A young girl looks lovingly at a box of freshly baked pizza and a bottle of Pepsi. She lip syncs to a romantic Bollywood song, “Teeja mangu kya khuda se” and as she serenades the pizza, she picks up a slice.

This short video clip, at the time of writing, has clocked over 4.5 lakh views on Instagram. It belongs to 20-year-old Rajvee Gandhi from Mumbai, who has 620,000 followers on Instagram. Rajvee is not a celebrity nor a star kid. She is one of many social media influencers, whose, popularity stems from Instagram and Tik Tok.

Who are social media influencers?
Social media influencers are people who post sponsored content on Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube and Facebook on various brands ranging from fashion and beauty to travel and fitness. After amassing thousands of followers, a number of teenagers are becoming social media influencers. Their love affair with social media sites has turned them from ordinary teens to online personalities.

Take Somya Gupta, who shot to Instagram fame when she was 19. Like most people, she began with a humble 300-400 followers, who were mostly friends and acquaintances. It was her passion for fashion which motivated to create an account on the social media platform, uploading the occasional picture every week or so.

“Gradually, people started messaging me, they wanted to know where I buy my clothes and accessories. They also asked me to upload more pictures. So, I became more active with a post going up every day,” Somya recalls. Impressed by her taste in fashion, people would share her posts, slowly gathering more and more followers with very photograph or video.

Somya’s Instagram profile is filled with pictures of her posing in different settings. She holds out a mobile phone in one – endorsing the brand; she sits at the back of jeep wearing a long flowy skirt and a pink spaghetti, informing her followers of where to shop for the same look; in another post she wears long, yellow socks and declares she’s standing up for children and “their right to a happy childhood”. But not all her posts are endorsements. In one video that has over 1.4 lakh views, Somya gets wheeled in a shopping cart as she announces, “Birthday month!!!”

She recently celebrated her 21st birthday but success has already come her way. Advertising for over 50 brands including Calvin Klein, Loreal, Lakme, Maybelline and One Plus, this Computers Science undergraduate earns around Rs 2 lakh a month. In a promotional video for Garnier Light Cream, Somya is seen tip-toeing across her room, playing with balloons and flipping her hair while painting hearts on her cheeks with the cream.

Initially, she was approached by a few local brands who wanted her to review their products on her account. “I wasn’t paid by them, they just gave me their products. But as my followers began to grow, bigger brands approached me,” Sowmya notes.

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She adds that are agencies that connect social media influencers with brands. These agencies get a commission when a deal is signed between the influencer and a brand. The agencies also help influencers in creating creative videos to attract followers. It’s mostly accessory, clothing, tech and footwear brands that approach teenage social media influencers. While some brands mention a specific number of pictures and stories that need to be posted along with the captions and hashtags, others allow the influencers to decide.

While this social media influencer continues to pursue her Bachelor’s degree, Somya says her plan is to eventually start her own clothesline and YouTube channel after graduation.

A demanding job
Being a social media influencer may seem exciting and easy, but there’s a lot of work that goes behind the posts. Yogita Gupta, an 18-year-old, Bachelor’s in Commerce student from Mumbai has 3.65 lakh followers on Instagram. In comparison to other influencers, she has only 83 posts but thousands have liked each one.

Explaining the work behind each post that goes up, Yogita says that every week she dedicates one day to go to different locations, where she shoots multiple pictures. “I carry four to five outfits with me and get numerous pictures clicked so that I can upload one or two pictures every day”, Yogita says. Given that it is a creative platform, she also uploads pictures embedded with colourful visual designs to break the monotony of posed shots.

While Yogita’s friends pitch in, helping her manage three Instagram accounts, uploading pictures and stories on her behalf, Somya says she has a photographer who clicks and edits pictures for her when she goes for photo shoots. But on other occasions, when she’s on holiday or casually decides to put out a personal post, Somya says her friends help out.

Easy money?
Bhargav Kheni from Surat with 75,000 followers, has quit his education at the age of 19. “I did not plan to become an influencer. But I started gaining a lot of popularity in my friends’ circle and beyond because of my unique photo editing skills,” he explains. As his popularity and followers began to grow, local brands started approaching him. Bhargav decided to discontinue his studies to focus on being a social media influencer.

