Many young people in the west spend most of their lives in the digital world, hooked up to a source of quick-hit dopamine. This phenomenon has been changing brains and warping expectations about success and fame. We carry the instrument that can help us achieve social notoriety around with us, in our pockets. Few young people can resist the urge to seek that fame, though only a tiny number will ever achieve it. For Gen Z, born after the year 2000, social media represents an essential part of the framework of a social life, promising to even eclipse the inherent human need for real-life companionship. But for the most mentally ill generation in recent US history, the price of online fame and status comes at a high cost.
In the early 2000s, the internet shifted from informational and peer-to-peer platforms towards a dependence on platforms built with connections between users and individual content creation in mind. In its earliest days, YouTube was dominated by short, grainy videos, while early social media apps like Myspace were used predominantly as glorified instant messaging boards, as opposed to polished tools for social curation and content marketing. Television was still king: Jerry Springer meltdowns, thong-clad MTV dancers and late-night stock market gurus abounded. But as the power to create content increasingly shifted to the user, the hours we spent on social media increased and, in the process, a new type of celebrity emerged. And as technology progressed, so did its dependence on you, the user, to provide content. The best and worst aspects of the professional media world trickled down to us. The result was the rise of influencers.
Chris Crocker’s viral 2007 video Leave Britney Alone provides a glimpse of early influencer culture. Crocker’s five-minute emotional breakdown made him an overnight sensation. Within 24 hours, the video had been watched over 2 million times, making Crocker one of the first online personalities to go viral. Following the release of the video, Crocker was interviewed on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, The Today Show and Maury, and Wired magazine named Leave Britney Alone the top online video of 2017. Crocker, who has since transitioned and now goes by the name Cara Cunningham, was one of the first to capitalize on people’s desire to watch someone cry on camera. Part performance art, Cunningham’s staged public meltdowns both entertained and resonated with followers. Now, with a million Instagram followers and a cosmetics line, Cunningham nestles comfortably within the gaping maw of the influencer economy she helped popularize. She was one of the first to prove that even if you are known for all the wrong reasons you can still leverage your fame.
Today, characters like Cunningham are ubiquitous. (Nikocado Avocado and Jeffree Star are just two examples.) Influencers, streamers, creators—whatever you call them, they have become purveyors of culture, seeking precarious footholds on today’s new, ever shifting cultural sands. But this new type of celebrity differs from pre-internet fame in one fundamental way: there is no filter—there are no constraints imposed by geography or by industry talent spotters—heatseeking missiles in white and tan suits who predict who will or won’t be the next big thing. There are only the users: technically savvy, emotionally flawed, overwhelmingly young and pulled along by algorithms that do not always serve their best interests.
Yesterday’s and Today’s Teens
Those of us who were teens in the early 2000s were both sympathetic to and entertained by the aberrant behaviour of early influencers like Cunningham. But few of us thought to shoot content for our own YouTube channels. We were consumers: playing computer games, watching music videos and going to sleep with the TV on in the background. Many of the early influencers—such as Ray William Johnson—came off as corny: gel-haired imitations of the MTV hosts they so desperately wanted to be. Television was still the dominant medium and early YouTube creators lacked the content, marketing and polish of the popular TV reality shows. In the early 2000s, the internet was still largely a public sandbox: full of short, dumb videos and stream-of-consciousness Myspace monologues. And it was easy to unplug from—especially as most millennial teens could only access the internet on a clunky desktop, which they often shared with family. Even when the original iPhone was released in 2007, it lacked the functionality, speed and versatility now associated with the brand.
In 2010, prior to the widespread adoption of mobile social media apps, only 29% of teens reported checking their social media multiple times a day. Most did so once a week or less. Now, Gen Z is always on their phones. A recent survey found that 45% of Gen Z teens say that they are online almost constantly, mostly browsing social media or YouTube. According to a 2019 report, which surveyed 1,600 8–18-year-olds, they spend an average of 7 hours a day on their phones (not including school work). According to the report, 53% of 11-year-olds have their own smartphones. By age 12, that number rises to 69%, having increased from 41% in 2015.
Though Gen Z’s adoption of new social media platforms like TikTok may seem to simply mirror millennials’ adoption of Myspace and Facebook 15 years ago, there is a huge difference between yesterday’s and today’s social media. Just look at the numbers. In less than a year, 17-year-old TikTok star Charli D’amelio amassed 24 million followers and became a multimillionaire by posting videos of herself lip synching, swaying her shoulders and sometimes dancing to popular songs. Is she a revolutionary dancer? No. She’s probably a better dancer than average but her fame isn’t based on her extraordinary dance skills. Videos of incredible dancing abound online. She is an object of infatuation, an avatar of Gen Z ideals. She provides consistent, entertaining content, it’s true, but the real reason for her popularity remains a mystery. Teen boys want her, and teen girls want to be her.
What propelled D’amelio to instant fame wasn’t her better than average dancing, attractive face and physique or consistent posting schedule: it was TikTok’s complex algorithm. Growth on social media occurs exponentially, and once a user has established a small core audience, algorithms begin to rank the profile higher and suggest it to viewers more frequently. The algorithm’s primary function is to keep users fixated on the app, so, naturally, it takes its cues from the users themselves. Early social media feeds lacked this technology. Posts dropped in chronological order, without algorithmic curation. Today, social media mirrors the best and worst impulses that the internet draws out in us: basic fantasies and insecurities surface and then propagate through our feeds. We are generally attracted to the absurd, the beautiful and the shocking—and whatever we are attracted to, we have made sure that we never miss it.
