The summer of sponsored content
“‘It’s easier to grow on Instagram than it is to get a raise at a job,’ says Angie, a 17-year-old from Montana who says she has made $1,500 since she started posting sponsored content in June. ‘You manage yourself.’”
Entrepreneurial teens are having a moment. A very long moment. One that may someday be seen as the beginning of a revolution smashing through traditional conceptions of employment and education. For now, it’s making its mark on an institution at their intersection: the summer job.
#Sponcon—aka, sponsored content, the featuring of (or shout-outs to) brands or companies in social media posts in exchange for compensation—has long been a staple of celebrity web presences. As Gen Z comes into its own, though, traditional celebrity influencers are giving way to a new class of social media star—whose influence grows, ouroboros-like, out of simply being on social media. And as this Atlantic piece points out, you don’t need that large of an audience to be considered an “influencer”; amassing a few thousand followers was enough for many of the teens mentioned to start soliciting payments from brands for posting about their products.
I can already hear the generation-shamers clamoring in the distance: “These darn kids are making money posting selfies! Get off the couch and get a real job!” Well, consider the fact that, especially for young upstarts who may not even be out of their tweens, the sponcon life is a double-edged sword. With a declining in-store retail sector and more competition with older workers for available jobs, Gen Z might reasonably see making money online as a more obtainable option. And yet when they do dip their toes into the world of sponcon, they’re vulnerable to the whims of a shadow economy based on informal agreements and PayPal payments, and where they may be ghosted by clients without warning.
The most worrisome part for a personal finance writer? The fact that most kids seem to be running their mobile side hustles without their parents knowing or fully understanding the scope of their newfound nontraditional employment. That’s not to say you shouldn’t encourage an entrepreneurial spirit in your child, or that you should helicopter over their every move all summer break long. But if they’re going to conduct a financial life online, they should know some safety basics about identity theft. And it pains me a little that these kids won’t have the experience I had of working the register at the local diner; there’s something to said for learning the ropes of customer service—and working with cash.
But our economy is going through a digital transformation. There’s no stopping that train, and Gen Z kids are driving it. If you suspect you’ve got a secret high earner living under your roof (hint: look for the telltale, FCC-mandated #ad hashtag on social media posts), sit your kid down and talk about it. Chances are she’s got questions, and even if you don’t know your clickbait from your click-through rate, you’ve got answers about making wiser choices with money.