He is paid Rs 500 for one picture and two stories from brands. Like most influencers, he mentions a code in his posts, such as “LIKEBHARGHAV50”. So when a customer uses this code, they avail a 50% discount, while the influencer gets a certain percentage from the sale -around 20%.

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17-year-old Piyush Chaudhary from Delhi is paid Rs 3000 for marketing a brand for a duration of one month. And while he admits that it may not be much, Piyush like many other teenagers are hopeful of attaining fame and success through social media. “The possibilities on Instagram are endless. If I gather more followers through my creative posts, I will be able to attract more brands and more money,” says Bhargav, who regularly experiments with his pictures. A recent worm’s eye view of Bhargav tying his shoelace got 13,668 likes and 516 comments.

But the (baffling) question is – why would brands invest in these youngsters? After all, they are no Alia Bhatt or Ranveer Singh. They’re not even budding stars like Priya Prakash Varrier – who became viral with a wink!

Why teenage social media influencers?
It boils down to relatability. Take Bollywood’s Alia Bhatt, who has 26.2 million followers on Instagram alone. But how many youngsters can afford and relate with her lifestyle? Young social media influencers, on the other hand, are perceived as “one of us”, representing a lifestyle and personality that is more relatable.

Harish Bijur, a brand expert explains, “Brands are about trust and integrity. And the immediate connect and credibility quotient is highest with a youth icon with a huge following on social media. A film star may have 20 million followers as opposed to a youth icon with just 20,000 followers. But these 20,000 followers believe everything that the influencer is telling them.” He observes that teenage social media influencers share the same age group, surroundings, demographics and interests of their target audience. So brands who target teens, tend to approach these young influencers.

Pressures and fears
And while getting free products and bags of money for posting ‘pretty pictures’ on social media seems like a breeze, it’s not all roses. There is a price to pay for being famous on social media.

Yogita admits that she is under pressure to look her best – attractive and fashionable – in every post. Editing pictures and finding the right filter to enhance one’s looks is just one aspect of this.

“I never repeat my clothes, poses and shoot location. I make sure that each of my pictures is different from the previous one because I don’t want my followers to get bored with my looks,” she says.

Would she ever upload an unedited picture of herself – sans makeup or filters? Yogita responds with a laugh.

Many social media influencers confess that they live in fear of losing their followers and popularity. With so much competition in the social media space, Bhargav says it’s important for him to maintain his popularity, which is the only way he can attract brands.
Yogita also fears that if she is not regular with uploading posts and stories, she may lose her followers. Most teenage influencers said that they upload at least one picture every day. Piyush Chaudhary believes that keeping in touch with followers through stories and live videos is a prerequisite to raising one’s popularity. “The more followers you have, the more brands you get. Followers are the key to success, thus losing them is a risk,” he says.

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The need to constantly update one’s followers every day has its drawbacks. “I have no privacy as I put up stories of where I am and what I’m doing. I want to create an impression in the minds of my followers,” says Bharghav. So too, Piyush says there is no question of privacy as his followers always know what he is up to.

But like most influencers, Piyush is ready to forgo his privacy for the sake of popularity.

What about their followers? What does social media influencing do to these young, impressionable minds?

Dr Divya Kumawat, a child psychologist explains, “Social media creates a false image of the world in the minds of teenagers. They compare their lifestyle with that of others. And this creates a feeling of lacking.”

Instagrammers upload curated stories and pictures of what they are doing, eating, watching and wearing. This creates a feeling of FOMO (Fear of missing out). “I constantly go on Instagram and view stories of others. There are a lot of popular and rich girls of my age who are always going partying. I feel bad when I see their posts because my parents will never let me go out at night,” says a 16-year-old girl who didn’t want to be named.

Dr Divya says that since reasoning is not strongly developed in children, they cannot identify what is real and what is not. The constant comparison in turn affects their self-esteem and self-confidence. “There are many 13 and 14-year-olds who want to attain success and fame through YouTube videos. They are not producing quality content because all they care about is the number of views and likes they get,” she says. Social media, very often, is a shortcut to fame.

This need for popularity arises from the need for appreciation and acknowledgement which is felt by all human beings but is higher in adolescents, says the child psychologist. So they try to derive it by being excessively active on social media, Dr Divya adds.

She, however, warns, “Once these children fall out of fame, it is going to be very difficult for them to cope. They need another form of encouragement rather than solely depending on social media.” #KhabarLive