Rhiannon Ragland has never been particularly interested in building her own social media presence. But as the mum of a teenager, she adheres to parental best practices—she follows her daughter Brenna’s accounts, pays attention to what she posts, and has talked with her about sharing information responsibly.
One thing that isn’t in the typical parental playbook though: What happens when your kid becomes social media famous?
Ragland came home one day this winter as Brenna was FaceTiming a “fan”—a 13-year-old who lives in Egypt and was in tears because she couldn’t believe one of her favourite, famous TikTokers actually called her.
“Her going viral kind of felt like I got caught being lax, so I had to pay more attention and play catch-up,” Ragland said.
Brenna—that’s Brennag33 on TikTok—has nearly 280,000 followers. Her most popular video, which has more than 32 million views, even features her mum dancing with her.
“My first time going viral was October of 2019, so I started to post more frequently after that,” Brenna said. “My mum knows everything I post and follows me. She has actually been in quite a few of my videos.”
Ragland may not have known exactly what she was signing up for when she agreed to be in Brenna’s videos, but her presence in them is a positive parenting tactic for helping create a safe environment on kids’ social media accounts.
Dr. Stephanie Tong, a faculty member in the Wayne State University Department of Communication and director of its Social Media and Relational Technology (SMART) Labs, studies how people initiate, maintain, and terminate relationships through social media. Tong notes that being visible on a child’s account is a good way to tell followers that a parent is present and paying attention.
“There’s a lot of social media accounts that will say, ‘This is a parent-run account,’ to alert the audience that someone is watching,” Tong says. “So you do see those kinds of digital cues that will demonstrate what’s going on behind the scenes.”
Navigating social media fame
TikTok is of particular relevance right now because of its popularity among young people. More 40 per cent of its users are between ages 16 and 24, drawn to the app’s format of videos less than 15 seconds long and often featuring dances. Popular teenage TikTokers have been featured in The New York Times and performed at the NBA All-Star Game.
But anything so popular is susceptible to attempted monetisation. The increased popularity of Brenna’s account has led to such inquiries, and advice for managing those types of requests is outside of the realm of most parenting social media FAQs.
“I started getting requests for different songs to use and different dances to do,” Brenna said. “I also had some companies reach out to me to help promote their brand.”
And then there’s the oversharing. Often when people become organically famous it is as a result of their ability to genuinely share their real-life experiences with followers. But that can also create problems: Brenna said she hasn’t personally been bullied or harassed on the app, but it does happen, leading TikTok to update and clarify its anti-cyberbullying policy in December.
“There’s this immense pressure that comes with being so visible and having to project this semblance of authenticity,” Tong says. “I think when you look at the research, [users] really open themselves up to that pressure but also to ridicule and harassment. There’s this intense need to be visible, but also a need to protect themselves. It’s really hard.”
Tong also notes that one of the biggest tensions for influencers and people who become famous on social media platforms is staying engaged with followers while also suddenly needing to protect themselves from disclosing personal or identifying information to large, unknown audiences.
“In the literature, that’s sometimes called an ‘authenticity bind.’ You want to be real but not too real, and you have to balance your public persona with your private image,” Tong says. “That’s a lot to manage for anyone, but it’s exceptionally hard for emerging adults still trying to figure out those questions for themselves, and then they have to try to find those answers in a very public arena.”
The appeal of an app like TikTok for teenagers is the sense of community on offer, especially in the midst of a global health crisis that has closed off traditional social avenues, from school and extracurricular activities. But even before the COVID-19 outbreak, TikTok had stepped in as the latest digital replacement for face-to-face interaction. The social aspects of the app are the biggest appeal for Brenna.
“My favourite part about getting to know people through TikTok is that the people you meet are genuine and mostly share the same interests,” she said. “I spend a lot more time searching for new ideas and making friends through the app.”
What parents can do
Tips for looking out for non-famous kids on social media are still applicable when viral fame becomes a factor, but the volume changes things. Larger followings mean more interactions, and responding takes more time. So setting limits on device time is important to ensure that volume doesn’t overwhelm their other responsibilities.
Companies and individuals desperately looking to take advantage of trusted and organic voices to sell products or services for them also get bolder about reaching out. So equipping kids with the ability to navigate those requests, determine if any are worthwhile and, if so, what is being asked or required of them in exchange, are important teachable moments.
Creating an environment where kids are comfortable sharing information about interactions they have, particularly if they’re being harassed or bullied, is also vital—so is being familiar with each app’s anti-harassment policies and reporting mechanisms.
Overall, Tong recommends parents simply make the effort to understand the platforms and technologies their kids are using.
“I really think that parents should educate themselves,” she says. “I don’t think it’s an option anymore to just kind of say, ‘Oh, I’m of a different generation.’ It’s just part of modern parenting.”