In an effort to best understand how young adults are using social media, the Organization for Social Media Safety maintains a Student Advisory Council composed of high school and college students from across the country.  Each month one of our Student Advisors contributes an article with his or her perspective on social media safety.

With the rise of social media, new jobs and business opportunities have emerged.  One of those, now well known to teens and young adults, is becoming a social media influencer.

An influencer uses their social media platforms to engage with their audience. Each influencer tends to focus on a particular interest area such as cooking tutorials explaining recipes, story-time videos, and sharing personal experiences.  Social media influencers operate on almost every social media network, the most popular being YouTube and Instagram.

Successful influencers often earn advertising deals with companies that pay the influencer to promote products to his or her audience. Most often, an influencer will incorporate a company’s product or service into one of their usual postings, either through videos or photos. In this discreet way, influencers can promote products and services without many of their viewers even being aware that the content contains a paid advertisement.

But, audiences need to be aware of when they are consuming advertisements. Many viewers on YouTube and Instagram consist of impressionable pre-teens and teenagers, and they tend to consider the influencers that they follow to be trustworthy and reputable and often want to use the products and services that the influencers are using.  This is of course why these individuals are called influencers in the first place and why some influencers are making such large amounts of advertising money.

The danger is when influencers promote products that may be harmful to young people.  The influencers themselves may not even be familiar with the products they promote and whether they are dangerous.  Or, they may be aware of the dangers or issues but prefer the payday.  When viewers do not know that a product is being advertised, they are not aware of this potential conflict of interest.

Last year, influencers on YouTube received criticism for promoting a controversial mental health service. Although the issue of mental health is important to address, many viewers pointed out the lack of rigorous professionalism of the service. Without proper vetting of healthcare practitioners, influencers can cause younger, vulnerable fans to fall victim to predatory business practices as well as dangerous or unlicensed mental health services.

Another instance of predatory advertising and sponsorship came in the form of a schoolwork service. This service provided essay writing, test notes, and other useful tools for students to enable student cheating. Worse, many influencers advertised this service by drawing attention to how students could not only get away with academic dishonesty but free up time for illegal and dangerous activities.

While viewing material from influencers, young people should always look for the phrase “#ad.” This indicates that the post contains an advertisement and that the viewer should pause before believing everything that the influencer is saying.

Although most influencer advertising deals may not be dubious or problematic, the seamless integration of advertising into content opens the door to many concerns. Adults may have the experience of spotting such advertising and protecting themselves, but the youth, who grow up on these social media platforms, may not realize and remain at risk of purchasing harmful or inappropriate products or services.

Kashika B. is a high school member of our Student Advisory Council.