TikTok is breeding a new batch of child stars. Psychologists say what comes next won't be pretty.

Psychologists warn that outsized social media fame may pose longterm problems for the kids who have become celebrities online.Getty Images
  • The biggest stars of 2020 are kids who have gone viral on social media.
  • Experts say these young influencers are even more at risk for developing problems than previous generations of child stars, as their lives are constantly broadcast (and observed by) millions worldwide.
  • With social media, people have become obsessed with their own visibility. Whether they're aware of it or not, influencers are constantly fighting to be seen and battling that "threat of invisibility," said Ciarán McMahon, Ph.D., the author of "The Psychology of Social Media."
  • Child stars often become addicted to fame, and thousands of influencers fighting for attention may be extremely disappointed when they are one day unable to keep it up.

In 1968, Andy Warhol predicted that in the future, "everyone will be world famous for 15 minutes." He was right, and that was before TikTok, where all it takes to blow up is an iPhone and a pretty face. But Warhol couldn't have predicted that TikTok's algorithm would quickly sweep up a huge group of children, making them some of the most famous people in the world in the blink of an eye.

The most-followed creator on TikTok, Charli D'Amelio, turned 16 on May 1. Loren Gray, whom D'Amelio recently overtook for the top spot on the short-form video platform, turned 18 in April.

Experts warn that these young influencers will face the typical hurdles of child fame, but with the additional complication of real-time social media surveillance by millions and an algorithmically programmed addiction to the instant gratification of a never-ending barrage of notifications. Advertisement

"We've had cases of child stars in different eras and different times. But this is a more enhanced and hyper version of that," Ciarán Mc Mahon, PhD, the author of "The Psychology of Social Media," told Insider. "I don't know how that will work out, but history would suggest that it's not going to be pretty."
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Adapting to life in the spotlight is hard enough for grownups. For young influencers, that is compounded with incessant social media attention.

While the advent of social media apps like TikTok and Instagram have given the world more ways to connect, it's also changed the meaning of fame and reshaped the path to becoming a celebrity. Perhaps most notably is the fact that everyday children are so easily vaulted into the spotlight with little predictability.

"Your ability to assess risk, your ability to make some cognitive judgments to plan ahead — all of those things are cognitive skills that develop over that period of time," said media psychologist Pamela Rutledge, PhD, speaking about the period of life before 25, before the "rational" part of the brain is fully developed. Experiencing fame during adolescence, Rutledge said, makes it even harder for celebrities to keep a handle on reality. "Everyone wants to be famous. But in fact, for most of us, that's not the real world."
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Former and current members of the TikTok collective Hype House.The Hype House/Instagram
These influencer-celebrities are at risk for the same challenges faced by traditional Hollywood child stars, made infamous by the likes of Lindsay Lohan, Drew Barrymore, and Michael Jackson.

"From the time I became famous in 'E.T.,' my life got really weird," Barrymore told People in 1989 of her experience with child fame. "One day I was a little girl, and the next day I was being mobbed by people who wanted me to sign my autograph or pose for pictures or who just wanted to touch me. It was frightening. I was this 7-year-old who was expected to be going on a mature 29."
Drew Barrymore on "Saturday Night Live" on November 20, 1982, when she was seven years old.Al Levine/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank
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Barrymore's experience of being thrust into the spotlight at a young age has been echoed by countless other child stars throughout more than a century of Hollywood history as early fame has led many to a host of problems, including drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, and familial struggles. This is no hard-kept secret: It's been documented thoroughly by celebrity tabloids for years.

It's also a phenomenon that has been studied by psychologists including Donna Rockwell, PhD, and David Giles, PhD, whose 2009 article in the Journal of Phenomenological Psychology identified "four temporal phases" in the mind of a celebrity: "love/hate, addiction, acceptance, and adaptation."

"When a person becomes famous, there's so much attention on the famous person that, neurologically, they forget how to tune back out — in other words, how to have appropriate and healthy empathy for other people," Rockwell, a researcher and clinical psychologist who specializes in celebrity mental health, told Insider. "It isn't even a choice when it comes down to it. There's so much incoming attention that the neurons lose their memory on what's necessary, as far as in extending an empathetic outreach." Advertisement

Rockwell added that even "for the most grounded of people, getting swept up into the spotlight of fame is very difficult to withstand, to stay grounded. So for a child, it's 10 times more difficult. It's exponentially more challenging because they haven't even developed a full self yet."

For children and teens, identity can easily morph and become lost in fame, with their notoriety becoming an engrained part of their personality. "It isn't like somebody is giving you a part to play in or writing a script for you. You're having to do this sort of creation all the time," said Rutledge. "At what point is it you, and at what point is it this persona that you've created?"

The addiction to social media already poses a problem for most kids in Gen Z, whether they have five million followers or 500.

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According to "The 'online brain': how the Internet may be changing our cognition," published in the June 2019 edition of the World Psychiatry medical journal, social media attention of any kind can "directly quantify our social success (or failure), by providing clear metrics" such as likes, followers, and views. "Given the addictive nature of this immediate, self‐defining feedback, social media companies may even capitalize upon this to maximally engage users. However, growing evidence indicates that relying on online feedback for self‐esteem can have adverse effects on young people," the report found. Advertisement

When that quantified social success, or lack thereof, is magnified in the form of fame, it can be extremely difficult to find a sense of self-worth outside of that attention. With social media, people become obsessed with their own visibility. Whether they're aware of it or not, influencers are constantly fighting to be seen and battling this "threat of invisibility," Mc Mahon said.

