Shutterstock

While some teens spent the summer of 2018 babysitting, bagging groceries, or scooping ice cream, thousands of others made hundreds of dollars—and in some cases, much more—the new-fashioned way: by doing sponsored content on Instagram.

With “jobs you need to do a lot of training,” says a 13-year-old Pennsylvanian who asked not to be named. “Then you have to, like, physically go out and do the job for hours a day. Doing this, you can make one simple post, which doesn’t take a while. That single post can earn you, like, $50.” Last month, she started posting brand-sponsored Instagrams for her more than 8,000 followers. So far, she says, she’s earned a couple hundred dollars.

Young people are still struggling to compete with older workers for seasonal minimum-wage and retail jobs, and increased academic demands have left them with little time for shift work. Still others are eager to earn money of their own, but at 12 or 13 aren’t old enough to legally do so. Instagram is the one space where they have a competitive advantage, and, as Mary, a 14-year-old from California, told me, it’s “pretty much the easiest way, without becoming famous on the internet, to make money.”

Indeed, according to teens, all you need to do to make money this way is make at least one of your Instagram accounts public, amass a thousand or so followers (an easy threshold to meet), and reach out to brands you like on Instagram. If you have enough followers, the brands—typically small clothing and accessories start-ups aiming to court Generation Z—will even come to you.

Negotiation usually takes place entirely over Instagram direct message, and teens rarely sign formal contracts. Some companies send an article of clothing for the teen to wear in a picture; others just send images of items to be worked into a post. Sometimes they offer guidance on how they’d like their product featured and when the post should go up, but most brands trust the teen to create and post something that will resonate with their peers.

Helen Boogzel, the CEO of Boogzel Apparel, says her company receives a steady stream of messages from young people—almost universally girls—looking to make extra money, and that teen marketing has been critical to the young company’s growth. “Some companies buy positive reviews or try to get into fashion magazines,” she says. “That’s fake and it kills your brand. It’s better to work with teenagers directly and know their honest opinion about your brand. Our clothes are inspired by culture and the internet. Young people create this culture.”

They also, crucially, don’t charge much: Depending on the teen’s audience and experience, most shops typically pay $5 to $20 for a post.

“Teenagers are more affordable to work with because of their follower count and age,” says Christy Oh, an 18-year-old who handles marketing for Doux Lashes, which sells fake eyelashes. “They’re not doing Insta as a full-time thing; they’re just trying to make extra money, so it’s not super expensive to partner with them.”

Kim, a 13-year-old in the New York City area, told me she charges brands $20 for a permanent post in her feed and $10 for one she deletes after 24 hours. “I thought this might be a good way for me to make money over the summer,” she says. “Usually all I do over the summer is sit at home. It’s hard to find jobs that take kids at my age, so this is the best option for me.” Ella, who is also 13 and lives in Florida, charged $10 a post when she had 1,300 followers; now that her following has almost doubled, she’s considering raising her prices. Other girls told me they charge around $3 for every 1,000 followers, or have a sliding scale depending on how much they like the brand’s products.

Matthew Weisberger, the owner of Icewise, which sells trendy sunglasses, phone cases, and backpacks, says that working with teens on Instagram “was like striking gold from an advertising standpoint.” He recently shifted away from working with Instagram celebrities in favor of teens with fewer followers: “The people I was using before were like, ‘Pay us $150 and we’ll post,’ ‘Buy these sunglasses from Icewise.’ These girls are excited to create this entire meme that focuses around your product for just, like, $20, and they do it way better.”

hi everyone! so @coola generously sent me some things I wanted to try literally in 24 hours! once I got over the shock of how amazingly fast they arrived I tried them out and have been really enjoying them! -tinted mineral liplux in shades “nude beach” and “tan line” I’ve been really enjoying applying these after a lip scrub for instant hydrated lips and a stunning wash of color! these have a sweet scent and come in gorgeous and sturdy candy colored metal tubes! -tropical coconut sunscreen spray coconut 🌴 🥥 first off, this smells absolutely magical like vanilla coconut! it’s non greasy, with no white cast and dries almost immediately! since this is so enjoyable and easy to apply I will definitely be applying SPF more often. you can wear this in the pool as it is water resistant for 40 minutes! -sunless tan anti aging face serum this serum comes in packaging that feels really nice and heavy in my hands. it applies like a very thin gel consistency but soaks into the skin after around 1 minute which is great! i spray tan a lot and since I use so many acids on my face, it usually fades from my face while my body is still dark so it’s great to have this serum to be able to match up evenly! it develops in 2-4 hours so i would suggest applying this after your night skincare routine before you go to sleep! thank you so much to Ashley and @coola for gifting me these again! #coolasuncare #coola

