Recently, I was seated next to a toddler on the New York City subway, and quickly realized she was reenacting a makeup tutorial video from YouTube.
As she gazed at her reflection in the dark glass of the train window, her influencer impression was spot-on. She even started her routine with "Hey, guys" – the opening line of pretty much any social media star’s videos.
Then, she applied make-believe moisturizer, primer, and brightener to her face — the girl seemed to know more than me about makeup application — and exclaimed, "Thanks, guys. Don’t forget to like and subscribe."
First, I thought it was cute. Then I got a sinking feeling as I remembered a story a friend told me about her son, not yet five years old, who also mimics social media stars and signs off on his imaginary videos with the same phrase, "Don’t forget to like and subscribe."
My own preschooler son has seen his share of unboxing and slime-making videos, and their intensely strong power over him has been noted. He not only yearns for the actual thing featured in the video, but also fantasizes about having his own video series in which he opens endless boxes of toys. Who could blame him?
I sense a trend. Generation Alpha, defined as children born after 2010 or 2011, depending on the source, is being introduced to influencers practically out of the womb and idolizing them before they even hit kindergarten. Not only do kids want what influencers have, they also want to be the influencers — and that can be good or bad, depending on who they’re following.
The pros: Many influencers are entrepreneurial, creative, confident, and tech-savvy. But others are shallow, care a little too much what others think, or are totally unhinged.
The reassuring thing is Generation Alpha’s millennial parents have control over the kinds of influencers their kids are watching, or if they are watching them at all. Influencer marketing tends to make its way to young children in two ways: parents giving their children access to YouTube on a smartphone or tablet, or children being exposed to their parents’ own influencer-viewing habits.
Kids used to look up to movie stars, athletes, and cartoon characters, but at least those kinds of celebrities were packaged in heavily edited and polished video footage. The new idols, social media stars, are, for the most part, more raw and uncensored, meaning Generation Alpha will grow up craving real talk from celebrities and seeing through BS.
Diana Bradley is associate news editor at PRWeek.