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Millions of followers come with a new level of responsibility

A hand holds a phone with TikTok open. How much influence do influencers actually have? // Courtesy of Aaron Weiss via Unsplash

By Natalie Vinh

Move over A-listers, social media influencers are the new kids on the block.

With the rise of platforms such as TikTok and Instagram, a whole host of opportunities for stardom has emerged. A global audience is right under our fingertips, allowing creators to share their talents, opinions and ideas.

But what happens when one person develops an audience who will blindly follow their every move?

As TikTok has gained popularity, we’ve seen the emergence of young influencers, many of whom are under the age of 18. A prime example is Charli D’Amelio, a 16-year-old star who recently surpassed 100 million followers for her TikTok dance videos. 

The young age of influencers results in a myriad of problems, one being the safety of minors on the internet. Around 30% of TikTok users are under the age of 18, and to make matters worse, there are no security measures in place to keep convicted sex offenders off the app. 

Yet, the danger of unmitigated internet access is not the only problem with young influencers and audiences. According to the University of Rochester Medical Center, the rational parts of our brains are not fully developed until the age of 25.

The American Academy of Children and Adolescent Psychiatry reports that teenagers are less likely to consider the consequences of their actions or think things through before acting.

Teenagers may not be the most rational people on the planet, but what does this have to do with being an influencer?

One main issue is the rise of social media challenges, often shared by popular creators with a large following.

Between 2010 and 2013, the infamous “Cinnamon Challenge” was at its height, which required participants to ingest a spoonful of cinnamon, often leading to choking.

Last year, experts from Cook Children’s Health Care System reported a handful of patients who overdosed on Benadryl after viewing a TikTok video promising the pills would result in a high.  While this may not seem like a large number, there’s no way of telling how many people saw the original video or participated in the challenge without being admitted to the hospital. 

And of course, we can’t forget the notorious “Tide Pod Challenge” of 2018, in which teenagers participated in the trend by biting down on the laundry pods and subsequently ingesting the contents. According to poison control centers across the United States, the rate of calls regarding the ingestion of Tide pods in teenagers and adults grew substantially between 2015 and 2017.

If dangerous internet challenges like these have been around for years, why should we now be concerned?

The presence of these types of internet challenges has always been a problem, but as more and more teenagers rise to fame, they tend to attract younger audiences. A 16-year-old dancer like D’Amelio is far more likely to amass a following of similar individuals than a 30-year-old fashion blogger.

From what we know about the teenage brain, a younger audience is incredibly impressionable and not always rational. They’re more likely to blindly follow a trend or challenge proposed by their favorite influencer, regardless of the safety behind it.

So, what’s the solution?

TikTok has begun implementing safety measures for users under the age of 18, like the decision to make all accounts of users under the age of 16 private. But there’s not much the platform can do regarding the challenges users choose to partake in.

Therefore, it’s up to the parents to monitor their children’s internet access and start conversations about the dangers of following online challenges.

After all, just because someone is an influencer doesn’t mean they’re a good influence.

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