“Knots in my stomach”: How YouTube consumerism affects children and teens

YouTube videos have blurred the line between advertising and entertaining for over a decade. How could this affect young audiences?

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In her latest video, Zoella shows her 12 million YouTube subscribers “a couple of the little bits and pieces I have bought recently”. The 22-minute vlog features 26 products with a total value of £792.91.

In the video before that, Britain’s most well-known vlogger shows off her “January favourites”. Once a month, big YouTubers – particularly “beauty gurus”, the nickname for vloggers who post make-up tutorials and beauty advice on the site – will show off everything they “love”. Zoella’s January favourites total around £270. She’s relatively frugal. Another British beauty guru, The Anna Edit, lists £790 worth of products in her 28 January video entitled “January Favourites: Beauty, Style & Interiors.”

When she was 16, student Lucia Tepper loved Zoella – in fact she loved a lot of beauty gurus. “I was just so fascinated by everything they did,” the now-19 year old tells me over the phone from her university dorm room. “I wanted to live like them.” This desire to emulate YouTubers meant Lucia, an ordinary teenage girl, would find herself buying make-up every time she left the house.

“If I wanted something, I would stay up at night thinking about it,” she says. “I would lust after it but as soon as I would get it, it wasn’t special anymore… I just wanted something else.”

Excessive consumerism has been a part of YouTube culture for close to a decade. “Haul” videos feature YouTubers showing off their purchases, while “unboxing” videos feature people constantly buying and opening new things on camera. “Favourites” videos list “loved” products, “PO Box” videos allow YouTubers to show off gifts they’ve been sent, and on top of all of this, vloggers create direct adverts for brands and sell their own personal merchandise. It seems logical that this incredible display of materialism is affecting at least some of the young audience that make up YouTubers’ most loyal fans.

A PR unboxing haul by Roxette Arisa Vlogs

 

“I would go to bed with knots in my stomach,” says Lucia, who has had anxiety since she was a child. As a teenager, she suffered panic attacks and breathlessness due to other stresses, but says her obsession with buying products recommended by YouTubers left with her with stomach aches and unable to sleep. “I felt so guilty about what I had,” she says. “I didn’t like hardly any of the make-up I actually had; I was buying these things just to buy them.” Now she is older, she runs her own YouTube channel educating people about anti-consumerism and promoting the idea that you should use all the products you buy.

“I recognise that it’s just make-up but it’s so much more when it affects your life and you have that type of anxiety.”

Tim Kasser is a psychology professor, member of the Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood, and author of Hypercapitalism: The Modern Economy, Its Values, and How to Change Them. For the last 25 years, he has been studying what happens when people orient towards “materialistic values” – the idea that money and possessions are the most important things in life.

“There are four different sets of consequences that research shows comes with buying into the message of consumer culture that happiness depends on your possessions,” Kasser says. Firstly, hundreds of studies have shown materialism has a negative effect on wellbeing.

“When people prioritise materialistic values, the less happy they are, the more depressed they are, the more anxious they are, the lower their self-esteem, the lower their life satisfaction, the more likely they are to smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol,” Kasser says. “While it’s not a gigantic effect it is consistent, and it’s consistently negative.”

Secondly and thirdly, materialistic values crowd out pro-social values, such as empathy, and also mean people act less ecologically and care less about the environment. Finally, some studies have shown that materialistic children have a poorer academic performance.

Zoella's last five videos, four of which are explicilty focused on products and purchases

Kasser’s work also focuses on advertising, and how susceptible children are to these messages. On YouTube, the line between advertisements and entertainment is dramatically blurred. Zoella’s January favourites video, for example, features links to every product she mentions and every single make-up item she is wearing on her face. These links are affiliate, meaning she earns money every time they are clicked. The vlogger’s 18-year-old fans might understand how the star is profiting, but the 8-year-old fans frequently seen at her book signings and product launches may struggle.

“Children under the age of 8, and most under age 12, they don’t get the idea of persuasive intent,” explains Kasser. “When you or I watch an advertisement we understand that the person in the advert is an actor or an actress who is pretending to be happy when they get their Happy Meal toy, but children don’t have the cognitive capacity to understand.” While YouTubers do have to hashtag all paid-for advertisements with #ad thanks to the Advertising Standards Authority, many get free products or sponsorships that they don’t disclose. In the current online environment, even adults can struggle to identify persuasive intent.

Beyond beauty gurus, YouTube videos geared towards very young children are often highly materialistic. The British channel Toys AndMe, which has over 7 million subscribers, features a young YouTuber, Tiana, constantly reviewing toys. In a video entitled “Tiana's 10th Birthday Party Opening Presents!”, which has been viewed over 3 million times, the ten-year-old is presented with a pile of presents literally taller than she is.

Tiana's presents

“Children want to be like the people in the videos and therefore have the things that the person in the video is showing them,” Kasser says. His “discrepancy theory” posits that if we have a discrepancy between who we are and who we think we could be, we experience unpleasantness. We are then motivated to alleviate this by fixing the discrepancy – in this case, by buying more products. When a YouTuber shows off 100 toys or lipsticks, children and teenagers can feel “relative depravation”.

This is an experience Lucia relates to. “What YouTube has done is it’s made it so you look at this YouTuber and you think ‘wow anyone can have this life, this isn’t a famous person, this is just an average person’,” she says. “The fact is they’re not average at all. These are famous people the same way Taylor Swift is famous.”

Lucia worries that YouTubers normalise unachievable and extraordinary lives in a way that can damage young girls. There’s no real way of knowing how many other people feel like her, but there are clues. After six years on YouTube, Lucia gained a modest 1,000 subscribers. In the last month, she has earned 25,000 more – after she started making videos criticising the beauty guru community.

“I’ve got so many people saying ‘this is the channel I’ve needed’ or ‘this is what I’ve been looking for’,” she says. A grateful comment on one of her videos reads: “I’ve been very vulnerable and impressionable to the beauty gurus. I got into terrible debt.” Cronyism in the YouTube community means others have been scared to speak out against big YouTubers before, for fear of damaging their own success.

“My dad was like ‘Aren't you scared that the beauty gurus are gonna see you?’,” Lucia says. “And I’m like no, I’m not scared of them.”

It is already well documented that YouTubers have an extreme influence on purchasing behaviour, so that when Zoella recommends a product it sells out in minutes, or a toy review from Toys AndMe “guarantees” that toy’s success. But what is the psychological effect of YouTubers constantly reviewing and recommending products to children and teens? While Lucia and Tim Kasser’s observations can’t be generalised to all YouTube fans, they are certainly thought-provoking.

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh