Cryptocurrency. When I first heard of the popular digital currency, introduced through a YouTube search for “Ways to make money as a 13 year old,” I asked a simple question: “What?”
I remember clicking on a video a few results down with a couple thousand views. At first, the YouTuber talked about other, more conventional ways for unemployed youth to make money: asking for money instead of gifts, mowing lawns, babysitting. But then, towards the end of the video, he introduced cryptocurrency as a new, highly lucrative way for people in-the-know to make money.
I was intrigued.
After all, every currency I had come in contact with previously – pocket change, cash, British pounds and pence (when I visited for a week when I was seven) – had been physical. So the idea of “coins” that existed entirely online – within the confines of wires, SSDs, and computer networks – was astonishing. The promise of fast cash even more so.
Since then, cryptocurrency hasn’t gone away. My father and I talk about it regularly, and so do my friends and I. News on crypto, a tumultuous tale of rapid rises and falls, of millions made and millions lost, has only gotten more expansive – and more complicated. Recently, if you keep up with it, you have seen that this news has been on rapid delivery, carefully detailing the metaphorically bloody crash that crypto is currently experiencing.
With everyone talking about crypto’s downfall, I decided to dive into the world of digital coins a bit deeper. Although coin values are falling off, the advertisements, influencers, and “advisors” espousing the riches of the electronic world are not. Underlying this shimmer of constant returns, of dips followed by enormous peaks, is something a bit sinister, and something a bit scammy.
What the Hell Is It?
Cryptocurrency is complicated. I guess that makes sense. If explaining it were easy, it would have been done decades ago.
In simple terms, cryptocurrency is a decentralized, digital form of currency. There is no authority that controls it – think banks or financial institutions. Instead, cryptocurrencies exist in an intricate, complicated, interconnected web throughout millions of computers around the world.
Cryptocurrencies can be used to buy goods and services like regular currency, though very limitedly. Most commonly, they are used as a form of investment. Like stocks and bonds, cryptocurrencies fluctuate in value. This is why people have so much interest in coins like Bitcoin and Ethereum. From the time of their inception to now, their prices have risen thousands of percent.
It is the process of how cryptocurrencies are created, maintained, and exchanged securely that makes them so unique – and so uniquely confusing. Blockchain, proof of work, proof of stake, hashes, Merkel trees. To the onlooker, these words are simply jargon. Upon further research, and taking half a dozen pages of notes, I understand these terms a bit more. But when I sat down to write, mentally prepared to explain what each of these facets of cryptocurrency is, I realized that I couldn’t.
It was too much, and that is where I noticed the problem.
If I cannot understand cryptocurrency after reading dozens of articles and papers, how can so many other people? Do my peers, and people years younger than me investing all their money into cryptocurrency, know what it is, what it does, and its shortcomings?
I know the answer is fairly obvious: no. Most people investing in cryptocurrency, especially youth, do not know what the hell they’re trading.
And it is this lack of knowledge, experience, and understanding – which is hard to come by for anyone not intimately familiar with crypto’s inner workings – that leaves hard-working teens and their money vulnerable.
Why Is It. . . Everywhere?
If anyone has watched TV or been on the internet these past few years, they have probably seen an ad related to cryptocurrency. Most of these ads are from the crypto giants, like the trading platform Robinhood or crypto education and trading platform Coinbase; the rest are for individual coins or small-time crypto businesses.
These companies have spent enormous sums of money pushing their content out to the world. Multi-million dollar Super Bowl commercials, relentless YouTube ads, App Store recommendations. I’m a frequent social media user, and crypto has been shoved my way like nothing else these past few months.
But it doesn’t stop there.
Celebrity endorsements have catapulted cryptocurrency investing into the mainstream, drawing in many more uneducated, unprepared investors. Reese Witherspoon, Paris Hilton, Jamie Foxx, Charlie D’Amelio, Tom Brady. These are just a few off the endless list of high-profile crypto endorsers. For people with so much money, one can only imagine the size of the checks being written to convince them to talk about and promote something they likely know little about.
These celebrity-laden ads have appeared on millions of TV screens, Instagram stories, and almost everywhere else.
If celebrities brought crypto to the mainstream, then influencers have kept it in the eyes of the group of people most in tune with the social media presences and personalities: teens.
There are thousands of videos like the ones I found on my search a few years ago. There are entire channels – on YouTube and on TikTok – dedicated to dispensing questionable financial “advice,” and crypto makes an appearance in many of them.
