“Adam just caught the most gigantic bass, Mom,” my son exclaims as if Adam is a neighbor, a school friend, or at the very least, someone I know. But I quickly realize my eleven-year-old son is referring to one of his favorite “YouTubers.” Adam and others like him are creeping more and more into my son’s conversation and I recognize he’s learning new terminology, visiting new places, and encountering a host of new experiences. For this reason, I am eager to get to know Adam, understand the reason for my son’s enthusiasm, and explore what he is teaching through his videos.

My son is not alone. A large number of U.S. children have told Highlights in their 2018 State of the Kid survey that celebrities are a key and growing influencer in their lives. Yes, parents remain the top influencer and second and importantly, teachers also capture children’s admiration. But increasingly our children also look to the personalities on their screens for role modeling. Whether it’s an e-gamer (playing competitive video games) or a reality television show star or a professional athlete, fifteen percent of children ages 6-12 report that they admire and respect celebrities. In addition to noting that those role models are caring and kind, they said they were generous, helped others, were smart, and knowledgeable.

It’s no surprise that celebrities are rising in their influence considering that the average child is on screens between seven and eight hours per day. As parents, we know the dangers that lurk with a simple word search and click of a “return” key, so we may feel worried, even fearful, as our child explores the world through our home screens. Yet if she or he were to join a club, organization, or extracurricular, we wouldn’t hesitate to get to know those involved. The same is true for our child’s digital community.

We have an opportunity to lean in and learn from our resident experts and enthusiasts, our children. It won’t serve our trusting relationship if we play “Gotcha!,” attempting to catch our child straying into the danger zone. But if we genuinely express interest and allow our child to lead our exploration, they may just grant us entry. We’ll have the chance to become reflective with them about what they are viewing, preparing our kids with the skills and tools they need to become screen smart. In turn, we’ll grow in our own ability to trust their new and ever-expanding world.

How to Connect Over Celebs

Getting to know our child’s influencers when we can shake a hand and make eye contact seems do-able. But what about celebrity influencers? How do we get to know them? Here are a few tips for parents.

  1. Ask your child about their interests and influencers with an open mind. Though we may fear what they could run into as they surf the web, their digital community is just that, yet another group they engage with. If your child joined a school club like the Girl Scouts, you’d learn more about all of the individuals involved. So too with their digital community, get to know the players involved led by your child.
  2. Select and review new content together. Help your child learn to become proactive about reviewing the appropriateness of content with you and explain why that’s important showing the benefit. If your child has ever encountered a terrifying video, ask if those images have stayed in his or her mind. That’s an easy, relatable way to explain that not all content is appropriate or desirable (for kids and for adults!). Seek out review sites like Common Sense Media. Together, type in the new app, game, or movie and learn more before viewing!
  3. Share regular updates on influencers. At family dinners, the conversation may naturally turn to the events of the day. If you know that a YouTube star is influencing your child, then bring that influencer into your conversation. “What’s he up to lately?” If that star makes a poor decision that could harm herself or others, discuss her choices and the real-world consequences of those choices. Keeping an open conversation can not only give you invaluable insights into who your child is looking to for social cues but also could keep your child safe since she’ll know she can come to you if and when there is a problem.
  4. Replace fear with curiosity and empathy. After all, fear comes from the unknown. If we, as parents, are in touch with our child’s influencers, we don’t have to fear them. We can recall our own experiences of teen idol posters taped up on our bedroom walls. Or recall when we dog-eared and carefully noted the time when a television special would air our favorite star. Our children are feeling that same glow of admiration. And we can join in their enjoyment as we cuddle up next to them and their iPad to learn more.

The community of influencers on our children has and will continue to grow. Our ability to reach out, learn, and connect with those individuals will only deepen our trust and intimacy with our children. As for me, I’m delighted that my son, his friends, and indeed U.S. children are focused on learning from adults who are caring, kind, and generous.

Jennifer Miller, M.Ed., has a master’s degree in education and twenty years of experience focused on children’s social and emotional learning. Author of the site Confident Parents, Confident Kids, Miller is a regular expert contributor to NBC Education Nation’s Parent Toolkit and has contributed articles or interviews to popular publications such as the Washington Post, Parents magazine, the Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington’s Thrive Global, Deseret National News, and NYMetroParents magazines.