More and more young people rely on social media celebs for spiritual guidance. But is it safe? 

“It’s time to expose fakes,” a beauty and fashion YouTuber named Polina Beregova said in a video in July. “I do not want you guys being influenced by someone who doesn’t know what the fuck they’re talking about.”

Beregova, who’s 20, was addressing drama with another lifestyle content creator from YouTube, Marissa Lace, over their competing life-coaching-by-Skype businesses.

Wait, what? That’s right–young people who are unable to afford therapy or are turned off by the stigma are starting to seek guidance from the content creators they follow. Thus YouTubers are the new life coaches–and even the creators themselves have concerns.

YouTube is inundated with young creators talking about food, their friends and relationships and a million other topics. While these videos are often honest and raw, they can feel a little like listening to a self-involved friend going on and on about herself. But viewers love this. They want to feel close to those they admire, and influencers make their living by monetizing that connection.

Beregova charges $80/hour for life coaching by Skype. Lace charges $45 for a half-hour. That might sound expensive, but traditional therapy usually costs at least $100/hour.

Plus, $80/hour is a small price to pay for a one-on-one conversation with a celebrity. And life coaches on YouTube claim they can help you achieve your wildest career (and personal) goals, which is not a responsibility to take lightly.

Above, a life-coaching video from Polina Beregova. 

So what happens when you pay for advice from someone without experience?

Legally, there’s little danger. Unlike therapists or psychologists, the industry lacks regulation. Sure, there are training courses where aspiring life coaches get certified. But when it comes down to it, pretty much anyone can call themselves a life coach and start charging clients big bucks.

“My 10-year-old could start charging $500 per hour and people would think he’s amazing,” Dr. Jaime Kulaga tells Dose. Kulaga is a certified life coach of over 10 years and is a licensed mental health counselor with a doctorate in counseling psychology. She calls the market of inexperienced, untrained YouTubers offering life coaching a “danger zone.”

“The YouTube generation are people in their 20s without much life experience. You probably wouldn’t go to a doctor with no degree who has only read a few books on medicine,” she says. “That just means they’re good at social media but not good at life coaching you.”

She warns people to not be blinded by followers since numbers don’t denote credibility. Life experience can’t be judged based on age alone either, but it’s important to get advice from someone knowledgeable.

Dr. Erika Martinez, a licensed clinical psychologist in Florida, says YouTubers can give meaningful life advice just as well as the next guy. “But here’s the rub,” she said in a recent email to me. “A lot of coaches practice bad therapy that can do more harm than good.”

Martinez says issues a person has going into coaching can still remain—or return—and therapy is necessary to work through psychological barriers.

Which brings up another point: What are life coaches supposed to do if the conversations get dangerously dark?

Dr. Kulaga knows when to send her clients to get appropriate help. “With every client, there’s underlying anxiety, hiccups of depression. When is it too much?” she says. “You have to be able to clinically handle that and know what you’re mandated to report on, and who to.”

People look at life coaches as figures of authority. But a 20-year-old without a degree in social work or psychology may not know how to counsel someone who’s seriously anxious or depressed.

Amanda Curran, a 24-year-old beauty writer in New Jersey, was looking for spiritual guidance and booked a session with Marissa Lace, the YouTube life coach that Beregova publicly insulted. Curran often watched Lace, and wanted a face-to-face conversation with “a stranger I already felt I knew so well.” She said she’s been to therapy for years, so Lace wasn’t a replacement for the clinical help — she just wanted to talk to the woman who inspired her to explore spirituality and happiness.

Amanda Curran.

“I think Marissa offers a sort of guidance that feels more like you’re talking to a friend instead of someone who exists to clinically make sense of what and why you’re feeling the way you are,” Curran told Dose. She said a single session was enough to clear her mental block and get a kick start to move forward.

Hollie Stark, a 20-something in Illinois, struggled with depression and anxiety and wanted to talk to someone outside of her relationships at home. Her insurance wouldn’t cover therapy, so she looked for other options. As a longtime viewer of Lace’s videos, she bought a session shortly after Marissa’s online store, “Light Love and Lace,” opened.

Posted by Hollie Stark – Holistic Wellness on Thursday, June 22, 2017

“I wasn’t looking for someone to heal me or make me not depressed, I was looking for someone I could connect with in a holistic way and learn from,” Stark said. “Even though she doesn’t have a degree, she does have knowledge in ways of living that I was already practicing.” After the initial call, Lace coached Stark once a week for a year. Since I spoke with her, Stark opened her own online crystal shop and said she’s going to offer life coaching herself in the near future.

Here’s a tip I learned while writing this article: Know what you need from your life coach before you hire a YouTuber. Dr. Kulaga says a one-off 30-minute Skype session will probably be a shallow meet and greet: you likely won’t get to talk about your crazy dreams or dive into deep-rooted issues. A relationship with a life coach and tangible progress takes much longer than a half hour.

But if you want to talk about spirituality with someone you admire–and you’ve got a Benjamin to spare–schedule away.

If you’re in need of longterm help to work through deep-rooted barriers, find a therapist or professional life coach who can commit to you. Kulaga recommends researching and holding life coaches up to the same standard as doctors—this means someone who is reputable, educated and experienced.

And as Beregova hastily tweeted after that YouTube drama I mentioned: “be careful who you’re supporting”—or who’s supporting you.

Multiple attempts to reach Marissa Lace and Polina Beregova were unsuccessful.

(Top photo: Polina Beregova)