This phenomenon, though no less disturbing, didn’t start on YouTube, is not new to adolescent development, and has some context to consider.
By Anne Collier
There is no data cited, but the San Francisco Chronicle’s Mommy Files blog reports that “a growing number of tweens and teens, mainly girls, are posting videos on YouTube asking commenters if they’re ugly.” Writer Amy Graff says, “Type ‘Am I ugly?’ or ‘Am I pretty’ into the YouTube search box and dozens of videos pop up.”
Sexuality researcher, author and educator Kris Gowen pointed one such video out to me by an adorable girl screennamed SmileLoveBeauty8 asking viewers if they think she’s pretty as she explains why she needs to know, then shows a variety of still photos of her beautiful young self at the end of the 4:31 video. Watching it would make most any parent’s heart sink, and this self-exposure may be scarier to parents because it’s in video instead of in the still photos of the “Hot or Not” sites of the late-’90s or similar questions asked more recently in text form in Formspring.me (see “Teens’ digital self-abuse: New insight”), but this is not new adolescent behavior, online or offline. So I asked Dr. Gowen what she thought.
“I agree that it’s the same behavior pattern. Is the YouTube version worse? That’s hard to say, really. A static picture vs. a moving one? That probably doesn’t matter. The fact that ‘Hot or Not’ was set up specifically for the ‘am I pretty’ purpose could make it worse, since it’s creating a culture that encourages youth to buy into it. On the other hand, it might be a worse sign if a young person is doing this more ‘spontaneously’ – though of course not without precedent. Both sites have their comments and the potential for harm there, but for some reason I have a hunch ‘Hot or Not’ was more mean.”
Talking with our kids about it
About the comments under SmileLoveBeauty8′s video, Gowen wrote me that she “noticed that the people giving positive comments are mostly adult women (so they seem).” But a lot of the comments are just “stupid,” as Gowen put it. Some can be randomly cruel or threatening, though – unless the commenter is known to the young person in offline life – threats remain so and get buried in all the other feedback few people would ever invite.
So maybe comments are a good place to start when we ask our kids if they’ve ever seen videos like these and what they think about them. They probably already know, though it doesn’t hurt to be sure (after getting their own perspective, ideally), that it’s not likely anyone’s going to get something called “the truth” in those anonymous comments. They also probably know how subjective the topic is, but they might not have thoroughly thought through how they could help a friend who was looking for validation, support, or attention in the wrong places. Looking at that question together might help our kids as well as their friends – might even create space in their peer group for more empathy or at least less judgment – definitely less judgment-seeking, I hope!
Both the good news and the bad news about these videos is that they’re not anonymous. Not as anonymous as the kids on Formspring putting similar questions out there in a way that can be even more self-destructive (because anonymous to adults while not so much to peers). Video doesn’t allow for the deeper levels of anonymity. But in any format, the question can be a cry for help, a way to be tough or “cool” in an “I can take it” sort of way, “daring” compliment-fishing, or just self-harm, according to social media researcher danah boyd (danah heard from a police officer who discovered that, in one case, the victim and bully insulting her were the same person). Among motives, I would add attention-seeking and possibly acting on a dare or just a daring impulsive act. In any case, the young people in the “Am I pretty?” videos are definitely putting themselves “out there” in a way that could increase their emotional vulnerability – especially if they haven’t looked at comments to similar videos and aren’t expecting the flood of cruelty that could ensue. All of this would be good material for parent-child discussion about over-exposure and public-image management – where the need is to reinforce self-respect and critical thinking and build resilience. If you feel the needs go deeper, consider involving professional counseling.
Critical thinking for parents, too
And this calls on us parents to exercise some critical thinking, too – not as much about the content as about how we react to it. The kind of discussion from which something can be learned (on both sides) can’t happen if swamped by shock or fear. What helps us stay thoughtful and calm, I think – tell me if you disagree – is acknowledging that our children are growing up in a very different media environment than the much more regulatable mass-media one of our childhoods and amid changing ideas about privacy (see this) and self. And that includes a much more social idea of self-development in this networked world.