by Hayley Doyle
Said nobody born before the Millennium.
I was delighted when my five year old son wanted to do some drawing, completely off his own back. He got out his felt tips pens and crayons and large sheets of white paper, then asked me if he could “draw with Rob”. What he meant was #DrawWithRob - Rob Biddulph - an award-winning children’s author, illustrator and YouTuber with 75k followers. A part of me was disappointed that this organic creative burst needed the addition of an iPad. Then again, my son wanted to draw. He wanted to learn how to do it properly. So I agreed. There was a delightful, “Ysssssss,” and a double cheer with his little fists. And I have to say, I was blown away by the results. The zombie on the page was impressive for a five year old, thanks to Rob’s fun guidance.
The next time my son fancied drawing, he asked if he could draw with the door closed.
“Why?” I asked.
“I don’t want you to hear me,” he said, sheepishly.
“How can I hear you if you’re drawing?”
He rolled his eyes as if I was born yesterday. Still, he didn’t want to tell me his reasons for wanting this privacy. So I played along, letting him close the door, but keeping it slightly ajar so I could secretly peek at what he was up to. Did he have a chocolate stash I didn’t know about? Was he going to raid some cupboards for snacks? But, no. He took the lid off a black felt tip pen, began to draw… AND TALK. At first I presumed he was humming or singing, something he does all the time. Then, it dawned on me. He was pretending to be a YouTuber! There he was, drawing, explaining his actions and then holding up what he’d done to an imaginary camera!
I wasn’t much older than my son when I took part in a talent show at a holiday camp in Wales. After doing a tap dance with a plastic silver bowler hat, the compere asked me what I’d like to be when I grew up. I said, an actress. No surprises there. My parents likely felt a mix of pride and fear; happy that I had the guts to get up on stage and perform, but dreading the idea of my aspiration having any serious weight behind it. Acting wasn’t a “proper job”, was it? Up there with being a unicorn or a pirate.
Today, the popularity of wanting to become an actor has somewhat dwindled, replaced by children wanting to grow up and become…a YouTuber. Gone are the dreams of becoming doctors, pilots, footballers, gymnasts and astronauts. A whopping 75% of children ages 6-17 want to be a YouTube star. According to Stefan Campbell writing for The Small Business Blog, studies show that kids these days are more connected to YouTube influencers than traditional celebrities, with many believing that their favourite YouTubers understand them better than friends and family. Predictably, YouTube usage increased by 39.4% during the Covid-19 Pandemic, inspiring children further towards a future of digital stardom.
Is this depressing? Or progressive?
When I discussed this topic with fellow parent friends, their instinct was sadness. To our generation, the image of a child obsessing over YouTube is solitary, antisocial and mind-numbing. It sparks nostalgia for our own childhoods, the days when playing out in the street was still a thing. You’d get in from school, dump your bag, devour a packet of crisps and get your bike out. Balls were forever being lost in neighbours’ gardens. We’d play school, despite having been in school all day. Or we’d invent a game, something that involved running from one side of the street to another. And of course, if it rained, we played on the Sega Megadrive. Unless you were a Nintendo kid, obvs.
Awareness around safety has cranked up, rightly… and also, sadly. It’s rare to see kids out on their bikes without a grown-up present or hanging around the local shop spending their pocket money on sweets. A highlight for me growing up was The Field; a large rectangle of overgrown grass connected to the derelict college on the road behind our house. To access The Field, you had to squeeze through bent railings. Kids used it for a kick-about, to ride bikes or just hang. Once, it snowed, and all the local kids came together to have a snowball fight. In the summer, we’d play Rounders. But broken glass from the building scattered the ground and the single row of weak trees wasn’t the best for climbing, so the fact that The Field is now a residential area comprising of five new cul-de-sacs and smooth tarmac is a good thing. It’s never been safer, and yet, ironically, no children are ever seen playing out there. Recently, I watched Rooney on Prime, a new documentary about footballer Wayne Rooney. In a way, it was comforting to see footage of his young children come home from school, flop onto the sofa and demand an iPad. Celebrities are normal! They have to deal with the same parenting issues as the rest of us! But the Rooneys live in a mansion with a garden resembling a park, featuring a trampoline and full-size adventure playground. Never mind not playing out in the street, kids these days just don’t play out anymore.
