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In the Era of Teen$ploitation

Our capitalist media culture of youth without youth

It must be a joke, we thought. It can’t be real. It looks like it came from a surreal meme account. But indeed, it existed: Teen Boss, the bubbly entrepreneurial magazine for girls, which, until its final issue in December 2018, offered everything a budding tween influencer might need to know in order to: “START A YOUTUBE CHANNEL!”; “MAKE QUICK CASH!”; “BUILD YOUR BRAND BY BEING YOU!”

What spawn of corporate hell was responsible for this? It was, in fact, the international company Bauer Media Group—namely, the creators of J-14, a celebrity tabloid for kids that was launched in 1998 and remarkably remains in print. Teen Boss was a mutation of the genre, a teen celebrity tabloid for a culture sadistically ruled by aspirations to celebrity, for an era when the social codes that once applied strictly to celebrities now curiously apply to us all. It was an old-media interpretation of Silicon Valley-style propaganda promising that you, too, could now be this famous.

Of course, the promise was a brazen lie, and a fitting one considering that Bauer Media Group is a historic publisher of lies geared toward women—by way of magazines like Woman’s World and First for Women, those checkout-aisle rags found adjacent to impulse-buy candy bars, their covers brimming with proto-clickbait headlines advertising secret tips on how to save thousands, melt belly fat, reverse aging, and sharpen memories. Following in the tradition of such age-old scam glossies, Teen Boss (stylized on its covers as Teen Bo$$) billed itself as a “quarterly magazine [that] will turn budding teen entrepreneurs into full-fledged business owners.” It was, it swore, “packed with inspiring stories of successful teens, celebrity product lines and more” that would “help teens dream big, learn fast and make money.”

The idea behind Teen Boss arose in 2016, when J-14’s then-editorial director Brittany Galla, also the head of Bauer’s teen division, decided to make something different. “We really sat down and thought, what else can we provide for our readers on the newsstand?” she said in a June 2017 interview with the finance web show Cheddar Business, which is filmed on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. “We arranged a lot of focus groups. . . . We really learned that these kids are really watching Shark Tank, they really have Shark Tank hour at school, there’s even Shark Tank class at school.” On Instagram, Galla observed teens selling slime and jewelry. She was inspired, she said, to “give them a guide book.”

In June 2017, the first issue of Teen Boss was printed and shipped to the shelves of Barnes & Nobles and Walmarts throughout America. It featured cutout business card templates! Mock checkbook practice pages! And, yes, a recurring advice column by Barbara Corcoran from Shark Tank! “Bauer really believes in the print model,” Galla explained to Cheddar. “It’s really our business model that works for us, and that we’re really confident in.”

But by 2018, Bauer had sold Teen Boss along with the rest of its celebrity and teen titles. The buyer was none other than American Media, Inc., publisher of the National Enquirer and Us Weekly. (You may recall hearing the media company’s name recently if you, um, tuned into Michael Cohen’s testimony before Congress.) Their announcement was concise: “Combined, the new AMI Entertainment Group will reach 38 million readers and deliver the youngest median age in the category,” boasted an AMI press release about the purchase. The company intended to publish Teen Boss four times per year, with a distribution of 150,000 and a target readership aged eight to fifteen—a complex range that includes kids, tweens, and teens, demographic subsets that could be fairly described as having different and even divergent needs.

Be Your Self-Worth

In March 2019, AMI confirmed to The Baffler that Teen Boss had “folded” and that its December 2018 issue had been its last. But what it represented, during its two years of existence, is significant. Teen Boss claimed to be a magazine about founding and building businesses, but let it be known: this was a publication largely devoted to teaching young girls how to become Instagram influencers and YouTube personalities—a prospect with immense consequences that it dangled in front of its readers while failing to accept the necessary responsibilities.

A function of this marketable cultural obsession with microcelebrity is classism, which Teen Boss doled out in large supply. It’s fair to say that young people from a range of backgrounds need to find work in order to support themselves, their families, their futures—often as a means of survival. Clearly, however, this publication was not for them; there is a reason it was titled Teen Boss and not Teen Worker, or Teen Paper Route, or even Teen Business: the term “boss” signals power, authority, and elite status. If this appears obvious, just imagine the number of alternative approaches Teen Boss might have taken: a more consciously useful text could have taught preteens about financial literacy, or placed greater emphasis on the kind of off-the-books work that fits into an after-school or weekend schedule. Rather than, say, indoctrinating them into an influencer economy.

