Raising a Social-Media Star
The parents of teen internet celebrities get a crash course in a new kind of fame while trying to maintain boundaries for their newly rich and powerful children.
When then-14-year-old Jonas Bridges ran down the stairs of his Atlanta home shouting, “Dad, I’ve got 1,000 fans!” his father, Rob Bridges, hardly took notice. A few days later Jonas barreled into the living room again, saying, “Dad, I’ve got 3,000 fans now.” Again, his father brushed him off. Several days later, Jonas told his father, “I have 5,000 fans now and if I get to 10,000 I’ll get paid for it.” Finally, Rob Bridges turned to his wife and said, “Denise, what the hell is he talking about?”
What Jonas Bridges was trying to tell his father was that he was rapidly becoming famous on YouNow, a social video platform where he had begun hosting live-streams from his bedroom under the pseudonym “woahits_jonas.” Before his parents knew what was happening, Jonas had amassed an army of online fans for his vlogs and prank videos. Before they could grasp quite what his newfound fame meant, Jonas had begun raking in serious cash.
Jonas is just one of the many teens reaching unprecedented levels of fame via social media. Platforms like Musical.ly, Instagram, YouTube, YouNow, Periscope, and more allow anyone with a phone and internet access to build an audience, and today’s teens are spending more time on their phones than ever. Ninety-four percent of teens access the internet using their phone daily and 71 percent use more than one social-media platform, according to a 2016 Pew study. The vlogger-to-riches story has become so prevalent in teen culture that, according to a 2014 survey by Variety, YouTube stars are more popular and influential than mainstream celebrities in the eyes of U.S. teens.
Parenting these young internet stars, however, is not easy. As social platforms rise and fall, moms and dads across the country with zero experience in the entertainment industry are seeing their families’ lives transformed.
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Parents can go years thinking their son or daughter is just an average teen on YouTube or Instagram until one day a marketing manager at a Fortune 500 brand calls the house asking to collaborate, as happened to one mother I spoke to. Some parents don’t become aware until other kids begin asking their child for selfies in public, or when their youngsters begin receiving special treatment at local businesses.
John Rivera, the father of Brent Rivera, a former Vine star with 6.6 million followers on Instagram and over 3 million on YouTube, says he didn’t think much of the time Brent was spending on social media until he attended a local hockey game with his two sons.
They were sitting on the bleachers when a fellow parent approached. The woman sat down next to them and said, “Are you Brent?” His son answered “yes” and she asked, “Can you look up there?” gesturing a few rows up behind them. “My daughters are having a birthday party.” Brent turned his head, looked at the girls, and they began screaming. His father gawked.
Though parents are often inclined to see their kids as talented and exceptional, most would still be startled to learn that hundreds, or thousands, of other teens suddenly worship their son or daughter. Some young stars, like Jonas Bridges, are proud of their burgeoning follower counts and try to explain to their parents what’s going on, but frequently, as the famous Will Smith adage goes: Parents just don’t understand.
Max Levine, cofounder of MC Projects, a company that manages digital stars, says that many parents are eager to learn about what’s happening to their child, “but they definitely don’t understand what they’re walking into.” Gen Xers and above were “never told ‘Yeah, just post photos and videos online and you become famous,’” he says. “It’s not really in anyone’s rule book of life.”
The first step parents of these chosen teens often take is to look for help making sense of it all. That could mean scouring Google and Yahoo Answers for advice, but more often it means turning to a business manager to put it all in context. Unfortunately, for every wide-eyed young internet star, there is a slew of dubious “managers” and “agents” looking to take advantage of teens—and their parents.
“We’ve met a lot of great people and great parents through social media,” says Rob Bridges, “but there’s also quite the opposite. There are some very shady characters working in this business. There are managers out there who promise these families the world, then take a big cut.” Some parents choose to manage their children themselves, but that can lead to a whole other set of messy issues.
Paula Kaplan, the head of talent at AwesomenessTV, a digital media company focused on teen content, says she can spot nervous parents a mile away. As a veteran entertainment executive who spent over 20 years at Nickelodeon, she knows how the entertainment industry can warp the bond between teens and their parents. One piece of advice she gives to mothers and fathers is to “hire some people who know what they’re doing and can help you. Look for people who have an actual track record and [who] let parents actually be the parents.”
