Skip to main content

«  View All Posts

Influencer Culture Is Toxic for Teenagers

April 23rd, 2024 | 4 min. read

By Patrick Miller


This post is part of a series exploring Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death chapter by chapter. You need not read the book or previous points to appreciate this one. You can find part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here, part 4 here, and part 5 here. In this essay, I will respond to Chapter 5: The Peek-a-Boo World.

In the middle of the 19th century, communication entrepreneurs rushed to stretch telegraph wires from coast to coast. The idea that an idea could travel across the country in a matter of seconds rather than several months wasn’t just revolutionary—it was lucrative. If a manufacturer or business owner could get the lead on his competitors by even a few weeks, he could win. And, of course, there were military applications.

But as with all technologies, there were naysayers. Henry David Thoreau wrote,

“We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. . . . We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.”

Over a century later, Neil Postman reflected that Thoreau turned out be right. The telegraph allowed people to telescope their attention, caring for matters the world over simply because they could know about such matters. He argues that what technology allows us to give our attention unto becomes the thing unto which we pay attention.

I know that’s obvious, but it’s not always obvious how much of our own lives are shaped similarly.

For example, let’s take the near ubiquitous example of online influencers. Individuals who use close shots and selfie videos to give their audience the impression that they’re close friends who are allowed intimate access into the influencer’s life.

Twenty years ago, someone might have assumed that a random person’s favorite lip gloss, pre-workout, or hunting loadout would be of no interest to anyone (except those who knew them personally, and even then it might be boring). But if you made that bet, you would’ve lost. In the same way telegraphs could make non-Englishmen care about princesses, reels, shorts and TikToks have made it possible for billions of non-influencers to care about the remarkably boring, quotidian details of others’ lives.

Of course, these others do have some notable features. They’re often more attractive than normal people, more wealthy than normal people, and more charming than normal people. They’ve managed to become famous for being famous.

Perhaps none of this is harmful. Does it really matter if you spend more time engaging with a pair of influencers in New York City than you do with your coworker? Maybe. Maybe not.

But where the real harm comes into play is with teenagers and preteens using smartphones.

Influencers’ Toxic Influence on Teens and Preteens

In his latest book, The Anxious Generation, Jonathan Haidt calls social media platforms “the most efficient conformity engines ever invented. They can shape an adolescent’s mental models of acceptable behavior in a matter of hours, whereas parents can struggle unsuccessfully for years to get their children to sit up straight or stop whining. Parents … are often no match for the socializing power of social media.”

This isn’t just his opinion. It’s rooted in research. Haidt, a behavioral psychologist from New York University, explains that both preteens and teens are biologically designed to pay attention to the behavior of others and emulate it. In particular, they’re designed to “detect prestige and then copy the prestigious.” This makes them stand apart from other primates, who tend to organize themselves in hierarchies based on physical dominance.

Haid writes,

But humans have an alternative ranking system based on prestige, which is willingly conferred by people to those they see as having achieved excellence in a valued domain of activity, such as hunting or storytelling back in ancient times. People can perceive excellence for themselves, but it’s more efficient to rely on the judgments of others.

Thus, if everyone in the village says John is the best horseman, you’ll likely look up to John as a horseman whether or not you’ve seen him ride. This is part of why celebrity culture in general is so addicting: the idea of a prestigious person who is known and valued by a whole society gives that person an aura. The larger their audience, the greater the effect. If you see them, you’re starstruck because you were designed to be. It’s biology.

But unlike adults, teens and preteens don’t always have the ability to differentiate between who is prestigious for right or wrong, or good or ill reasons. Two hundred years ago, no one had to worry about a teen emulating a bad person two hundred miles away; they were far more likely to emulate the citizens most people approved of (though, of course, criminals have always had their own sort of prestige).

In the social media era, everything has changed. Haidt writes,

Platform designers in Silicon Valley directly targeted this psychological system when they quantified and displayed the success of every post (likes, shares, retweets, comments) and every user, whose followers are literally called followers.

The difference is stark. It might take you a few days or weeks to figure out who the prestigious people are in a village, and that’s accomplished mostly by observation. But on social media, you can quantify prestige at a glance: look at followers, likes, shares, and views.

This actually hijacks preteens/teens from forming their own judgments because they’re still in the process of developing their ability to determine who is and isn’t worthy of emulation. Social media makes it easy, and the people it offers to them are rarely famous for any useful trait that serves society. Instead, they’re famous for their physical appearance, cutting sense of humor, wealth, sense of style, or some other noxious measure of value.

Postman called his era the “Peek-a-Boo World” because it was always jumping out and stealing our attention from one triviality to the next, making us all less serious, less civic, and less intelligent in the process.

But now we’ve given peek-a-boo machines to our children, and they don’t just steal attention; they offer role models and train them to care about shallow things that won’t make their lives any richer. Paul warns us that “Bad company corrupts good character” (1 Cor. 15:33). Big Tech has learned how to monetize this principle and poison our children in the process.

Patrick Miller

Patrick Miller (MDiv, Covenant Theological Seminary) is a pastor at The Crossing. He offers cultural commentary and interviews with leading Christian thinkers on the podcast Truth Over Tribe, and is the coauthor of the forthcoming book Truth Over Tribe: Pledging Allegiance to the Lamb, Not the Donkey or the Elephant. He is married to Emily and they have two kids.

Subvert the Internet Without Abandoning It

Learn how to retool the internet for Christian mission from digital practitioners, theologians, and creators.

The latest on faith and tech from leading Christian thinkers.