All of these forces are acting simultaneously, putting the idea of investing hard-earned money into crypto in teens’ minds and keeping it there. All influencers have to do is convert that idea into money.
Crypto’s Pyramid Scheme Aesthetic
With all the growth that the most prominent coins have had over the past decade, there are thousands of others that have failed to get off the ground, or have picked up quickly and crashed hard even quicker. The unregulated, free market nature of crypto means that more investments means more money for everyone – at least in theory. Pump-and-dump scams where a few people create and invest in a coin, encourage others to invest, then cash out and crash the coin when it is at its peak, have become a frequent and sinister reality in today’s crypto world.
A lawsuit filed early this year in California explains how founders and celebrity promoters – including Kim Kardashian and Floyd Mayweather – pumped-and-dumped a coin called EthereumMax, which, confusingly, has no connection to the widely-known Ethereum. According to the court documents, “[Ethereum Max]’s executives, collaborating with several celebrity promoters, (a) made false or misleading statements to investors about EthereumMax through social media advertisements and other promotional activities. . . Defendants marketed the EMAX Tokens to investors so that they could sell their portion of the Float for a profit.” And sell for a profit they did. Ryan Huegerich, the plaintiff, lost an undisclosed amount of money, though one can speculate it was an amount substantial enough to justify a lawsuit.
The overarching scamminess of cryptocurrencies like EthereumMax, and arguably every cryptocurrency, boils down to this damning sentence, “In plain terms, EthereumMax’s entire business model relies on using constant marketing and promotional activities, often from ‘trusted’ celebrities, to dupe potential investors into trusting the financial opportunities available with EMAX Tokens.”
Another example of a pump-and-dump scheme, covered in Gizmodo, actually involved a teen. Matt Lorion, a 17-year-old cryptocurrency Tiktoker and influencer, promoted a coin called “Mando.” A presale of the coins sent out to his followers resulted in an immediate crash upon its official release. Lorion claimed he had no role in the crash and obvious pump-and-dump, apologizing profusely to the fans who had lost sizable sums of money. A few weeks later, he was back to promoting a new Elon Musk-centric coin.
But for those teens still holding onto the “I’m too smart to fall for that,” mentality, these past few months have proven that even the most tried and true coins, the behemoths of the crypto world – Bitcoin and Ethereum – are not immune to the fatal “crash.”
Be Wary and Be Smart
According to Bloomberg, over “$1 trillion has been lost from the aggregate crypto market” these past few months. Bitcoin is down 45%. Ethereum is down over 70%. Coinbase’s value has fallen almost 20%. Investors have cashed out in droves, pushing the value of crypto – and things related to crypto, like NFTs which I have deemed too obviously scammy to cover – down even further.
But the YouTube videos, TikToks, Instagram stories, and Reddit posts will continue. The big companies and coins, though diminished, will continue to push crypto with the promise of this “dip” in the market – in reality, enormous crash – giving way to even higher valuations.
Some teens may be inclined to believe social media crypto influencers like Michael Saylor, who I found hyping Bitcoin in my “recommended” feed while scrolling through Twitter. “You will own #bitcoin and you will be happy,” Saylor tweeted this summer to his audience filled with presumably many young, non-affluent, aspiring amateur investors. Look up Saylor’s net worth – a couple billion dollars – and one can see why he is so happy. His recent $1 billion loss from Bitcoin has not seemed to diminish his mood.
For those already knee deep, shilling crypto can be a last-ditch option. Getting young people – teens with college money and summer job money and internship money – to put their savings into “Altcoins” or “main” coins or trading services will help those in debt make some of their money back, but can lead to losses for teens in the process.
When the predominant way for some of the shadiest investors to make money is by getting people – susceptible youth – involved, cryptocurrency begins to look a lot like a pyramid scheme, one in which people are expendable, pump-and-dumps are rampant, and profits are king.
For teens out there looking to invest, I caution against cryptocurrency – even the most “reputable” coins. Invest your money some other way, with the guidance of an adult, into less risky options like bonds, CDs, or the S&P500. And when all else fails, you can always put your money in savings. After all, savings can’t crash. Save up for something big – a car, a new gaming system, a phone – or prepare yourself for college.
When something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Cryptocurrency has proven itself no exception. So while all the influencers, celebrities, and advertisements try to rope you in with their alluring DogeCoin millionaire fantasies, look out for yourself, and keep your money away from crypto.