Always land their bottles perfectly upright, Max Cole has spent hours studying their routine, and now, his own viewers are waiting empty half the blue juice. Hold the Powerade bottle by its cap. Flip it into the air and “Dude!” Max shouts. “It landed!” Max, who is 6, waves his arms. He knows just how to overreact to get his audience excited, what makes them click “thumbs up” and comment and subscribe. He jumps, He wiggles his hips, He does the dab, a dance move that looks like he’s sneezing into his elbow. “Oh, my gosh!” he yells. “That is insane!” But no one is watching. Max’s family is used to hearing him pretend that strangers on the Internet can see him.
In the six years he’s been growing up, YouTube has become the largest platform for children’s entertainment on Earth. Today’s kids have little interest in the well-groomed child actors that past generations saw on TV. They want to watch each other. Videos of kids simply acting like kids attract millions of viewers, sometimes billions.
Every moment of childhood getting new toys, tagging along to the grocery store, making up games in their back yards is material that can be recorded and uploaded. So is it any wonder that the children who watch these videos begin to act as if their entire lives are being recorded, too? Max Cole, 6, flips bottles in the backyard of his Texas home. On YouTube, trends like bottle-flipping spread quickly among kids of all ages and locations and attract millions of views. For the youngest members of the next generation, sometimes called Generation Z, the distinction between the online world and real life is fading.
Parents are having to explain to their toddlers that the children whose whole lives they see on the screen aren’t actually their friends. They’re finding their kids methodically “unboxing” their toys, as if they’ve been paid to review them for an audience. “Who are you talking to?” a parent will ask. “The viewers,” their children reply. “For them it’s just normal,” Max’s mom, Shona Cole, says. “It wouldn’t even make sense to him not to film.” Because cameras are all around Max and children of his age. The Coles have six kids, two dogs, three cats and 18 screens, nearly all with “record” buttons. Max’s little brother Mark Adam, who is 3, knows how to start recording on an iPad.
Their 10-year-old sister Annie films herself having sleepovers, shopping at Target and going to Chick-fil-A. “Hey guys!” Annie says, holding out the lens to face herself. “It’s 5 o’clock, it’s dinner time so, yeah, I’m so excited, I love Chick-fil-A.” She posts the videos, with her mother’s supervision, to her YouTube channel, “Annie’s Vlogs.” They appear alongside videos from hundreds of other girls who vlog their lives, too. More than 36,000 people will watch Annie in the back seat of her mother’s SUV, going through the Chick-fil-A drive-through near her house north of Houston. In the world of YouTube, that’s not very many.
Annie and her younger brothers never knew the time before the Internet, when kids were taught not to talk to strangers. Now, they want to share their lives with as many strangers as they can. Annie turns the camera toward Max and Mark Adam. “Say hi,” she instructs. “Hiiiii,” they say, waving their little hands at people they’ll never meet. Annie Cole shows her family a YouTube video. The Coles don’t have cable; all of their children prefer to watch YouTube, which has become the world’s largest platform for children’s entertainment.
The first video on YouTube was uploaded in 2005, four years before Max Cole was born. The site’s co-founder stands in front of two elephants at the zoo, telling the camera how they have “really, really, really long trunks, and that’s cool.” It was a completely unremarkable 18 seconds and a foreshadowing of the cultural force to come. Mark Adam adores watching other little boys who do nothing but open eggs with plastic toys inside. Max would rather watch another kid play Minecraft than play it himself. Annie doesn’t aspire to meet celebrities but the girls who get millions of views for braiding hair. Kids have always learned by mimicking their peers.
Now, the children watching YouTube are seeing role models who don’t just play they perform. They’re not just experiencing childhood, but constantly considering how their experiences will be perceived by an audience. Which is why, on Halloween, Annie is skipping down the sidewalk of a suburban neighborhood, being filmed by her mother, aware that thousands of children will soon be watching her trick-or-treat. Her pink fairy wings bob as she looks back at the camera with a candy-filled pillowcase swinging at her side. “Get us walking toward you,” she tells her mom, pausing near a streetlight so she can be captured next to her best friend, Hope Nixon, as they stride toward the camera.