For those without an attention-grabbing look, the best bet is to brand up and create one, either through cosmetic procedures or a type of peacocking that would put Neil Strauss to shame. Identical twins Franky and Alex Venegas, for example, became instant influencers after posting a video of themselves singing an original song—“Island Boy”—in a Florida pool.
The 19-year-old rappers who call themselves the Island Boys have been fitted with gold tooth grills and sport facial tattoos and identical hairdos that resemble the structure of Covid-19. What they lack in musical talent, they make up for in spectacle. They demonstrate that with intelligent marketing (they have recently started a collection of NFTs and frequently appear on popular podcasts) one half-baked attempt at singing can give you a comfortable life. Yes, luck obviously plays a part in virality, but the Island Boys profess a typically Gen Z savvy about social media marketing “You’ve got to be unique,” says Alex, during one hour-long interview. “You’ve got to stand out.”
Most Gen Z-ers will never become instant sensations like the Venegas twins or D’amelio—but not for want of trying. Demographic breakdowns of social media platforms show that Gen Z prefers to create content, while millennials prefer to consume it. While many Gen Z-ers see creating content as simply a fun way to express oneself, many also see it as a career opportunity. In a 2019 poll of 3,000 Gen Z tweens, the most popular future profession among respondents in the UK and US was YouTuber/vlogger (at 29%). The Chinese government, by contrast, curates social media and the algorithms are skewed towards more scientific topics. Among Chinese respondents, the most popular answer was astronaut (56%).
This strong desire for notoriety seems to be a new phenomenon among young people. According to a 2010 Pew poll, only 1% of millennials longed to be famous. A recent poll has found that 78% of Gen Z teens would be willing to share personally identifiable data in pursuit of online fame. Though Gen Z is just as cognizant of cybersecurity dangers as previous generations, the lure of online popularity is strong. As social media and streaming platforms have grown, the desire for fame has increased among millennials, too. In 2015, just as mobile social media apps became popular, a study found that one in four millennials would quit their day jobs in exchange for online fame. In a 2019 survey, 7% of millennials said that fame was very important to them. But most millennials—who are aged 25–40—have jobs and children and are therefore less likely to spend time on social media or keep up with current content streaming trends.
The Effects of Being Online
Studies have shown that teenage suicide, depression and anxiety have all risen drastically since 2010—a date that directly corresponds with the proliferation of social media apps on smartphones and other devices and the introduction of content-guiding algorithms.
A 2019 correlational study of UK teens showed that rates of depression increased with every added hour of social media use throughout the day. Of those teen girls who spent more than five hours a day on social media, 40% reported feeling depressed, compared with only 15% of those who used social media for one and a half hours. Social media use has even given rise to new forms of mental illness. In 2021, psychiatrists in Germany documented a new mass sociogenic illness associated with social media use, as many teens began presenting with Tourette-like symptoms identical to those of one of the country’s most popular young YouTube stars—even though they did not suffer from Tourette’s syndrome. The authors argue:
Functional ‘Tourette-like’ symptoms … can be viewed as the twenty-first-century expression of a culture-bound stress reaction of our post-modern society emphasizing the uniqueness of individuals and valuing their alleged exceptionality, thus promoting attention-seeking behaviors and aggravating the permanent identity crisis of modern man.
Through attention-seeking behaviour, professional influencers hope to attract followers, views, sponsorship and advertising. In addition, the adoption of identity markers—such as signs of a neurological condition—can give otherwise normal teenagers a connection to an identity that may offer social clout. Many young people insulate themselves from the outside world and become active members of online communities that reward this behaviour. Those German teens who mimicked the mannerisms of a YouTube star with Tourette’s were hoping to share some of the status her condition confers—without having to experience the condition itself.
Even among those who ascend to influencer stardom, mental health problems abound. The pressure of having to sustain massive follower counts can drive many content creators to depression and burnout. “I feel social media is built to burn people out,” 21-year-old creator Zach Jelks has commented. 22-year-old TikTok creator Jack Inane confesses that “I feel like I’m tapping a keg that’s been empty for a year. I get to the point where I’m like, ‘I have to make a video today,’ and I spend the entire day dreading the process.”
The expansion of cancel culture has exacerbated these problems. Data show that Gen Z are more supportive than previous generations of cancelling people on the basis of their political opinions, even though most of them also fear being cancelled for their own statements, especially if these are misinterpreted or taken out of context.
What Can We Do?
We cannot expect today’s teens to drop their phones and delete their Instagram accounts. Social media is so commonplace in western culture that one risks becoming a social pariah if one doesn’t have an online presence. We can, however, place limits on the use of smartphones outside the home. Schools with strict no-phone policies have seen improved academic performance and less bullying. A National Institute of Health study found that negative mental health outcomes among Gen Z increase with every hour of additional screen time.
We could also expand the campaigns to educate Gen Z on the costs of prolonged social media use. However, this approach has its limitations. Excessive social media use is not widely perceived as a public health crisis. It is easy to see how smoking and drinking affect the lungs and the liver, but far more difficult to prove that social media use affects the brain or that it is the cause of depression or suicide.
If Gen Z escapes the compulsive pursuit of online fame, it will be because leaders of social media platforms and other adults have begun to take responsibility. Facebook has admitted in leaked memos that its social media platforms, including Instagram, harm young people, especially teen girls. And a bipartisan group of US attorneys is currently investigating the harmful effects that TikTok is having on teens. If we expect social media to be an omnipresent reality in the future, we must seriously examine the implications of what this means for society. The world needs mentally robust and confident young people, psychologically equipped to move society towards a better future. Will acknowledging the fame trap in which Gen Z is caught help us find the wisdom to implement reform?