The magazine, in this respect, serves as a reminder that media aimed at girls is routinely condescending and duplicitous—and that the culture of social media remains stacked against young women, who are too often presented with a brand of bankable Lean-In-lite feminism. Teen Boss’s paucity of alternative ideas about how a young woman might live in the world, or how working teens might develop a healthy relationship to their own labor, becomes cruelly apparent when you read the magazine’s Facebook reviews. “Thank you for creating a publication that teaches girls that it is ok to dream big,” wrote one mom. “Finally a magazine I will buy for my daughters!” wrote another. And then this capstone: “Keep up the good work empowering girls!!!!” The efficiency with which the faux-empowerment, build-your-brand-by-being-you ethic has targeted teen girls is dispiriting, especially when you consider that such marketing has historically been aimed at making those same girls question their self-worth.

Teen Boss is a magazine that doesn’t so much market to kids but rather convinces them to become marketers themselves, teaching them to use their social connections to sell shit for brands and corporations.

“It’s too bad because girls at the ages [Teen Boss] is targeted to, ages eight to eleven, are going through a really tricky developmental moment where they become more withdrawn,” said Melissa Campbell of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) when we spoke by phone in February. Campbell explains that a girl’s self-esteem often plummets around age nine. “A lot of that has to do with whether or not you see yourself as a fully embodied person who is creating something in the world [or] whether you are something to be consumed.”

It’s here—beyond its meme-like absurdity—that Teen Boss reveals its particular strain of parasitic nefariousness: it fed on the developmental vulnerabilities of its young readers. “A magazine like this is really insidious,” Campbell added, “because it makes you think that you’re building your power, because you have a vision, you want to carry it out, you want to make something of yourself—but really what you’re doing is monetizing your experiences [and] setting yourself up to be consumed, literally, through your videos and your content and your personality.” The turn represented by Teen Boss, Campbell concluded, is that it was “being sold to you [as if] you’re embodied and in charge.”

Bill of Right$

The inaugural Teen Boss cover featured four YouTubers and the young founder of a touring social media festival under the headline “THE HOTTEST SOCIAL MEDIA STARS TELL ALL: HOW TO MAKE MONEY ONLINE RIGHT NOW!” alongside a story describing how to “turn your piggy bank into millions.”

“Summer is a good time to build followers because everyone is out of school!” recommended one of the cover stars.

“It took a couple of months before I started to gain followers,” another admitted. “But when I first got recognized in public, it gave me this amazing feeling that I could do anything.”

In a later issue, the personal brand management strategy provided by yet another YouTuber was more practiced and involved—and curiously adult:

Followers like consistent content from the brands they love, so keeping them up-to-date on the latest promotions and having limited sales they can find out about on your page will create more buzz for it and make people want to follow you for more rewards . . . When businesses collaborate with each other on Instagram, they are able to share their brand with new people they may not have reached otherwise. This is a fun and simple way to show more people what you’re about and gain additional followers.

This hybrid prose, straightforward but steeped in the “best practices” rhetoric of established digital brands, made reading Teen Boss feel like one enormous advertisement for Google, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram—the platforms at the core of the modern surveillance-capitalism machine. To see their names in retro Teen Beat-style hot pink and highlighter yellow, in ALL-CAPS exhilaration (a headline: “OMG! A PEEK INSIDE INSTAGRAM’S HQ!”), is to glimpse the smoldering flames of the free-market inferno. Social media companies routinely and unapologetically violate child privacy laws meant to protect those under the age of thirteen—a significant portion of the Teen Boss target readership.

It’s worth remembering that young people online are supposed to be shielded by the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which puts limits on what can be done with the data of kids aged twelve and under. Websites directed at children, and websites that are popular with children, are required to take special precautions with children’s data—in fact, parental permission is required before that data can be collected at all. Corporations like YouTube and Facebook, however, knowingly evade these regulations by claiming that their products are meant for users aged thirteen and over.

