Makenna Kelly was stressed out.
The middle-schooler had a mountain of homework to tackle and couldn't sleep. As she scrolled through YouTube, searching for something to help her focus and relax, she stumbled on a strange video of a girl with a microphone with ears on the side.
"I was like, 'What's that? What microphone has ears on it?'" Makenna, of Fort Collins, Colorado, told InsideEdition.com. She clicked on it, and as she watched, she felt a wave of contentment wash over her, a feeling she couldn't quite describe.
"It reminds me of when my mom used to rub my back," said Makenna, "and give me the goosebumps and the tingle down the spine."
It was her first experience with what's known as ASMR, or autonomous sensory meridian response. She started researching and discovered a whole community obsessed with the videos on YouTube.
Makenna decided to begin experimenting on her own with the strange phenomenon. Now, nearly a year and a half after putting out her first video in November 2017, Makenna is a bonafide YouTube star, thanks to her harnessing of the power of an indescribable sensation.
What Is ASMR?
It's a pleasant shiver that zips down your back. An electric tingle that starts at your scalp and radiates outward. A feeling of sheer satisfaction.
ASMR is one of the biggest trends on YouTube, the No. 1 search query on the platform in the U.S. and among the top five worldwide, according to Google. And Makenna's videos are some of the most popular. Her channel, Life with MaK, has over 1.3 million subscribers, with thousands coming by each day to listen to her whisper into a microphone, watch her unbox a Gucci haul or, in her most-viewed video, chow down on raw honeycomb while drinking seltzer.
The term ASMR is a fairly new one, only coined by a woman named Jennifer Allen in 2010, according to Dictionary.com. At the time, Allen had come across people on a health forum describing sensations strikingly similar to ones she had felt herself. She ended up creating a Facebook group for them and called it the Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response Group, which she believed got to the essence of the feeling.
If you haven't felt it, ASMR can be hard to describe. Not everyone can experience the feeling, but a common trigger is the pleasurable sensation associated with hair washing or brushing. If you've ever been at the sink at the salon and felt that rapturous tingling from having another person massage your head, that's ASMR.
It should not be mistaken for arousal. The feeling itself is more one of warmth and comfort, of being cared for. In fact, experts say the close personal attention — that the YouTuber pays to the viewer or that the viewer watches between the YouTuber and a single object — is among the most effective triggers.
Online, ASMR videos can be almost anything. Whispering, scratching, tapping and eating, as Makenna does, are popular triggers, but so are soap cutting, page turning and total silence.
"I love, love, love, love, love, love teeth tapping," Makenna said. "Pretty much you tap on your teeth. ... I feel like it's kind of weird but it's really, really fun," she said.
"There's thousands of [triggers]," she added. "There's teeth tapping, there's ripping paper, there's scratching, folding clothes."
ASMR is not limited to people, either. Maya is a Samoyed dog known as the ASMR dog who munches on different foods for viewers' satisfaction. The pup's channel has over 200,000 subscribers and her most recent video has nearly 800,000 views.
So what's the point? For some, ASMR videos provide much-needed stress relief. The repetitive chomps on a piece of apple, the soft sweeps of a makeup brush against a microphone, the tap of fingernails on a wooden desk — all of these can be soothing and induce feelings of relaxation to those susceptible. According to WebMD, some studies have shown ASMR can help people sleep better, reduce anxiety, improve focus and even treat the symptoms of depression.
It's seeing how she helps people that has propelled Makenna to continue making ASMR videos beyond that initial one in 2017, finding new triggers to explore and making sure to always keep things interesting.
"My favorite part about making these videos is for people to watch 'em 'cause my fan base is super supportive and always gives me comments like, 'You've helped me through so much. My anxiety and my depression,'" she said. "I just do it for the fans, just to help 'em live life and relax."
Creating a Safe Space for Kids
The idea of letting a 13-year-old do anything online is understandably daunting to a parent. Makenna's mother, Nichole Lacy, told InsideEdition.com she had no idea what her daughter was doing at first. "She started them on her own. Nobody knew about the videos," she said. "... When she [told us], it was quite an eye-opening experience."
"Yeah, she thought it was so weird," said Makenna. "Everyone in my family thought it was so weird when I first started doing it."
But it didn't seem harmful, so Lacy let her daughter carry on while she looked into what all that whispering and tapping was about.
First and foremost, Lacy said she wondered, "Is this appropriate for children?"
"We started watching other videos, asking questions," said Lacy. "And over time, I guess over about the last year and a half, it's become a much more known thing."
Lacy said she doesn't experience ASMR personally but appreciates how relaxing her daughter's videos can be for those who do.
However, both of them were shocked when Makenna's channel started to blow up. "It went from just a no big deal, she was just doing videos for fun on her own. ... When it really started to expand or get big is when her honeycomb video went viral and there were mixed feelings on that one," said Lacy. "... There was a lot of weird comments, you know, and 'chew with your mouth closed' and 'why do your parents let you chew like that?'"