A post shared by joyci- n•y•c (@2007britneyy) on

And because teens tend to rely on recommendations from friends over celebrities, peer-to-peer advertising is remarkably effective. “If you see an ad for clothing on TV or in a magazine, you know it’s an ad, but on Instagram these profiles are just their personal profiles most of the time,” says Doux Lashes’ Oh. “When people post a picture of them doing something in the day and just tagging their outfits, it doesn’t look like it’s meant to be an ad. It looks like they’re sharing what they use and do during their regular lives, so it makes it seem more personal—even though they may be getting paid.”

Benefits like this are enough to make Weisberger look past the challenges of working with kids. “They’ll take a long time to respond,” he says, “or be like, ‘Omg I forgot I had camp for a week and I forgot we had an ad.’ But if you have to wait for a week for a post that gets 30,000 likes and only cost $10, it’s worth it.”

And some teens are taking the job more seriously. A few told me they’d set up email accounts to seem more official; others have even created their own media kits from templates they’ve found online.

A group of 14-year-old girls who asked not to be named even set up their own fake agency, complete with a dedicated logo and “business” email account, to negotiate better brand deals. “I think it makes people take us more seriously,” one of them said. “People don’t think, ‘Oh, it’s just a 14-year-old sitting behind a laptop.’”

Others say that their work with brands has taught them a range of new skills, including photo editing, sales, marketing, budgeting, navigating workflows, and juggling inbound and outbound requests. The Instagram hustle prompted Leigh, a 14-year-old in Virginia who just finished eighth grade, to download Gmail onto her phone for the first time and spend hours cold-approaching businesses for brand deals.

“Some teens don’t know they have this potential, and they don’t know they could be making a profit off this,” she says, adding that she finally understands why her parents, who are both entrepreneurs, are “always going over emails.”

Payment for services is always received via PayPal, where kids say it’s easy to store money without scrutiny from their parents. “A lot of people now do make money online and we don’t want to have to tell our parents, ‘Hi, we’re making money online talking to strangers,’” says Alexa, a 15-year-old in New York. She says that PayPal sometimes requires a credit card to set up, but that it’s easy to spoof using a $5 prepaid Visa from a drugstore.

A post shared by leigh (@flickpixie) on

When Ella, the Florida 13-year-old, was first approached by a brand via Instagram direct message, her mom, Mia, was suspicious. “I’m from a different generation,” Mia says. But after a discussion, “I told her things just need to go through me and she was fine with that. A lot of parents try to friend their kids, try to follow them. The reality is they can create 15 other accounts you don’t know about.”

But still, in an emerging gray market with no regulation and few parents to keep an eye out, scams abound. Earlier this summer, several former brand ambassadors for SoAestheticShop, which sells candy-colored streetwear at allowance-friendly prices, took to social media to allege that the brand had refused to pay them, then harassed them or blocked them on social media when they sought payment. Representatives for the company declined to comment.

Overall, however, most teens said they were thrilled to be advertising on social media. “It’s easier to grow on Instagram than it is to get a raise at a job,” says Angie, a 17-year-old from Montana who says she has made $1,500 since she started posting sponsored content in June. “You manage yourself.”

Deanna, a 16-year-old in California, says that monetizing her Instagram allowed her to make extra cash while she focused on college applications this summer. She plans to put the money toward textbooks once she gets in.

“I know a lot of people think that social media is a cop-out, but I think it’s a totally valid way to make extra money on what’s trending right now,” she says. “Trends come and go. There’s honestly no reason why we can’t monetize what’s popular and what people are interested in.”

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.