The efficiency with which the faux-empowerment, build-your-brand-by-being-you ethic has targeted teen girls is dispiriting, especially when you consider that such marketing has historically been aimed at making those same girls question their self-worth.

“YouTube is the most popular website for children in the entire world, and they know it,” Campbell told me. And yet YouTube, in its Terms of Service, claims that its product is not for children under the age of thirteen; it shrewdly invites kids to “talk to your parents about what sites are appropriate for you.” Further, YouTube insists that children under thirteen are directed to YouTube Kids, a separate app with its own privacy policy. Despite these claims, the primary version of YouTube is still producing children’s content and programming. “If kids are on YouTube, watching kids’ videos, all of their data is just getting hoovered right up into Google’s ad machine,” Campbell explained. According to CCFC, this amounts to a blatant violation. The organization is currently part of a privacy coalition working on recommendations for comprehensive privacy protection and digital rights in the United States; they’re the voice within the coalition representing children.

Facebook’s approach to their young users is no less worrisome. “We try to make Facebook broadly available to everyone, but you cannot use Facebook if you are under thirteen years old,” reads its Terms of Service. Under the Facebook umbrella, Instagram’s Terms say that it “requires everyone to be at least thirteen years old before they can create an account (in some jurisdictions, this age limit may be higher). If your child is younger than thirteen and created an account on Instagram, you can show them how to delete their account.”

In a Senate hearing last year, Mark Zuckerberg was pressed about children’s privacy laws, particularly concerning Facebook’s Messenger Kids app. Designed for young children under the premise of providing a tool for parents, it’s in reality more of a marketing directive meant to mine the data of young people who have absconded from the platform in recent years for apps like Snapchat and TikTok. Tellingly, when asked if he would support a privacy bill of rights for children where opt-in is the standard, Zuck said no.

Nor has this dubious practice abated with the emergence of newer apps and platforms aimed at young users. After reading a full-page Teen Boss spread celebrating a teenpreneur who “used to build a business” and become a “nineteen-year-old CEO,” I immediately thought of the lawsuit recently brought against, which has now been folded into TikTok: they were sued for over $5 million by the FTC for violating children’s privacy laws.

“There are ways that platforms like YouTube could change to consider the interests of kids and teens,” Campbell told me. “If something was built with teens and kids needs in mind, there would be stops built in. There wouldn’t be autoplay. There wouldn’t be visible likes. There wouldn’t be all of those things that trigger a teen’s need to belong, or their fear of being an outcast, which are very developmentally appropriate concerns. A platform built for teens or a media system built for teens would recognize that and build their platforms in a way that made space for that, rather than exploiting it for profit.”

Ad(olescent) Content

It’s easy to laugh about Teen Boss; to see it as just a passing meme or a joke. But what it represents about the way young people are failed by platform capitalism is a serious concern. The problems with Teen Boss will outlive Teen Boss, and they speak to a society-wide dereliction of responsibility with regard to the effects of predatory tech products on our culture, on our ability to meaningfully hear ourselves and others, and on our willingness to communicate in a way determined by social need and not the profit motive. Vulnerable populations are made more vulnerable under these conditions, including kids and tweens especially.

Capitalism has always exploited and deadened the imagination. Platform capitalism takes this a step further by repackaging this exploitation and selling it as empowerment. By encouraging young people and teenagers to become influencers, these companies push them into a commodified space filled with negative forces that run counter to their interests.

All of this is compounded by the fact that these platforms are likewise in thrall to advertising, and advertising is in turn more and more the domain of influencers. In this way, Teen Boss is a magazine that doesn’t so much market to kids but rather convinces them to become marketers themselves, teaching them to use their social connections to sell shit for brands and corporations.

Within this sick realm is Adolescent Content, a self-described “marketing, advertising agency and production company dedicated to helping brands reach Gen Z, youth and teens.” Based in Los Angeles, the firm works with several agents of global capital, affording their #creators formative teenage experiences in collaboration with Converse, Nike, Target, Netflix, Samsung, Disney, and of course, Bud Light, to name just a few eager partners. “We capture the Gen Z attention span with strategically developed content that is made for social media,” they explain on their website.

