely vital… right up until the point where they don’t quite make that grade, they stumble at the first hurdle, can’t afford to compete or simply aren’t good enough to get picked for the team. When they are completely unprepared for failure and when they utterly don’t expect it, everything comes crashing down and we are to blame. We, as parents, families, friends and the media have told and shown our kids that they can do everything, anything. If that’s the case, why aren’t we all astronauts, Oscar winners and Doctors? We paint a veneer over things – we gloss over them and give a false representation to make everyone feel better, in the same way we filter our photos.
Preparing our children for failure is how we start to develop resilience. If you’ve never been allowed to fail how do you recognise your capability to bounce back?
During my time in the military, in the classroom and now working with children and young people in psychology I noticed one of the biggest traits that caused people to stumble, fall and then struggle to get back up again was a lack of resilience and self-belief.
I cannot count the amount of times I had to stop a PE lesson because someone had stormed off because they had lost. I remember one such altercation during a cricket game we played during PE where one child had thrown the bat in temper and stormed off in tears.
“It’s not fair – he was trying to bowl me out!”
“Of course he was,” I said. “That’s the nature of the game. If you’re taking a penalty in a game of football, would you miss on purpose to make sure the other team didn’t feel bad?”
“It’s not fair, though…”
“You got 20 out of 20 in your spellings today didn’t you…”
“Why didn’t you get 5 out or 20?”
“Because I was trying my best.”
“And trying your best is what it’s all about – he tried his best and he bowled you out. When you’re back in bat again, you can try your hardest to score a six. How does that sound?”
Learning to accept failure and recognising how we can come back from that setback is one of the most important lessons we can teach our kids. We experience negative emotions when we fail – frustration, anger, disappointment, sadness, anxiety – but when children are protected from these feelings they are unable to gain mastery over these challenges and worse yet, they feel powerless to cope.
A large proportion of my work on behavioural difficulties centres on a child’s inability to cope with things not going their way – a lack of resilience and being able to accept defeat and failure.
A psychological assessment of a 10-year-old child, some time ago, surrounded his aggression and continued destruction of household property which was understandably causing his Mum and younger sister considerable distress. The focus for this aggression was losing or ‘being killed’ in a video game, his inability to cope with failure bled into school where he would argue and fight with other children who didn’t share his perspective. In one instance, he harboured a grudge against one boy over the school holidays who had been ‘unfairly sniping him’ from hidden locations in a game using a long-range weapon – of note, this technique, known as ‘camping’ is entirely legal, although generally frowned upon, within the gaming community. The resentment boiled over and by the first break on the first day back at school, the ‘sniper’ had been punched and kicked in the playground. His Mum had been reluctant to curtail his gaming habits because he was convinced that he would one day become a gaming influencer on YouTube and he had to ‘practise’ so he could buy a mansion – just like PewDiePie’s.
Perhaps more worryingly, his video gaming ‘practise’ was now so full-on that he wasn’t even leaving the couch to go to the toilet.
This is not an isolated case – our children are routinely focusing on unrealistic targets framed as the norm by social media and are failing by miles to meet them. Their inability to cope with failure to reach unobtainable targets is wrecking their self-esteem and ravaging their mental health and social media continues says to them, why are you not at this level? Why are you not good enough? We are better than you.
Why aren’t you a Professor of Anthropology or an Astrophysicist?
You should be ashamed of yourself.
Mark ‘Howie’ Howard
Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner for Children & Young People