Helping Kids Think Critically About Influencers They Follow Online

When I was a teenager, my role model was Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton. I admired everything about her. I cut my hair like hers and brushed my teeth three times a day, determined to get my smile to sparkle like hers. I even started eating Wheaties when she endorsed them, thinking it would help me land my back handspring (spoiler alert: it didn’t).

It’s natural and healthy to seek out role models. Who doesn’t want to excel at a skill or possess admirable qualities? Teens today are no different. They look to others to figure out how to attain their goals. But while kids today may have the same emotional desire for role models, the online culture has confused the meaning of influence.

Algorithm vs. Character

We no longer bestow titles like role model and influencer on the few, but the many. And the requirements? Not too steep. Today, influencers win the public’s affections based on the number of likes, follows, shares, or sponsors a person accumulates. When it comes to emulating others, kids turn to famous Instagrammers and YouTubers whose fame is determined by algorithm strength rather than character strength.

For parents, this force field of influence can feel impossible to penetrate. Many (this mom included) constantly feel torn. As our kids mature, we want to give them space to explore and form opinions and preferences of their own apart from our commentary. On the flip side, technology brings more risk to the choices kids make today. Those risks can be severe and include online scams connected to celebrities, data breaches, and mental health issues linked to social influence.

Equipping vs. Condemning

So, what practical steps can we take to help our kids think more critically about the role models, celebrities, or influencers they choose to follow and even emulate? One way to move the needle is to thoughtfully and consistently increase the dialogue about values, beliefs, and goals.

Keeping the conversation focused can be tricky. The goal of guiding your child should aim to equip, not condemn. Hint: The goal isn’t to debate the questionable things a celebrity or influencer chooses to say or do. The goal is to explore and build the values that inform the things your child chooses to say and do.

Here are a few conversation starters to challenge your child to look a little more closely at the influencers and celebrities he or she esteems.

Family Talking Points

Highlight common ground. I instantly connected with Mary Lou Retton because we about the same age and were both half-pints. She was 4’9,” and at that time, I was barely an inch taller and struggling with that. But Mary Lou was fierce, unstoppable, and had a positive attitude that was contagious. Suddenly, short was cool. In talking to your child about the people they admire, point to the common ground, he or she might share with that person. Questions: What kind of character or personal traits do you think you might share with this person? How do you think the two of you are similar or different? If you could have lunch with this person, what do you think you could teach them? What could they teach you?

Find the friction. Encourage your child to look beyond the social surface and find influencers who have overcome real-life struggles. The discussion might turn to issues such as depression, grief, addiction, bullying, or dealing with a disability. Questions: What influencers or celebrities do you admire who have conquered a difficult situation? What have you learned from watching how he or she responded to that situation? How do you think you might respond if you were in that situation?

Learn the back story. If your child admires a person and you can’t figure out the reason, challenge her thinking. If the reasoning is that someone is “so pretty” or “goes to Coachella,” challenge your child to dig deeper and learn as much as she can about her favorite person. Questions: What specific qualities or achievements do you think make this person famous? Do you agree with that? Did you discover events in this person’s life that may have shaped who they are? What did you learn about this person that makes you admire them more? What did you learn that makes you admire them less? How does this person help others? If you were in this person’s shoes, how would you use your influence differently?

Get personal. Sometimes we can strengthen a perspective by looking close to home. Challenge your child to think about the people in his or her family or community. Who do you know that stands up for what’s right? Who makes time to help others? Point out someone who has conquered an addiction or made a courageous comeback of some kind. Questions: What do you think are the three most important traits a person can have? Who do you know who has these traits? If you overheard people talking about you in the future, what words would you hope they would use to describe you?

Asking great questions can improve the quality of family conversations. While technology has changed our vocabulary in dramatic ways, the meaning we apply to our words can survive any cultural shift if we’re intentional. Take the time this week to ask your kids great questions. And stick with it, parents — you have more influence than you think.

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