The culture of social media remains stacked against young women, who are too often presented with a brand of bankable Lean-In-lite feminism.

Adolescent Content prides itself on bringing youth into the process of marketing to youth, suggesting implicitly that this prospect is #empowering instead of utterly horrifying. The firm offers a suite of creator services: commercial projects, brand opportunities, management, access to publishing on its “zine”-like site “Creators” can submit their work for possible representation free of charge, but they’re also encouraged to upgrade to $10/month “PRO” or $75/month “PRO Mentorship” levels, which unlock added bonuses on the website and Instagram account, including access to a private Slack community and private events in New York and L.A., brand opportunities, video calls, career plans, and—of course—“notes on personal brand.”

“Becoming a member is a great start to helping you grow as an artist or boosting your career,” explains Adolescent Content’s FAQ. “We are the world’s first and only place that helps young creators like yourself get paid by brands for their artistic work. We are experts in developing you to the point of getting commercial opportunities.”

The influencer economy at large is a scourge that needs to be broadly reckoned with and regulated. But it’s clear that there’s a particular urgency when it comes to curtailing the growing corporate tendency to persuade young people into branding and commodifying their social lives. This new, or at least evolved, form of exploitation cannot be normalized.

Wrath of the Popular

Last summer, I volunteered at a girls’ rock camp facilitating media literacy workshops, inspired by many a rock-camp media literacy workshop before me. These workshops usually consisted of passing out advertisements pulled from teen magazines and encouraging campers to discuss how the cutouts made them feel—and to shout back about stereotypes, body image, and corporate advertising. But this time, no doubt given the mutating forms of social media and advertising, the activity felt dated. There is so much more that needs to be unpacked when we teach media literacy to young people today: to understand influencers as advertisements, to see how newsfeed algorithms reinforce filter bubbles and biases, to unlearn the habit of connecting their self-worth to numbers of likes and followers.

“It is just so clear, marketing is terrible for children. It limits their imaginations. It makes them sick,” Campbell told me. “As a kid, you figure out who you are by being around other people. . . . It’s challenging enough to be developing your social relationships on these disembodied platforms. But when all of those platforms are also tracing out the contours of your relationships and trying to figure out who you are and what you want so they can sell more stuff to you,” she continued, “it creates new norms where young people just expect all of their relationships to be commercialized.”

While working on this piece, I kept returning to an essay that I read many times (because, admittedly, I published it) several years ago, by artist and writer Eva Silverman, who was at the time of its writing a teenager herself. In it, Silverman enumerates the problems with society’s treatment of “teenage wunderkinds” and the “fraught terrain” of “adolescent accomplishment” that inevitably stunts young people’s potential. “The new millennial success story is all about starting as early as possible and having a cultural empire fully constructed by the time young adulthood is over,” she writes. Teenagers, in fact, have no obligation to be innovators or to change the world.

Now, sadly, it’s all too apparent that the cool millennial teen trope paved the way for a world of Gen Z teen bosses. “One of the main tenets of the narrative of the ~cool millennial teen~ is doing something that is in some way groundbreaking, that makes waves through society as a whole, but this is not at all necessary,” Silverman writes. “Adolescence is, after all, a time to explore yourself and make mistakes.”

Being a kid, a tween, a teen—it’s hard enough. Especially if you do not find yourself particularly cool. There is a reason why, as a teenager, I (and no offense, dear Baffler reader, but probably you, too) felt such skepticism and frustration about the popular kids, and even more so the very concept of the popular kids. The power that they represented mirrored the metrics of celebrity culture (likeability, stereotypical notions of beauty, social capital) as applied to the school cafeteria. Now we live in a world where it’s impossible to escape the wrath of the popular kids, those propelled to the top by literal likeability: how many likes they can generate. To make matters immeasurably worse, publications like Teen Boss present a “guide book” for capturing—and capitalizing on—the attention of readers’ peers.

That Teen Boss, at the end of its run, was published by the media empire that aimed to help Trump avoid scandal should do more than give us pause. That it pushed kids to embrace the most destructively profiteering tech platforms on the planet, companies that illegally collect data on children, all to get them to click on ads and better sell them shit they don’t need—SOS.