At AwesomenessTV, “we want parents to know the same information as the kids,” Kaplan says. “We work really closely with YouTube and Instagram and are happy to facilitate those conversations. It really is a different world for these parents, they didn’t grow up with social media. And that can be intimidating.”
“You think you’re doing right by your child, but it’s hard when you don’t know what you’re doing,” says Tiff Lewis, the mother of Madison Lewis, a Musical.ly star with over 2.5 million fans. “She’s just on here having fun as a kid, but then you realize, well, she could make a lot of money off this. Is that a smart thing we should do? It was scary as a parent not knowing who to turn to. Then a little more than a year ago, she had management start to come after her and take over, and again I had to wonder whether that was the right move. How do you know if any of this is what’s really best?”
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Parents of teen social-media stars aren’t just plagued by existential fears, but more immediate, physical threats, too. A parent’s most basic instinct is to protect their child, and when a crowd of thirsty fans descends, it can be scary.
Margaret Fitzpatrick, the mother of Alli Fitzpatrick, a former Vine star and current YouTuber with several million followers across her many platforms, says that she spent most of her first trip to New York with Alli in shock. She arrived early to one planned meet-up in a New York park to find a huge crowd of girls crying and chanting Alli’s name. “I was like, are they talking about my Alli? It was crazy.” She says she felt nervous for Alli’s safety when she realized that the crowd would be difficult to control if things got out of hand.
And things regularly do get out of hand.
When the Dolan Twins, brothers with over 5 million followers on YouTube, tried to organize an impromptu meet-up in November in London’s Hyde Park, things quickly spiraled out of control. They were forced to cancel the appearance before they even arrived due to lack of crowd control. And despite the cancellation, thousands of teens still descended on the park, wreaking havoc and reportedly trampling each other.
Because of how quickly things can go awry, most parents I spoke with try to limit the times their children are in public without protection. This leads to families’ lives being severely restricted in terms of things they do together. Family movie nights at the local theater are canceled. Birthday dinners are held in private rather than at a public restaurant. If the family wants to travel to Disney World or attend a concert, prior arrangements must be made.
Even parents who take the most meticulous cautionary measures see their children’s whereabouts tracked 24/7 by fan accounts online. There are Twitter and Instagram accounts set up by fans to crowdsource sightings of their favorite internet stars and alert followers to their whereabouts everywhere they go. Because of the global reach of social platforms, most internet stars have fans all over the globe and it can seem like no matter where a parent takes their child, there are eyes on the ground. When a kid’s location is revealed, a flash mob can pop up in a matter of minutes. All it takes is one tweet.
Michael, the father of Mel Joy, a popular beauty and fashion YouTuber with more than a million followers, learned this lesson firsthand on a trip he and his daughter took to a somewhat remote area of Victoria, British Columbia. (Michael asked that we not reveal his last name, because his daughter keeps hers private online, and he doesn’t want fans to be able to locate their family.) The two were sitting at a restaurant quietly enjoying a meal when the owner of the restaurant approached their table. He asked, “Are you Mel Joy?”
It turns out Mel had posted a photo of her dinner on Snapchat. One of her hundreds of thousands of followers recognized where she was eating from the sliver of background in the image. The fan called her uncle, who happened to own the restaurant, to have him tell Mel that she wanted to say hi. On that same trip, Mel and her father ran into another teenage girl who, after asking for a photo, revealed that she had found out Mel was in the area and had been running all over Victoria for days hoping to spot her.
Often fans are familiar with not just teen idols but their whole families. Some fans can and will recognize sisters, brothers, and parents even without their more famous family member. Parents become particularly well-known since so many appear in their kids’ videos—intentionally or not.
“Parenting a social-media celebrity means that the camera is always rolling at the most inopportune times,” Rob Bridges says. “Jonas pranks both his mom and I even when we are not in the mood for being pranked ... It’s kind of like living in a mini reality show.”
Some parents embrace this tangential fame more than others. Tiff Lewis, for instance, often “guest hosts” her daughter’s social-media accounts while she’s at school, entertaining fans in other time zones. “I would go on Madison’s Live.ly account and I could interact with her following that were in Europe,” she says. “Sometimes I’d have 20,000 to 40,000 people on there and just talk to them. I would do it for almost four hours sometimes.”
Other parents attempt to become social-media celebrities themselves. Pam Stepnick and Greg Paul, the parents of Jake and Logan Paul, potentially the two most iconic internet stars working today, both actively court followers on their own social-media accounts.