The honeycomb video in question has since been taken down, according to Lacy, because it was considered "inappropriate content" for minors to post on YouTube. At its peak, the video had 13.9 million views. Lacy said she fought the decision, pointing to the fact that there are many, many videos of young children and teens eating honeycomb on YouTube, but ultimately lost because of the vast reach of Makenna's channel. As the "poster child" for kids making ASMR videos, Lacy said, Makenna is held to a higher standard.
Makenna added that had she known she was going to go viral, she would have made a couple changes to the video. "I would've filmed my honeycomb video way differently with no laundry in the background in my reindeer pajamas, but I think it was kinda cool," she said.
For her part, Lacy experienced a moment of motherly panic. "She wasn't pursuing being a YouTuber. It just kind of happened. So we didn't know anything about managing it," said Lacy.
The first thing they established, she said, was to ignore any and all haters. Fortunately for Lacy, Makenna is a ray of sunshine. "She really doesn't see them," said Lacy. "She sees her fans' comments. She sees the positive ... you know, no problem at all with the hate."
"I don't really listen to it," echoed Makenna. "I just kind of ignore it and know that it's not true and just go on about my business."
Mom isn't so lucky. "Sometimes she has to calm me down, you know, I'm like mama bear," she said.
But Lacy said protecting her daughter and other kids is her top priority. "The internet can definitely be a scary place," she said. "She does not correspond with people outside, she doesn't do personal one-on-one Skype-type videos. Everything that she does is recorded, it's captured, it's through YouTube, it's through her email that's monitored by parents. So we try to be as safe as we absolutely can."
Lacy added that she's made use of YouTube's tools to help weed out any inappropriate comments. "You can filter out words like profanity, words you don't want used on her channel, like 'kill yourself' or 'you're ugly,'" she said.
It's important not only for Makenna, but also her fan base. "YouTube's supposed to be for 13 and above, but we know that there are obviously kids watching her," said Lacy. "So I think just trying to understand what's appropriate, what's not making it a fun channel for kids."
Since Makenna's star began to rise, her mother has stepped in to help her come up with ideas as well as serve as her "momager," as Makenna calls her. It's a great mother-daughter bonding experience, according to Lacy.
"I think that's like a Kardashian term or something," said Lacy. "... I have a full-time job so this is very part time for me, but I like to be involved, 'cause I get to spend time with her."
And it's an opportunity to learn the ins and outs of business. Lacy wouldn't say how much money Makenna makes, but some estimates have put it as high as $1,000 a day — or more — in advertising revenue.
Makenna only sees a tiny portion of that. "She gets an allowance," said Lacy. "She has to buy things herself for her channel. So I think it helps as far as encouraging her to understand business and how it works and saving money and you have to spend money to make money."
Makenna is also unfailingly honest. "Sponsors, she gets a lot of opportunities and she's very, again, very truthful," Lacy said. "She's like, 'Yeah, I'll try out your product.' If she doesn't like something, she's not gonna [do anything with it] again."
She added: "I think it's helping her in a lot of ways."
Lacy said she makes sure to always remind her daughter how lucky she is.
"We joke around that if reality ever hits, you know, when YouTube doesn't exist anymore and she gets a part-time job, you know, making minimum wage and has to pay bills, it'll become a big reality shock," said Lacy. "You know, how hard you have to work for such a small amount of money compared to a sponsor, which just offers such an incredible amount of money for such a simple thing. You know?"
And once Makenna is old enough to hold a part-time job, Lacy said she plans to have her look for one.
"Everyone should have to work in retail," said Lacy. "Everyone should have to work in food service. ... I think that working hard and working hard for your money is something that everyone should experience and do."
What she won't be doing, Lacy said, is getting a pink rhinestone Lamborghini, as Makenna has teased. "She'll get a used Honda or something."
Meaning, Acceptance and Kindness
It's not just about fame or money, of course. For Makenna, Life with MaK has helped her find herself as she heads into the often fraught teenage years, Lacy said.
"We want her to be confident with who she is as a teenager," said Lacy. "We don't want her to feel shameful about her body or being a developing teen. I think that's very important."
Makenna's videos aren't edited to perfection. Sometimes, Lacy said, Makenna will stare off into space and one of her eyes will go a bit lazy.
"She's just like, 'Oh my gosh, I just rock my lazy eye,'" said Lacy. "... I think it's encouraging to kids that nobody's perfect. ... You're going to make mistakes. You don't have to look perfect."
It's that unabashed confidence that's made her a success on YouTube, Makenna said. "I think it's just how I interact through my videos and just I don't really fake anything. I just give my opinion out and just be super honest and real in all my videos and just be natural and funny."
That's reflected in the name of her YouTube channel, Life with MaK, which stands for "meaning, acceptance and kindness" and is also short for Makenna.
"I want kids my age to know MaK — meaning, acceptance and kindness," said Makenna. "Be nice to other kids and take the high road and do positive choices and live a peaceful, kind life."