Youth branding themselves using social
media to achieve #instafame: research report

 Toronto, November 12, 2014 Kids are building online networks with millions of followers on Instagram, and are capitalizing on those followers for financial gain. Boys using #toolpick have rapidly become the hyper-sexualized attention seekers most thought was the domain of girls. And many kids have given up all privacy online in their quest for fame, opening themselves up to exploitation and bullying.

 These are some of the unsettling findings of a year-long research study about youth, celebrity and online culture by the kidsmediacentre at Centennial College. Titled #Instafame and the Epidemiology of a Selfie-Curated Culture, it explores the social media phenomenon of youth seeking fame and fortune online through the use of savvy marketing techniques typically employed by commercial brands.

“#Instafame is fame you build yourself and the kidsmediacentre has spent the last year looking at how youth are using social media and selfies to build a personal brand,” explains Debbie Gordon, Director of the kidsmediacentre, a research centre and think tank focused on children’s media. In its study, researchers asked the hard questions: How is it so many youth have more than 100,000 followers? What are the risks of living large and chronicling all your personal details online? Do youth care about privacy or does #thirst trump all? 

Digital Literacy Ignored

Centennial College researchers talked to middle- and high-school students who confirmed that despite years of digital literacy taught in schools warning them of the importance of privacy settings, the lessons are being ignored as youth use shoutouts, retweets, likes, follows, strategic hashtags, GIFs and selfies to brand themselves.

“Many youth have learned the more you reveal, the more controversial your posts; the more you hashtag, the more effective your marketing,” says Gordon. Yet, for many of the youth in the kidsmediacentre research, the real-life consequences of online sharing that reveals too much personal information are all too apparent, says Gordon.

“They include cyber bullying, stolen identities and personal images being used by corporations without permission. But they see the democratization of media, ubiquity of pocket technology, unaware parents and the easy lure of #instafame as real choices being made by their peers.” 

Blame Kim & Miley

Researchers discovered a complicated, multi-causal matrix of reasons behind this fame-crazed culture: young people have had a front-row seat watching Disney stars and YouTubers grow their brand through social media. They’ve seen Kim Kardashian, Miley Cyrus, Kendall Jenner and Tyler Oakley offer such strategies as #followforfollow and #spamforspam to monetize their brand and collect regular paycheques from Google.

On a positive note, researchers also discovered that savvy young people do have limits and boundaries, understanding that the digital footprint they leave can last a lifetime. But for the lonely, the vulnerable and the insecure, the attention and praise that come with posting revealing photos can be irresistible. Youth call this type of post a #thirstrap, and say this behaviour is now more the norm than the exception in youth-colonized social media spaces like GIFboom and Instagram. 

 About the Researchers

In addition to Debbie Gordon, co-authors of this research include Centennial graduates Kayla McNally, Jess Westlake and Felix Chan. Research funding was provided by Centennial College’s Applied Research and Innovation Centre as part of a fellowship grant. The mission of the kidsmediacentre is to explore children’s media futures. This research initiative is an example of how Centennial College is leading the conversation regarding issues of importance to its students and its community, as articulated in its Book of Commitments.