Martin Charlton vividly remembers the moment last year when he and his son walked into the lobby of a Marriott hotel in Orlando to check in ahead of a social media event. A group of teenage girls quickly recognized his 15-year-old son, Luca Schaefer-Charlton, and started screaming. For the rest of the weekend, the pair couldn’t make it across that enormous lobby without people chasing Schaefer-Charlton and swarming around him.
“I’d never seen anything like that before. Up until then, maybe I was a little bit in denial that my son was as popular as he really is,” Charlton recalled to CNN Business about the experience. Versions of this scene – girls screaming and crying and asking for his son’s signature – would repeat at other events. “I’m like, ‘He’s just our son, he’s just a kid.’ To all these other people, he’s something else.”
His teenage son isn’t a pop star or TV actor. Instead, Schaefer-Charlton became internet famous through TikTok, the short-form video app that has quickly emerged as the hot social media network of the moment. Schaefer-Charlton, who goes by @mostlyluca on TikTok, now has more than two million followers on the platform.
On TikTok, users share brief clips of themselves dancing, lip-syncing or jumping on trends and challenges that pop up on the platform through hashtags, such as making a broom stand on its own. Schaefer-Charlton rose to prominence on TikTok after posting a video of himself dancing on a toilet.
The Schaefer-Charlton family isn’t alone in having their lives upended by the phenomenon of social media stardom. For much of the last decade, households around the world have had to contend with it. Brothers Logan and Jake Paul both rose to fame on now-defunct Vine and then YouTube during their teens, and their parents Greg and Pam have amassed social media followings of their own as a result.
But TikTok fame is different. The app is designed for posts to go viral “more organically than on any other platform,” according to Ricky Ray Butler, CEO of influencer marketing firm BEN, with new trends, hashtags and challenges capable of receiving billions of views in a matter of hours. At the same time, Butler said TikTok “skews younger” than some other rival platforms. These two factors have introduced a new normal where teens can achieve online stardom almost overnight. While that creates an opportunity for a generation of internet users, it also poses a new challenge for a generation of parents.
Now parents must figure out their comfort level with their kids balancing school and social media fame along with the usual list of privacy concerns for any social network, especially a relatively new one owned by a company based in China. More than that, if their kids are minors, parents find themselves negotiating deals with brands, searching for professional talent managers, or traveling to social media events and meet-and-greets with their kids. When a reporter reaches out to a teen TikToker, it’s common to have a parent respond on their behalf.
“It’s a little bit overwhelming,” said Peter Anastasio, whose 15-year-old son Mark came back from soccer camp last summer with about 20,000 TikTok followers and now has more than six million. “I didn’t even know what TikTok was. I do now of course.”
A different education for teens – and their parents
For Schaefer-Charlton, online fame came at a cost: He was bullied in high school. Other students he didn’t know well at school saw him as a “weird kid” making lip-syncing videos, according to Schaefer-Charlton. He said they called him names and harassed him.
“He has thick skin. Initially, the bullying rolled off his shoulders,” said his father. But eventually, it became too “constant” and “relentless,” he said.
In part because of that, Schaefer-Charlton transitioned to online classes at the beginning of ninth grade. (It also gave him more time to focus on TikTok.) But his father said, “Bullying doesn’t stop just because you stop going to school.” TikTok stars have to deal with a flood of hateful comments on social media.
Apart from the bullying, there’s also extra attention from classmates. At school, Mark Anastasio says he has caught “people videotaping me or giving me funny looks when I walk by them. It’s a little bit weird.”
That may only add to the stress he and others feel in balancing schoolwork with the responsibilities of maintaining a large TikTok following.
Mark Anastasio juggles making videos after school along with his homework and soccer practice. No matter how big he may be on TikTok, his family wants to make sure school remains a priority.
“There’s a massive opportunity here potentially [with TikTok],” Anastasio said. His son has already received interest from musicians, who want him to promote songs on TikTok, and modeling agencies. “But if it doesn’t work out, he needs an education to fall back on.”
Even the teenage TikTok stars who are set on going to college may not want – or be able – to leave TikTok behind.
On a recent college tour, Stephanie French had to tell her accompanying relatives why people sitting next to them recognized her 16-year-old daughter, Alex. The reason: Alex has nearly three million TikTok followers thanks to viral videos like one of her saying “hi” in different outfits as she slowly loses her voice.
As French puts it, TikTok fame sometimes “hits at an interesting point” for teenagers like her daughter, while “they’re still trying to figure out what they want to do, what they want to be.” Bart French, Alex’s father, said she wants to go to college and “manage her social media fame at the same time.” As for the possibility of her dropping out of school to make videos full time, he was fairly blunt: “I prefer she wouldn’t do that, at least at this stage.”
Parent or business manager?
Despite the concerns parents may have about TikTok derailing their child’s education, there is a proven opportunity for social media stars of all ages to make money.
In 2019, Ryan Kaji made $26 million by reviewing toys on YouTube, making him the platform’s highest earner that year, according to Forbes. Kaji is eight years old. Six-year-old Anastasia Radzinskaya wasn’t far behind, bringing in $18 million last year on YouTube, according to the publication.
Brands are already flooding TikTokers with offers of free clothing to promote in their videos, while musical artists are asking them to feature new songs. As a result, some moms and dads now find themselves wearing manager hats – in addition to all the other hats any normal parent must wear.
Some parents even appear on camera, performing dance routines alongside their teen. Sheri Easterling, the mother of TikTok star Addison Rae, has racked up more than two million TikTok followers as a result.
“We help him navigate the waters, find what the smartest opportunities are, and things that will help grow his number of supporters and followers,” said Charlton. At the same time, Charlton makes sure his son Luca doesn’t forget his household responsibilities: emptying the dishwasher, doing his homework and feeding their cats.
To navigate this balancing act, parents say they lean on other parents of TikTokers and social media stars for guidance and advice, through email chains, texting and Facebook messages. Some have also tried Googling for answers, but they’ve had trouble finding any helpful results that walk parents through what to do when their kid becomes TikTok famous.
“There is no textbook you can go buy. There is no self-help guide. You just sort of fumble your way through it,” said Charlton. “You’re figuring it out every day.”