Jake and Logan Paul are two former high-school Vine stars who have amassed giant social-media followings on Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook. Combined, the two have over 60 million followers on social media and armies of followers who call themselves “Jake Paulers” or part of the “Logang.”
The boys’ father has more than 180,000 subscribers on YouTube, where he posts pranks and reaction videos to his sons’ latest drama under the name Vlogdad Greg Paul—which he monetizes. On Stepnick’s primary platform, Instagram, she has more than half a million followers and, like Paul, posts pranks and speaks about the controversies that so frequently surround her sons. Jake Paul and his brother Logan frequently feud with their friends, each other, and other top-tier influencers on YouTube. Logan also recently came under fire for posting a video featuring the dead body of a suicide victim. The Paul family has collectively become known as the “Kardashians of YouTube” for their ability to manufacture drama to stir attention and generate views.
But many YouTuber parents abstain from turning the spotlight on themselves, saying raising kids is hectic enough and they don’t want to have to compete with their children for brand deals. “I love my job and I have a career, I don’t need to be a social-media star,” says John Rivera.
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Whether or not they choose to post content themselves, parenting a social-media celebrity does force parents to become adept at a new industry—and the new technology that comes with it. Adopting and mastering new platforms isn’t just fun and games for teen stars—it’s key to staying relevant.
If your fame comes from the social web, it’s important never to become overly affiliated with even the hottest app, lest it become passé by tomorrow. There’s also the volatile nature of the tech companies themselves to account for. If stars don’t diversify their audiences, an app could radically change its strategy tomorrow or be mismanaged out of existence, erasing years of hard work.
The job of evaluating the flood of new apps can frequently fall to a child’s parents. “Trying to assess which ones would have a compelling position in the marketplace is tricky and does take time,” says Michael, Mel Joy’s father.
The work it takes to support a young online influencer’s entertainment career often takes away from the time parents spend on their own work. Jonas’s mom left her career behind in order to help her son’s. A former real-estate agent, she now accompanies Jonas on his travels and stays home during the week to make sure he meets his work and school commitments.
No matter how involved parents are in their kids’ careers, the family dynamic inevitably changes when kids are earning huge amounts of money—from ads on their YouTube videos, sponsored content, merchandising deals, and brand partnerships. Not to mention that teen influencers are also bombarded with free products. Michael, Mel Joy’s father, says that so much free makeup has arrived in the mail for his daughter that he doesn’t know where to put it. It would take ages to even give it all away.
How do you enforce rules and boundaries on children who frequently have more money than grown-ups, and thus, unusual levels of autonomy?
“One of the levers that parents have to manage their children is: ‘You’re financially dependent on me,’” Michael says. “If you have a child who is making more money than the average adult then that lever is gone. Some parents can say, ‘If you don’t clean your room then move out and get your own place.’ Well, these kids could get their own place tomorrow.”
But until their kids turn 18, parents still do have some modicum of control over their children’s finances. They’re usually managers on their children’s accounts and put any big earnings into a savings account or trust. In the state of California, where influencers do most of their work, minors can’t legally control their own money and state law stipulates that at least 15 percent of all minors’ earnings be distributed to a Coogan Account, a type of trust that they can access when they turn 18.
The teenage stars I spoke to seem grateful for their parents’ help in managing finances—as long as they get to indulge once in a while, usually on things like new camera equipment, video software, or occasionally a new car. But naturally, there are always times when teens push back against their parents’ rules.
“Money has caused all kinds of controversy in the family,” Bridges says. “We got involved in a contract one time, and I had to hire an attorney to look at Jonas’s contract. We informed him that we hired an attorney and took the money out of his account and he got upset. He thought we should pay. We had to say, ‘That’s not the way it works, dude! You’re running a little business here.’”
Bridges says he and his wife were able to use the opportunity to teach Jonas the financial value of reinvesting in his career and treating it like a small company. Teens aren’t used to paying administrative fees or business expenses and so it’s up to their parents to explain that, unfortunately, 100 percent of your income can’t be spent on fun.
School can also be a particular point of contention between teen influencers and their parents. Because of scheduling and travel demands, almost all young influencers are homeschooled, a fact that most parents I talked to accept begrudgingly. A few internet celebrities, such as Brent Rivera, are lucky enough to live near Los Angeles and can still attend high school while juggling work meetings. But even when geography isn’t an issue, the social dynamics of high-school life can make it hard for these teens to function.
