SINGAPORE: Parents all over the world are gawking at Ryan, the highest-paid YouTube sensation and star of Ryan ToysReview, and the seven-figure mother lode he hauled in last year. If you have a cute and precocious primary schooler under your wing, news like this might make you go:
Darn, why didn’t I think of that first?
It seems so simple – buy the latest toy, unbox it, and film your child going gaga over it. (Adult theatrics are completely optional.)
Did you know that unboxing videos are a genre of its own? It’s as if watching someone unwrap a box and remove a product from its box allows us to live vicariously in that moment.
Some commentators say that such videos ride on consumer aspirations, pandering to our insatiable appetite for objects of desire.
The money and fame are enticing, but how realistic is it to expect our kids to become instant online celebrities?
Beneath the facade of well-polished videos, what is lost when our kids focus on capturing content for others rather than living in the moment?
And what happens when a young star does everything for the sake of an audience and his popularity?
THE WORLD THROUGH A CAMERA LENS
A friend of mine recently went on a holiday with some friends. In the group were two young YouTubers who basically did a running commentary on their phones everywhere they went.
Everything on the trip – from scenery to people to food – were seen and experienced through the camera lens.
Like adult influencers, these kids aspire to be rich and famous by racking up popularity on YouTube and other social media channels.
Some even unabashedly tell their parents not to worry about retirement as they will earn enough through their trade to support them.
We don’t wish to be a wet blanket and douse their dreams of online fame, but how do we inject a healthy dose of realism when faced with such sentiments?
BEWARE THE PITFALLS
Apart from your child possibly getting starry-eyed or having hands glued permanently to their devices, what else can you expect if your child is an aspiring YouTuber?
Some kids get carried away by the winds of popularity and cannot stop themselves from asking random strangers to follow their channel.
Others may find it hard to manage the digital distractions coming from fans or viewers leaving comments and asking questions online.
As self-control and other executive function skills are still developing in a young child, it is also easy to swept up in the dynamics of social media and get carried away with the hustle and bustle of wanting to create more YouTube videos.
It’s not merely brainstorming ideas and seeing them to fruition; one has to work hard at figuring out how best to connect with others online, and what makes them stand out from the millions of others.
Your child will have to work doubly hard to keep up with their studies and homework, in order to maintain such a time-consuming endeavour.
One may argue that it is just another hobby, no less legitimate than more traditional hobbies like music, sport or art.
However, where it differs is in the medium.
Because this hobby entails interacting with others online, it may leave little room for face time and socialising with peers, if left unchecked.
Common sense will also tell us that we cannot let kids loose with a phone and YouTube channel without supervision. They may chance upon unwholesome content, leading on to other addictive behaviours, or get obsessed with one too many Internet celebrities.
This is the reality of the digital world. Perhaps in posting, we try to satisfy our yearning for attention and recognition of our unique individuality, yet have become more vulnerable and exposed in the process. Having our kids plunge into it requires us to have a full appreciation of and know how to manage its effects.
Granted, there are many lessons to be learnt in this new digital art form of making videos and constructing other online content to express ourselves.
Young people can exercise creativity when thinking about what they want to say and what they wish to be known for, and build discipline in planning and publishing regularly.
They might also learn how to communicate, build self-awareness and get in touch with their emotions. If they come to see it as a way of personal journaling, their foray into YouTube might help them build authenticity and define themselves better.
But parents beware, striking a balance requires close parental guidance.
A friend of mine wholeheartedly supports her son in his newfound interest in making cooking videos. He recently started his own YouTube channel and plans to create and upload three videos a month.
He researches, plans and directs his videos, while his mother helps him film them and gives feedback along the way. She also ensures that he doesn’t divulge private information in any of his videos.
As long as there is a responsible adult around to guide the kids, it can be a great opportunity to learn not just the technical aspects of creating videos, but also other issues such as privacy, time management.
I see that he is serious about this because he spends time researching recipes as well as how to film and edit.
Another friend lets her children watch Nas Daily videos to get an idea of what high quality, well-thought-out videos look like.
FOCUS ON THE PROCESS AND PASSION
There is definitely value in kids getting their feet wet in communicating with the world and creating their own unique digital footprint, but the process is what we need to be mindful of.
Even as we want to support our child’s interests, we need to take the time to educate and guide their decisions first.
We also need to prepare them mentally for any negative comments that might come their way. They should also know that once their content is published, it is really not possible to take it back, so they must consider sensitivities viewers might have.
As with any kind of art, putting our work out for the world to see takes courage. It also takes careful planning, thought, and precision.
Apart from supervising our children in producing content, we can also get them to be keen observers of their surroundings.
For example when on holiday, instead of overdosing on selfies and videos, we can stipulate gadget-free periods to help them experience the destination in a more intimate way.
Challenge them to think not merely about what would make their videos stand out, but also what adds value to their peers' lives, and how they can contribute.
7-year-old Ryan may be raking in millions by producing entertaining videos, but your 10-year-old could gain much life experience by placing his passion online.
Just set yours and their expectations right, and establish boundaries as to what is suitable for the public eye.
Set their minds not just on fame (and money), but on their passion. If we focus on the latter, opportunities will typically follow, while focusing on the former can cause us to lose our direction.
As they grow in the limelight, may the journey bring them to a deeper place of self-awareness and authenticity, rather than narcissism and unhealthy competition.
June Yong is a mother of three, an educational therapist and owner of Mama Wear Papa Shirt, a blog that discusses parenting and education in Singapore.