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The influence of YouTube stars to children and adolescents

YouTube is the television from today. At least this is true of a whole generation of children and young people who have grown up with the Internet. With YouTubers, a democratised media culture has developed that relies on direct participation. But the new youth culture has long been infiltrated by the advertising.

According to a survey in the youth magazine "Bravo" (Germany), television hardly matters anymore in the age group of 12- to 19-year-olds. 9 out of 10 young people, however, are on YouTube at least once a week, more than half of them are at least on YouTube once daily. For parents and teachers, it can be difficult to keep up with the fast-paced, digital world of their protégés. Unlike traditional mass media such as radio, television or newspaper, with YouTube, everybody puts his own program together. Therefore it is difficult to understand, what young people are concerned about when they literally disappear behind the screens of their laptops and smartphones.

The democratisation of the media

It is often said, since the beginning of the Internet, we are dealing with a democratisation of the media. Nowadays, everybody with an inexpensive mobile phone can record a video and thus reach an audience of millions on the Internet - twenty years ago, this would have been unthinkable. This is certainly a step forward because more people have the opportunity to become involved, to be creative and to be heard. Besides the inevitable flood of nonsense that is uploaded to YouTube, it's also an enormous archive of knowledge, education, good entertainment and exciting debates, which has something for everyone on a daily base and grows accordingly.

TV stars to touch

If YouTube is the new TV, then the YouTuber are the new TV stars. They have their own YouTube channels on which they publish video on a regular basis. The YouTuber speaks directly to his fan base that consists of thousands, sometimes even millions of subscribers. Here you can find all themes and nearly all ways to create a video clip. Beginning with a simple video diary (a vlog), which is taken with the phone camera, to an elaborate political statement and even Satire shows. Most YouTubers are often teenagers or young adults, which speak honestly and authentically to their fellow youth. Unlike television- or pop stars which are removed from their audience, YouTuber can get in direct contact with their audience and meet them where they are. It is this proximity that children and adolescents often perceive their YouTube idols as "real friends" or "big brothers and sisters".

Business with the youth

Even most of the YouTube posts are coming right out of the kid’s bedroom, don’t be fooled. The YouTube star system is a million business. In YouTube’s background hides a sophisticated media agency, which takes the YouTuber under contract. The largest of these networks score up to 500 million clicks a month with their videos and achieve de facto as many viewers as large TV stations. The big business comes with the advertisement which is linked to the video channels. Depending on the contract, a YouTuber receives 1 -6 Euro per click. The bigger part of it goes to the agency. One of the most successful YouTuber channels in Germany is the Gamer Gronk. This gaming company earns a staggering 500,000 Euros with its 3.5 subscribers per year. Although online advertising is still a small niche; only a total of 2 percent of the advertising; these numbers are quite impressive. A niche that is particularly interesting for companies that have a very specific target audience in mind: children and adolescents.

What is advertising, what is real?

The problem with YouTube and the internet in general, advertisement and the actual content are less strictly separated, as we are used to from the mass media. In a newspaper, an advertisement is clearly recognisable as such. On television advertising comes only during the commercial break. For good reason: The identification of advertising is strictly regulated in Germany, everything else is referred to as surreptitious advertising and therefore illegal. The legal definition (as lined out in the Broadcasting Treaty) reads as follows: Surreptitious advertising is "the mentioning or presentation of goods, a producer of goods or a provider of services in programs which by the organisers is deliberately used for advertising purposes. Any such lack of making the public aware of the advertising purpose can be seen as misleading.”

Product placement and branded content

However, it is precisely this deception which drives media agencies in service of their subscribers on the internet. This is the same for YouTube channels as well as blogs and social media. Personal recommendations from friends, which has long been known, make for our driving purchasing decisions – this is for most much more important than objective tests or seductive advertising messages. Social media advertising agencies use this to specifically employ individuals as an advertising medium who reach a great audience. It is common practice, to continuously bestow the latest products on the unsuspecting YouTuber – with the friendly invitation to mention this product positively in his videos. – The range goes from cosmetics to expensive watches or smartphones. This goes mostly without mentioning that the YouTuber received a gift or even got paid for it.

Other companies produce their own programs to subtly to steer their audience in a certain direction and to make their products seen (this is so-called "branded content"). In short, on the Internet in general and YouTube, in particular, it is increasingly difficult to distinguish what is real and what is advertising - and in many cases, a separation is no longer possible. A broadcast with makeup tips, where dozens of products which are used for the clip are held in front of the camera: Who can say here what's real and what is advertising?

What to do? Listening and educating

Demonising YouTube or the entire Internet is hardly the right way. Although the attempted manipulation on the part of advertising agencies is real - the identification of young people with their YouTube stars is genuine. Anyone who labels social media as a mere waste of time underestimates the creative potential and the social relevance of our youth culture. Nowadays, where social media manager is a profession, Media literacy is more important than ever - not only for the social development of young people but also for their future careers.

Therefore, it is important, to sensitise children and adolescents age-appropriate for the commercialization of YouTube. It is by far better to teach the young people to question all kind of media critically. To achieve this, one should be able to listen and to talk to the young person when he is ready. Parents, as well as teachers and other people who work with children, might learn something and therefore get a better understanding of our youth. Recognition and genuine interest are the basic requirements for any media education. Young people need real support and orientation. Particularly in a media world which is so fundamentally different from ours.

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