Though they may have fan bases of millions online and spend long hours alone at home producing “relatable” content for other high-school teens, many of the online influencers in this piece say they have been subject to intense bullying within their peer group. Kids may be ostracized or judged by their “hometown” friends once they reach a certain level of success online. Others have the opposite problem, and cause distractions when they’re mobbed for selfies between classes.
Katherine Cimorelli, now 25, has been a singer and YouTube star since her formative years and she knows the toll social-media fame can take on friendships.
“You have this platform and you can positively influence thousands of young people,” she says, “which is a huge blessing. But the curse is that people really treat you differently. It’s hard to know who is really your friend and who is just interested in you because you’ve got hundreds of thousands of followers on Instagram ... It sort of makes things weird and you can’t really relate to your regular friends anymore.”
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But while “regular life” may be over for families at the forefront of the social-media entertainment industry, both the teens and their parents find friendship and support among others who are living the same strange life they are.
Joey Birlem, a 15-year-old social-media star who rose to prominence on the platform Musical.ly, where he has nearly 2 million followers, says that while fame has made it hard to lead a normal life, he’s developed great friendships with other fellow stars. “Sometimes I feel like I’m missing out on the average kid experiences,” he says. “Then I really think about it and I think how those kids are missing out on the cool experiences that I get to have.”
Kelly Jones, whose 17-year-old daughter Jordyn Jones has more than 1 million followers on YouTube and 4 million on Instagram, says it’s been extremely helpful to have a support network of other parents of teen influencers. Gigi Harville, mom to Bryce Xavier, a Musical.ly star with over 1.3 million followers, agreed. “Recently a bunch of us were up until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning just talking about things.”
Harville and other parents in L.A. regularly host get-togethers at each other’s houses. The kids can go upstairs and shoot collab videos for YouTube while their parents relax and catch up. “I call it our social-media PTA,” Harville says, “We advise each other on certain things, or say ‘Hey, I think there’s a project that could be good for your child, you should check it out.’” Parents who live farther from entertainment-industry hubs rely on group chats and email lists to keep in touch with their peers.
As the current class of influencer parents adjusts to a new normal, they are trailblazing a path for the next wave of stars. There is more information available online as more parents experience this phenomenon firsthand, meaning the parents of tomorrow’s internet stars may have an easier time navigating this world. And parents have become increasingly aware that their child could strike it big at any moment.
Nancy Dimitriades, an elementary-school teacher and the mother of 12-year-old Nick in Baltimore, says her son worships social-media stars and she recently let him start his own YouTube channel. “It’s not something he does all the time,” Nancy says, but his subscriber base has slowly grown. Online, he has taken on the moniker “Nick, the YouTube Kid.”
“I can tell you,” Dimitriades says, “I teach kindergarten through grade four and all my third- and fourth-graders are very much aware of social media and YouTube. I have girls in my third-grade class pretending to be YouTubers all the time.” According to a recent survey by Family Zone, a company that provides cybersecurity software, kids under the age of 8 spend 65 percent of their online time on YouTube.
Kathy Conrique, the mother of Caden Conrique, 16, and Dylan Conrique, 13, two social-media stars with hundreds of thousands of followers on Instagram and a popular show on YouTube, says she doesn’t see a problem with starting kids early.
“It’s a different world today than it once was,” she says. “It’s just amazing what they have at their fingertips. If [the parents] work it right, there’s tons of money to be made for these kids ... If you think your kids are going in this direction at all, the earlier they start the better, the more content the better, the more people who see it the better.”
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But are all the stress and commitments that come with being a child internet celebrity really an unprecedented familial burden? Is raising a social-media star that different than raising, say, a gifted young athlete? John Rivera doesn’t think so.
“I think of it as similar to if Brent was on an all-star hockey team, in terms of how it changed family life,” Rivera says. Like many young athletes, young internet stars must spend sometimes upward of 40 hours a week honing their craft and travel frequently.
The sports metaphor also helps parents set expectations.
“I tell Jonas,” says Rob Bridges, “there’s a lot of great high-school football players, then there’s a lot of good college players, but only a handful make it to the NFL and out of that only a few are superstars. The same is true in the entertainment industry, not everybody can be Justin Bieber. You want your kid to reach for their dreams, but ... I want to prepare Jonas for the real world too.”