"The algorithms that underlie practically every social media service today force us to compete for visibility," Mc Mahon said. "As such, these teenagers may now feel themselves in an extraordinary bind – competing against each other, and the newsfeed algorithms in order to maintain visibility, a competition in which only the social media services succeed."

The concept of viral social media fame has become so ingrained in our society that it's almost natural for people to hope their next post will take off, Mc Mahon said. "I think most of us harbor a slight desire, and maybe an unconscious one, that 'this is the tweet that will go viral,'" he said. "Of course, for the vast majority of us, it isn't."Advertisement

Fame itself is one of the most addictive drugs of all — and it's the perpetual need to chase that high that can lead celebrities down a troubled path.

Many child celebrities turn to drug use and alcohol because of their need to satisfy an addiction to fame. "You get a physiological reward when people like you. It triggers your reward system. And so if you lose that, then you start looking for other means of triggering that," Rutledge said, explaining that becoming addicted to fame leaves you "vulnerable" to other drugs.

Both Rutledge and Mc Mahon compared this phenomenon to the experience of a singer performing for a stadium of fans. They become high off of that energy. "It's an incredible feeling," Mc Mahon said of fame. But at the end of the night, they go back to their hotel room, and they're often alone. "There's always a risk if there's that vulnerability, if you really are feeding off that fandom as something that's fueling you rather than a fueling of a sort of a larger life goal that you have," Rutledge said. Advertisement

Shia LaBoeuf, who recently wrote and starred in a film based on his own troubled experience as a child star, "Honey Boy," told The Hollywood Reporter last year that he had become "addicted to that kudos" celebrities are inundated with. "It kind of fueled my way of working for a long time — just pining your own pain, and holding on to it, and not really ever dealing with it or questioning it, but just keeping it in a little bottle that you can pop the top on whenever it's needed, when the switch needs to be flipped," he said.

Shia LaBeouf and the cast of "Even Stevens" in 2002, when he was 16 years old.George Lange/Disney Channel/Getty Images

Beyond drug and alcohol use, which LaBoeuf has struggled with, that constant attention can give people an altered sense of empathy. There's an "uneven give and take" with fame, where fans of a celebrity can fawn over this public figure," Rockwell said. "When people have a lot of attention put on them — child stars, social media influencers — all of that attention can lead to acquired situational narcissism, ASN, even if that person had all the love and adequate mirroring in their early life as they possibly could have wished for." Advertisement

Danny Bonaduce, one of the child stars interviewed for Rockwell's research, was a huge star in the 1970s for his role in the hit sitcom "The Partridge Family." Bonaduce, who is now 60, has spoken publicly about his drug use. "He says that he's been addicted to almost every substance known to man, and the most addictive of all of them is fame itself," Rockwell said of Bonaduce's self-reporting for her study.

Still, Rockwell said Bonaduce and others she interviewed in her research have said they wouldn't give up their fame, and the access and opportunities that came along with it. "It's hard to give that up in the end," Rockwell said.

Danny Bonaduce on the set of "The Partridge Family," circa 1970, when he was around 11 years old.Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
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Fame's ephemeral nature is heightened on social media, where new videos and teens go viral every minute. There are thousands of teens around the world who are "famous" on platforms like YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok, and most of them will not be able to uphold that level of fame for long.

"The lifestyle that they're currently engaging is probably very enjoyable, it's very exciting and stimulating. They must know in their heart of hearts that they can't continue like that for a very long period of time," Mc Mahon said. "My advice to them would be, quite simply, to think about their exit plan."

Experts say the best way to be well-adjusted while in the spotlight is to use your influence "for good."

Many influencers have already perhaps unintentionally discovered what experts say is the best way to protect oneself against the dangers of fame. By using influence to help the world and raise awareness about causes you're passionate about, you're actually establishing a deeper sense of who you are as a person. Advertisement

"If you're using your celebrity for good, you can actually come out of it better because you are developing an internal self," Rockwell said. "You are being someone that you can be proud of. You are living out your values."

One example of this is the teenager who filmed makeup tutorials on TikTok while talking about China's treatment of Muslims as they work in internment camps in Xinjian. And both Charli and Dixie D'Amelio, two of the most famous people on TikTok, have already participated in multiple efforts to help the collective good, including a recent anti-bullying project with Unicef and promoting body positivity. Dixie D'Amelio told Insider in a previous interview that she loves using her platform to "raise awareness and money for good causes."
Research suggests that kids who take advantage of that opportunity in a positive way can lead to better-adjusted adult lives, something that all psychologists interviewed for this piece agreed on. Advertisement

But the onus is also on parents of these kids to keep them grounded, Mc Mahon said, though that is another challenge in and of itself. Certain measures, like a parent trying to take away their kid's phone, will likely "backfire," especially during a time like the coronavirus pandemic when everyone is stuck inside the home. "There has to be reasoned and careful conversations around these things," Mc Mahon said.

Rockwell said she recommends child stars work with coaches and therapists "to help the child remain grounded and stay centered so they can withstand this impact of fame."

Still, there's another group who holds some responsibility here: the general public. "There's also a responsibility on the rest of us who are consuming the content that they produce and what exactly we're rewarding," Mc Mahon said. "We're rewarding it because we have created our society now into a kind of spectacle for everyone to participate in."Advertisement

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