Child Stars Don't Need Hollywood. They Have YouTube
"Do you like Instagram?" Bee Fisher asks her son, Tegan Fisher, a 3-year-old Instagram sensation who specializes in posing next to his family's enormous Newfoundlands. He doesn't seem to understand the question.
"Is this yogurt cooled down?" Tegan replies.
"Do you like Instagram? Do you like taking pictures?" Bee asks again. Once again, the temperature of yogurt prevails. "He means, 'Has the yogurt thawed?' Our fridge froze them," Bee explains.
Finicky appliances are one of the challenges of RV life, and Bee and her family of five have been living in one for the past few months. They're on a countrywide tour, taking pictures and meeting fans. "They think we're on vacation," she says of Tegan and his brothers. "We've tried to explain that this is the family business, but they don't understand social media at all."
The kids may not understand social media, but social media definitely gets them—some 200,000 people look at photos of Bee's brood daily. (Bee and her husband, Josh, took the kids to a packed sports stadium to demonstrate the scale of their fanbase.) The Fisher family feed offers up a winsome, (literally) sanitized version of life with three boys under 8 and two dogs that weigh more than 100 pounds. In place of temper tantrums and cranky spouses, you'll find a perfectly curated world of smiles and hand-holding. Even snapshots that are powerfully mundane, like the family sitting outside their RV or a kid biting into a pastry the size of his head, have scores of likes. In 2019, that's enough to convert kiddie cuteness into a commodity.
In recent years, hundreds of kids have risen to bankable internet stardom on Instagram and YouTube. Marketers, ever the wordsmiths, have dubbed them "kidfluencers." They're the child stars of the social media age, tiny captains of industry with their own toy lines and cookbooks. On Instagram, families seem to go for a controlled-chaos aesthetic—a Kondo'd Jon & Kate Plus 8. On YouTube, it's more like late-capitalist Blue's Clues. And somehow, despite the brand deals and the creeps in the comments and the constant watchfulness of parents' cameras and the general ickiness our society attaches to living the most innocent years of your life on a public stage, these kids seem all right.
No influencer, adult, child, or animal, is internetting as well as Ryan, of Ryan ToysReview. Ryan—last name undisclosed, location undisclosed—is a preternaturally cheerful and well-spoken 7-year-old who made $22 million last year testing toys on YouTube (many from his own product line, Ryan's World), trying kiddie science experiments, and doing regular stuff like swimming "in a Super Cold Icy Swimming Pool!!!" for an audience of more than 18 million.
Chris Williams, CEO of Pocket.watch, the studio Ryan is partnered with, assures me that perma-grinning YouTube Ryan is who this kid really is—and that last year's windfall is no fluke. Traditional kids' television, according to Williams and to ratings, is dying its too-uncool-for-school death, and it's only been in the last two years that the industry and advertisers have worked out where their audience went: away from the TV set and onto their smartphones. Now that brands have found a way into this highly impressionable group's watchtime, and their parents' wallets, it's hard to imagine why they'd stop.
If you take their parents at their word, these kids' fame and fortunes were accidental: Nobody expected, or even seem to have wished, this for them. Ryan has been on YouTube since he was 3, years before "kidfluencing" would become a profitable venture; his parents figured videos would be a good way to share Ryan's toddlerhood with family who lived abroad. As for the Fishers, their account started as a family photo album that blew up after a 2016 interview with The Daily Mail—from 3,000 to 20,000 followers in one week. Teen chef Amber Kelley, who has become YouTube's Jamie Oliver, championing fresh and healthy food done so simply even a child can do it, couldn't imagine anyone but her grandparents watching a stone-faced 9-year-old cook in an oversized chef's jacket.
Now Kelley has her own cookbook and has dined with Michelle Obama. The Fishers have done sponsored posts for Chick-fil-A. Ryan's parents refer to their "brand" as a "global franchise." It all makes one start to wonder, despite assurances from everyone involved, if there’s any stage-parent weirdery here. "I don't want to have a child 15 years from now sitting in a therapist's office saying my parents made me take pictures every day," Bee Fisher says. "If there're days they're totally not into it, they don't have to be." Well, one exception: "Unless it's paid work," Fisher adds. "Then they have to be there. We always have lollipops on those days."
If incentivizing kids with candy seems pretty normal, it is—these kids are safer and better cared for than you might expect. Oddly, the medium in which they work, the internet, seems to cushion them against Child Starification. Most video shoots don't take more than a few hours, and a paparazzi-free near-anonymity is attainable; Ryan goes to public school and plays on local sports teams.
Chris Williams, CEO of studio Pocket.watch
"Their fame is not walking down red carpets or selling out shows at Madison Square Garden," Williams says. "It's numbers on a screen." As long as grown-ups don't let the pressures of social media stardom pollute their offline relationship with their kids, this form of celebrity seems lower-key and lower-impact than most. Even hiring a project manager for your kid, as Amber Kelley's mom, Yohko Kelley, did, can be a way to preserve a sense of normalcy. "I don't want to be nagging her about uploading and nagging her to clean up her room," Yokho says.
That's been good for Amber, who notes she can't say "Oh, it's just my mom" when her manager asks her to work. "It helped us make sure there was a line between our business life and family life," she says.
Of course, there are still bad parts to being visible on the internet. A few years ago, Amber's parents noticed a commenter getting obsessive, even stalker-ish—commenting too soon and too much and too aggressively adoringly, which is bad enough when directed at adult women, horrifying when directed at a 10-year-old. Yokho used it as a teaching moment, going over what is OK to share with subscribers and what isn't, how to report people, how to avoid getting lured in by trolls. "Now she can handle the haters and creeps," Yokho says.
Internet weirdos are, in some ways, the least of these parents' worries. "It's so much scarier on the road," Bee Fisher says. She has to go through an entire stranger-danger routine every time they meet up with fans, which has happened in almost every city on their itinerary. "I'll say, 'These people will know your name. They will know mommy and daddy's names. But you don't go anywhere with them,'" Bee says.
Even with those precautions, they've had a few harrowing experiences. Once, they arranged to get dinner with a fan who bought the family expensive gifts. The fan never showed, not even after the family waited 90 minutes in a crowded mall. "I got this awful, bizarre feeling," Bee says. Bee and Josh became petrified that someone was waiting for the right moment to grab a child or was sneaking into the RV to steal the dogs they'd left behind. Nothing happened, but even two months later and over the phone, the anxiety was apparent.
None of this can possibly last—right? Social media stardom seems to be like childhood itself: The longer you cling to it, the grosser it gets. The Fishers admitted to a certain fatigue. The Kelley family has found a happy medium in being modest micro-influencers: "Maybe we're not milking it as much as we should, but she's a kid! This is just one of the many things she should try," says. "I'm happy she's learning."
Ryan's parents are pursuing a different endgame: a kind of post-child relevance. Their partnership with Pocket.watch has resulted in a lifestyle brand, Ryan's World, which has more Ryan-approved toys and less Ryan. "We've worked hard to create and incorporate animated characters like Combo Panda and Alpha Lexa into our content," they say. "We recognize he will get older."
Ryan the idea could continue to exist, in other words, long after Ryan the kid grows up—every parent's dream.