A few years ago, American news media hyperventilated over a poll from Lego that found American and British children “would much rather be YouTubers than astronauts.” A lot of US users on Twitter responded with dismay. “Quite disappointing that no one wants to be an engineer or doctor,” posted one. “Cancel the west. Been a good run,” suggested another.
But British media outlets, instead, ignored the poll, in what I’ve gradually learned to identify as our country’s strange allergy to content creation and social media influence. We don’t even bother to rail against content creation half of the time because we just pretend that it, and the challenge it poses to traditional power-holders across business and media, doesn’t even exist.
But then a national story unfolds, or a star somehow breaks through from our smartphones to our televisions, and we’re forced to take note. The allegations and investigation into comedian Russell Brand brought the controversial video platform Rumble to the attention of much of the British public for the very first time; yet over a year beforehand, the platform had reported 78m monthly active users worldwide. How did it, and the influencers going viral on there, sneak up on so many? I was a video journalist at the BBC when TikTok first appeared, and I was flummoxed by the disinterest of media insiders in an app that creators were using to engage young voters in the 2020 US election and which is now the fastest growing news source for UK adults. At journalism conferences I still hear prominent media figures happily sharing their ignorance of the app as a source of pride, rather than acknowledging the extent to which its content, and the influencers who create it, is drawing audiences away from them.
Young people, their media diets and, unsurprisingly, their ambitions, get abandoned as a result of this disinterest. So I wanted to go a step further than Lego in 2019; I wanted current, UK-focused data that might tell us how much young people want to become content creators. I worked with Savanta to poll over 1,200 16-25-year-olds, and learned the following: 13 per cent already consider themselves content creators, and 37 per cent would like to become a creator one day. Overall, half of young Brits want to enter the creator industry. They self-reported good knowledge of how different algorithms work across YouTube, TikTok and Instagram, and then they revealed a startling figure: 37 per cent of them thought influencers use unethical methods to go viral online.
The Savanta survey didn’t ask them to elaborate, but I have some idea of what they might have meant. Earlier this year I delivered 10 talks at schools across England for an online media literacy project I developed as a fellow at Brown University, where I got to meet over 400 teenagers. In the final five sessions—after I’d refined my lesson plan based on feedback—I began to gather my data. I asked 206 students aged between 15 and 18 years old for examples of videos that made a positive or a negative social impact online, and the answers varied widely and wildly. Both boys and girls named Andrew Tate as a negative influencer, but several boys across different schools said they thought his content was positive, especially around mental health. This would always begin a debate in the classroom, where said boys were less vocal when I asked them about the inner workings of Tate’s growth strategy. Why is his content about mental health less inflammatory? Did they know that creators often make “gateway” content and that algorithms have been found to push more extreme content to users over time? Where they had been eager to promote him generally, they were less eager to defend some of his more extreme content on scrutiny.
There was also disagreement about whether pranking videos qualify as harmful or not, but almost universal acceptance that body positivity was, indeed, positive, while editing how faces or bodies looked could be damaging. In one school, a group of girls who supported abortion rights all wrote down “Roe v Wade” as an example of “content” that had made a positive impact—they had learned about the overturning of the law from social media, not news websites. In our next exercise, we would work together on writing TikTok scripts. I witnessed students come up with copy on everything from revision tips to a meringue recipe and the Biden administration’s oil drilling project in Alaska.
When young people tell us they want to become content creators or social media influencers, they’re revealing that they want to be many other things too; they want to entertain, they want to inform. Many of them want to advocate. And yet the reason I had gone into these schools in the first place was because of a hunch that many of them didn’t necessarily have media literacy skills. A poll I collected before our sessions started suggested I was right: 66 per cent couldn’t identify a single way content creators can make a positive social impact with their videos and 78 per cent also couldn’t identify a single way a creator might promote harm.
By the end of my session with them, those numbers happily plummeted. All it took was an hour with them; the benefit of media literacy education can be instant. But I went into fewer than 10 schools over the course of my short fellowship. In the meantime, Savanta’s new data shows over half of those already out of our schooling systems are trying to enter the creator industry. Many of them do want to promote a positive social impact with their work, but the amount of online harms that are supported by creators themselves—from widespread misinformation to misogyny—also shows us that, irrelevant of whether they view a choice as ethical or not, many content creators are willing to sacrifice moral boundaries if it means they get a higher number of views or more followers. Media literacy education invites a space for critically thinking about this that they may otherwise never get the chance to learn about.
The real question isn’t if young people are going to become creators en masse (they are). It’s this: what have we really done to help them understand what they’re getting themselves into?