Think today's kids want to be doctors or lawyers? Nope. YouTube stardom is the No. 1 dream career for young people today, at least according to a widely publicized survey by a British newspaper last spring.
The appeal is obvious: Some 20-somethings are making millions by playing video games or dispensing beauty tips online. But the pressure of having to endlessly produce original content that makes them look accessible, transparent and authentic has proved too much for some people, including Essena O'Neill. The former social media personality went public in her posts about experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety from living an overly curated life.
"The only time I felt better about myself, really, was the more followers, the more likes, the more praise, and the more views I got online," she said in her last video from 2015 before disappearing from social media entirely.
Living professionally online has also been a challenge for 24-year-old Lauren Riihimaki. More than 6 million people follow her YouTube channel, LaurDIY, which covers topics ranging from home decorating to her adoption of an adorable little dog.
"You can never just kind of turn it off and be like, 'OK, today I don't want to be me,' because that's your business," she said during an NPR interview earlier this summer at VidCon in Anaheim, Calif.
Riihimaki has a team of five people these days helping her manage her business, among them Adam Wescott, co-founder of Select Management Group, a talent agency just for YouTube stars.
Most of these stars are between the ages of 20 and 26. Unlike movie stars or rock stars, Wescott says, these video celebrities do most of their work themselves. "They're responsible for everything from developing an idea, to physically producing it, to starring in it, to directing it, to editing it, to programming it, to promoting and marketing," Wescott says. And to keep their hungry audiences satisfied, they should be doing all that at least twice a week.
That's why Lauren Riihimaki came close not just to burning out, but breaking down. "I have overcome and pushed the boundaries of my anxiety so insanely since I started YouTube," she says in one of her LaurDIY videos where she talks about the mental health pressures she's faced and that her work entails. Riihimaki says she sees a therapist and she's on medication. And that's been working for her.
Dana Julian, a Los Angeles therapist who does not work with Riihimaki, has a number of famous clients. She says one of the hardest things about managing life as a YouTube star is making a career out of something that can be an addiction.
"Our phones have become our dopamine," she says. "And getting those clicks and likes and followers is also that other dopamine." Anyone with a Facebook, Twitter or Instagram account is familiar with that neurotramitter rush. But now, imagine it magnified by millions of clicks, likes and followers.
To help maintain her mental equilibrium, Lauren Riihimaki filters out commenters' negative language "like 'ugly.' 'Fat.' 'Stupid.' 'Loser.' Just any bad word," she says. "I have like, 200 words filtered out, because, it's just like anything negative. If you don't need to see that, then you might as well not see it if you have the option to."
The upside to managing YouTube stars, says Wescott, is that he can generally tell how his clients are doing because they're on social media all the time. When they're clearly overwhelmed, he tells them to get offline for a while. Stop being a brand. Take some time just to be a person again.
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