Because of screens.
Let’s face it, love them or hate them, screens are officially a constant habit for us all. And children witness this. To them, grown-ups have been obsessing over their phones and tablets since before they were born. It’s just what humans do. Unlike us, they have no memory of the world being any different. And imitation is the highest form of flattery, right? Our kids want to hold our devices and scroll, just like Mummy. It would never occur to a child that we might be ordering a gift from Amazon for the birthday party they’re attending at the weekend. Or checking our balance to see if we’ve been paid. Or replying to one of 2372 WhatsApp groups, usually related to something they need to bring into school the following morning.
The YouTube Kids app saves children from the evils of the internet, though. Parents can create a profile for each child specifically geared towards their age group, ensuring nothing nasty or inappropriate pops up. So when children watch this channel, they’re drawn into the most popular videos; other children literally living their best lives, opening boxes of toys. I mean, is there anything more exciting to a child than opening a box with a new toy inside? Our little spectators are watching these videos in awe (and silence!), and as they grow up, the influencers also mature with them. Suddenly they’re super fans of sensational YouTube rockstars documenting whatever topic or genre they’re into at the time. So why wouldn’t they aspire to become one when they grow up?
Let’s return to the days of The Field. Yes, that ancient period also known as, The 90s. I aspired to become an actress because on those rainy days (when I just couldn’t get past a certain level on Sonic) I watched old movie musicals taped from the TV onto VHS. On Saturday evenings, I watched regular everyday people being transformed into their idols on Stars In Their Eyes. Like many children, anything I was exposed to that looked like tremendous fun, I wanted to do when I grew up. So is this wildly different from wanting to become a YouTuber?
Actually, no. It’s not.
Being a successful YouTuber requires many skills. In the same way I went to dance classes three times a week and wrote my own monologue to get a place at drama school, you can’t become a professional YouTuber without graft. And it might be worth acknowledging how much we’re encouraging this. As parents, we cannot stop filming our little darlings! Whether they’re belting out ‘Bruno’ from Encanto or having an almighty meltdown, we document their lives to the extreme. They’re conditioned to perform for the camera and then watch themselves in action directly afterwards. We’re handing them the skills to become a YouTuber like sugary snacks, making them hungry for more. Young stars like Ryan of Ryan’s World made an estimated $32 million in 2021, thanks to his parents constantly creating new content and exploring business opportunities, and he wasn’t even the highest earner, with MrBeast earning approximately $54 million last year alone.
However, the real reason children want to follow in their favourite YouTubers’ footsteps is not because of the potential earnings…It’s due to creativity! Yes, according to a British study from 2017…
Creative Pursuits & Crafting Content hit the top spot for today’s younger generations wanting to become a YouTuber.
Self-expression came next with youngsters saying that it allows them to exercise their creativity with engaging content.
Fame is a big draw because a successful YouTuber can be more influential than traditional celebrities.
Money is self explanatory thanks to a simple Google to see how much certain YouTubers make.
Connecting with people in real life is a surprisingly a huge factor because creating the actual content can be collaborative filming videos with friends and family.
So surely, it’s not as bad as it seems?
Just before completing this piece, I tucked my son into bed.
“What do you wanna be when you grow up?” I asked.
And as he snuggled into his pillow, he looked at me with sleepy eyes.
“A scientist,” he said. “One that makes experiments that are red and green and blue…”
I’ve no doubt that if he ever fulfils this brilliant, bold ambition, it will be in front of a camera and uploaded for the world to see faster than a flash of lightening.