Colman Noctor: Protecting children from the influence of the influencer

Some 84% of pre-teens in Ireland use at least one social media or messaging service such as Snapchat or TikTok
Colman Noctor: Protecting children from the influence of the influencer

'We must address the trend toward passive viewing habits among young people, and we need to bolster their ability to critique and regulate their own usage.' Picture: iStock 

'Dad, did you know a banana is a berry?' This was one of the more recent facts my seven-year-old shared with me recently. He often shares these random pieces of information picked up from YouTube Kids. While it turns out a banana by definition is indeed a berry, there have been some other 'facts' he has shared that are more dubious. However, because of his age, his capacity to critique this information is limited. He takes most things he hears as gospel, especially from his 12-year-old brother, who told him there were great white sharks off the coast in Wexford when we visited a few weeks ago.

While I'm usually on hand to correct any 'fake news' he may hear from his siblings, it's not as straightforward when the source is online. The purpose of online influencers is to 'influence' the viewer's opinions, values, and ultimately their choices. While most influencers promote specific products and have a monetisation purpose, others have a social-justice focus and want to shape the lens with which viewers see the world, especially significant when considering the role influencers play in children's lives. As children and teenagers have limited life experience, it is reasonable to assume they might be somewhat naïve, impressionable, and easily manipulated.

As parents, we try to protect our children from nefarious influences and hope our example will help to form their values, beliefs, and morality. I constantly encourage my children to be respectful, polite, authentic, and trustworthy. But as children get older, the influence of their peers, teachers, and media will also have a role in shaping their choices and beliefs.

Protecting children from negative influences was more manageable in the past. But the advent of online technologies has made this task significantly more difficult as parents have no control over the messages or beliefs influencers promote.

Changing patterns in online behaviour 

Not all influences threaten the value systems parents promote, and there are many examples of online influencers delivering well-intended messaging around sustainability, climate change and animal welfare. However, there is always the risk our children will be exposed to influences that may not be well intended.

TikTok is now the platform most used by young people, followed by Snapchat. 

Though the minimum age restriction for both platforms is  13 years old, according to a 2021 CyberSafeKids report, 84% of pre-teens in Ireland use at least one social media or messaging service such as Snapchat or TikTok

A large British research study titled 'Children's Media Lives 2022' has been monitoring a group of young people aged eight to 18 since 2014, and has observed changing patterns in their online behaviours. The young people in the study reported consuming more commercialised content from influencers trying to monetise their following while posting less themselves. This shift is reflected in children's aspirations to be online brand ambassadors, network marketers or crypto-entrepreneurs rather than being famous online for the sake of it.

One of the study's most concerning findings is that young people are seeking to avoid choosing what they watch, and instead are happy to be served a narrow range of content by the platforms they are using. Most reported they preferred the decision-free conveyor belt of short videos on TikTok, saying, "YouTube is too long"  and requires too much decision-making. Some children reported struggling to pay attention to longer-form content or focus on a single activity. With the use of multi-screens on the rise, concentration levels will likely slip even further. 

Growing influence of algorithms 

If young people are happy to consume whatever the platform decides is optimal for them, it suggests their critique of online information is decreasing, leaving them open to even greater influence via algorithms. 

Most algorithm builders are not asked to consider their ethical responsibility. When a 13-year-old child searches for content around topics like 'self-harm' and 'suicide', the algorithm will not consider anything other than that user wants to view content of this nature and proceed to supply the related links. 

Misogyny

An example of the power of algorithms is in the case of Andrew Tate, a former kickboxer and Big Brother contestant. He has gone from relative obscurity to global fame in recent months. Similar to Hunter Moore, the main character in the recent Netflix series The Most Hated Man On The Internet, Tate's posts include extreme misogyny. There are grave concerns his influence may be radicalising men and boys. Tate is not a fringe celebrity lurking in the obscure corners of the dark web, rather he is one of the most popular figures on TikTok, with his videos watched over 11bn times.

Styled as a self-help guru, in July 2022 Tate's name had more Google searches than Donald Trump or Kim Kardashian. This rapid surge to fame was not by chance, as it appears his followers are flooding social media with videos of him, choosing the most controversial clips to achieve maximum views and engagement. Tate's rise to fame shows how social media algorithms can be open to manipulation.

A TikTok spokesperson told The Observer, which investigated Tate's posts, that users can click "not interested" on videos they dislike to hide future material from that particular account. This position puts an onus on the user to decide whether the content is good for them or not. As self-regulation is a skill only developed in adulthood, it's an unfair expectation of children.

We must address the trend toward passive viewing habits among young people, and we need to bolster their ability to critique and regulate their own usage. We're living in an era where parental supervision of online content is virtually impossible, and the responsibility of platforms to regulate has been passed onto the user. Given the potential negative impact of online echo chambers, it's time we recognise the impact of traffic-boosting algorithms and invest in robust media literacy programmes to teach children how to be critical consumers of online content and protect them from the influence of the influencer.

Dr Colman Noctor is a child psychotherapist

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