Social media personalities have become some of the most profitable and influential figures in the United States. These influencers, who use various social media platforms such as YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram to create and share content about their lives, earned a collective $700m USD in 2023. According to Forbes business magazine, some of these influencers have over three hundred million followers, and many of those followers are teenagers and young adults.
While some of these individuals are conscious of their young audience and make content which is safe and enjoyable for all, others are less conscientious. TikTok star Khaby Lame recognizes that, “a lot of kids follow me, and it’s a great responsibility” , but some influencers, such as Logan and Jake Paul, who have a combined reach of 140 million followers, have come under criticism for posting shocking and graphic material on YouTube.
Regardless of the individual who is posting, there is no doubt that these influencers have a massive impact on the young people who follow them. Below, we will explore some of the ways social media influencers and influencer culture affect young viewers and outline some strategies for helping teens be critical of the content they come across on their phones, tablets, or computers.
Teens, Social Media, and Screen Time
Teenagers in the United States spend a considerable amount of their time online. In 2022, Pew Research conducted a study that asked teens how often they used different platforms. The report showed that about one in five teenagers report using YouTube and TikTok almost constantly. The report also showed a gender divide in how teens use social media: boys are more likely to use YouTube, Twitch, and Reddit, while girls are more likely to use TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat. Finally, according to this report, 95% of teenagers in the United States have access to their own smartphone.
These statistics tell us that social media, unlike older media like television or film, is now undeniably a constant part of teens’ daily lives. Because the influencers they see on social media platforms are with them constantly, it should come as no surprise that influencers have a significant impact on the way teens feel and act on a daily basis.
How Influencers Affect Teens
Studies have shown that consuming influencer content directly affects the way teenagers behave. Many teenagers report feeling as though they trust or know social media influencers personally, which makes them more likely to want to copy behaviors or model the actions they see. This can be particularly dangerous to physical or mental health, as influencers work full-time to achieve a specific and desirable body image and lifestyle that are largely unattainable to most viewers.
As a result, many teens are at risk of confusing influencer content with reality. What may seem like casual content is, in fact, exactingly and highly produced: the BBC in the U.K. reported that influencers can sometimes charge upwards of $1500 US for a single Instagram post. What’s more, many of the images posted by influencers have been professionally altered using software such as photoshop to look perfect.
According to a study in the journal Current Psychology, the way an influencer structures their interactive social media content affects the behaviors, attitudes, and choices of the teenagers in their audience. Another study revealed that teenagers reported sharing the beliefs that influencers had expressed on their social media content and that teenagers who frequently engaged with influencer content put them at risk of addiction, physical health problems, and socialization difficulties.
There are some tentative educational benefits to teenagers who watch influencers on social media, however. Particularly when the content being created is learning-oriented, teenagers reported being stimulated and having their curiosity engaged by influencers in a positive way. Findings like this demonstrate that not all influencer content is negative for teens and that distinguishing among different types of influencers with respect to their likely effects on viewers is crucial.
Media Literacy and Well-being
Media literacy is one of our most important tools as parents, friends, teachers, and counselors. Helping young people think critically about the type of influencers they encounter on their social feeds is one of the best ways to ensure that they aren’t negatively influenced by content creators. Adults who are overwhelmed by the complex landscape of social media can feel uncertain about how to have conversations about it with teens. However, you don’t need technical knowledge to help teenagers better understand and cope with the content they see on their screens.
Asking questions about what young people are watching – and genuinely listening and being interested in their answers – is one of the best ways to understand viewing habits and support our teens’ digital well-being. Questions lead to discussions, which can be a great way to coach teens through the type of critical thinking they need to build resilience against the addictive, hyper-produced content of influencers and to be more discerning about what they view.
 Forbes (2023). Forbes Top Creators 2023. https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevenbertoni/2023/09/26/top-creators-2023/?sh=817d9de4c0c2
 Vogels, E. A., Gelles-Watnick, R., & Massarat, N. (2022, August 10). Teens, Social Media and Technology 2022. Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2022/08/10/teens-social-media-and-technology-2022/
 Day, H. (2019) How we’re all being changed by influencer culture. BBC Three. https://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcthree/article/b5488f38-e9c4-4e0c-95e2-3002f47f88f8
 Lajnef, K. The effect of social media influencers’ on teenagers Behavior: an empirical study using cognitive map technique. Curr Psychol 42, 19364–19377 (2023). https://doi-org.ezproxy.uio.no/10.1007/s12144-023-04273-1
 Al-Ansi, A. M., Hazaimeh, M., Hendi, A., AL-hrinat, J., & Adwan, G. (2023). How do social media influencers change adolescents’ behavior? An evidence from Middle East Countries. Heliyon, 9(5), e15983. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.heliyon.2023.e15983