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YouTube helped these kids find a community, but growing up online wasn’t easy

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Four VidCon stars discuss what it was like to be young, lonely, then wildly successful

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Conan Gray
YouTuber Conan Gray.
Conan Gray/YouTube

Ben J. Pierce started his YouTube channel when he was 11 years old. Feeling lonely and isolated in his own hometown of Dallas, Texas, Pierce hoped to connect with an engaged and growing community. He didn’t think much of the channel when he started; when his channel launched in 2010, making a living on YouTube wasn’t a possibility for most videomakers. Fame and fortune was never a thought. He created funny videos for whoever stumbled upon them, and perhaps more importantly, himself.

Pierce is now 19 and has more than 225,000 subscribers. He’s collaborated with famous YouTubers, including beauty vlogger James Charles, and lives in Los Angeles, working on YouTube videos full-time. He’s become a hero to kids, a proud representative of the LGBTQ community and, perhaps most importantly, aware of how much he needs to separate his public persona from his private life.

“You have to make sure you have an identity that isn’t just YouTube,” Pierce told a crowd of people during VidCon’s “Growing Up Online” panel. “The hard part about growing up online is that you’re growing up trying to get approval for a character you’re playing. It’s easy to forget that you’re a kid or a teenager trying to figure it out. Not everything has to be for the internet. It’s very easy to lose sight of that, and it’s so important to establish that you are not your YouTube channel.”

What is a YouTuber’s true identity? Is he, she or they the person that hundreds of thousands of people know them as, or are they that just a character? Everything is exaggerated just a little, the VidCon panelists told the crowd, so although the person in the video is authentic, their video is still being produced for entertainment purposes. It’s a concept that’s easier to have a handle on as an adult.

Everything on the internet is public and everlasting, and people tend to take certain measures to moderate how they behave on the internet. Trying not to embarrass yourself, or draw negative attention, is how most people approach their social media presence. This isn’t the same for kids, which is often why sites set an age requirement for people to join. Before young people can understand the imprint and potential consequences of a video, they post on YouTube, and anonymous viewers circulate them into a viral stream.

Conan Gray, a YouTuber with more than 750,000 creators, said there are videos from when he was a kid that he wished weren’t on the internet just because he’s come so far in the eight years since he started using YouTube. He was nine when he started.

“There are so many things that I said that, looking back on it, were dumb and ignorant,” Gray said. “I wish it wasn’t on the internet, but it is. I just learned that you don’t have to tell everyone everything. You can keep things to yourself. I learned to be careful with what I say because it will be there forever, and it will have an impact on my audience. I learned about that responsibility pretty early.”

Creators who joined YouTube when they were just kids quickly grew up. They developed rigorous posting schedules alongside going to school every day and working on homework, learned how to interact with massive social followings online, and still tried to find ways to enjoy being a kid. All of this was doable, but not without serious time management skills and figuring out a proper schedule. The hardest part of becoming a YouTuber as a kid, Gray and Pierce said, was learning how to not fall victim to the internet’s hate machine.

“Growing up online, it’s very easy to fall into this hate culture,” Pierce said. “It’s easy to make fun of someone or find an audience by being mean. I learned pretty early that if I’m going to say something online, is this something I really need to say or am I just saying it so I have a tweet? It’s easy to think, even as a creator, that if I say something mean about someone, they won’t see it because I’m no one, but someone will see it.”

MacDoesIt, a creator with almost 1.2 million subscribers, said that although “the internet can change lives for the better, especially on YouTube,” it’s important to remember that spending too much time on the internet, especially as a younger person, can be detrimental. He pointed to Twitter as an example, arguing that, “everything is black or white, he said-she said. There’s no more grey area.”

“It’s kind of a war growing up online right now,” MacDoesIt said. “Especially compared to years ago when we were all starting. I learned that you always have to stay true to yourself, and spend time away from the internet. The internet is pretty crazy right now.”

Kids on the internet are constantly taking in and seeking out information. A large portion of that info comes from YouTube videos and Twitch streams, according to security research firm Kaspersky Labs, and spending time on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. That means there are a lot of opinions flying at young kids and teenagers on any given day. It’s hard enough to combat the level of hate floating around the internet as a consumer; actively being a creator at the same time presents a whole new set of challenges.

“The internet is becoming a little too much for me right now,” Gray said. “I see so much terrible stuff online. It took a while for me as a kid to learn that there is a world outside of the internet, right in front of you, that you should enjoy. All my friends were online when I was a kid, so I spent so much time hanging out with them. But it was a different time.”

When Pierce, Gray and MacDoesIt started around 2010 and 2011, the internet was in a different age. Social media wasn’t quite the juggernaut that it is today; YouTube was just becoming a vlogging platform instead of a place for viral videos and cat goofs; and people who happened to be famous online were mostly young. That last part is still true, but as more people have moved their careers entirely online, the demographic of who earns a living solely from creating content on YouTube has widened. Still, being successful online extremely young creates a lot of pressure for creators now, Pierce said.

“The culture of the internet right now is to be very successful very young,” Pierce said. “There is a pressure to be extremely successful by 20, and then continue to build on that success because there’s always someone younger. It’s hard, but I taught myself to remember that we’re all kids and there’s literally no end cap to when someone can become successful.

“It’s a weird race to become as successful as possible when you’re a kid and that can be really damaging professionally, especially when the internet makes it easy to say the wrong thing.”

Part of learning how to navigate the internet as a young creator is being aware of who’s sharing videos. ChandlerNWilson, a creator with more than 225,000 subscribers, said they learned early on that some people will share videos to incentivize harassment or hate. Understanding who their audience was, and really coming to terms with the idea of a public persona, was something they had to face head on early in their career.

“There are a lot of people on the internet who are not very nice, and who are creepy, dangerous or rude,” ChandlerNWilson said. “I learned how to use YouTube’s filtering tools pretty early to protect myself from these types of people. YouTube is a really fun place, but I had to learn there are also a ton of creepy people who watch videos.”

Despite everything they had to deal with growing up, and the responsibility they have now, none of the four creators said they would trade in their current life or YouTube career. The most important aspect of YouTube when they first started remains the same today: connecting with different people around the world, feeling less isolated and developing friendships.

“The internet had people and I didn’t as a kid,” Gray said. “All of my friends today are people I met years ago on YouTube. That’s a powerful thing to realize.”