Should I be concerned about my teen’s live video streaming?

By Michael Rich, MD

Young man and laptopQ: My 14-year-old son is an aspiring musician and has recently been using YouNow to broadcast himself and his band’s “jam sessions.” I wasn’t too concerned until I realized that it is a live stream (I thought it was another version of YouTube) and that he also leaves it running after the band leaves and until he wakes up in the morning (it’s on while he is sleeping) for school. He doesn’t seem more tired than usual, but I’m still concerned that he is sharing too much, and I don’t understand why it has to be running all night. He says all of his friends broadcast their sleep too, which I verified with another mother. Should I be concerned, and what should I do?

~ Skeptical about streaming in Fairfield, CT

A: Dear Skeptical,

I understand your concern about your son’s privacy and sleep when using a live stream application nearly 24/7. Using platforms like YouNow or Periscope, the way your son is currently doing, is essentially voluntary surveillance—he is volunteering his life to be watched, at any time, by anyone. Is this the (not uncommon) self-consciousness and narcissism of adolescence that makes him want attention so badly to that he is willing to share the boring static image of him sleeping with the rest of the world? Is it him (and many others like him) going with the flow of peer pressure to be ironic, minimalistic, and hip? (If so, you might mention that he is about 52 years too late – Andy Warhol made the 5 hour, 20 minute film “Sleep”  in 1963.) Or could it be that he doesn’t know how to navigate these relatively new platforms and is still learning how they work and what using them means?

Ask your son the explain to you how YouNow works, which will simultaneously show him you are willing to learn about his life and challenge him to think critically about what is going on there. As he explains this powerful media tool, discuss whether he is using it effectively, and what the upside and downside of his use might be. (One downside – remind him that using his computer, smartphone, or tablet radiating daylight blue light at bedtime and as much as an hour before compromises the quantity and quality of his sleep during adolescence, when sleep is particularly importantto his growth and development.) Listen to your son and learn about his thoughts and motivations. Reflect seriously with him on his purpose for using YouNow, and on how he can best use it in focused and effective ways to achieve his goals.

For example, if your son’s interest is promoting his music, leaving YouNow on 24/7 when his band is only playing for an hour or two a day is actually a poor marketing strategy. Scarcity promotes desirability – he should broadcast only when they are performing, then go off, leaving them wanting more. If he bores viewers by broadcasting when he doesn’t have anything of value to share, they will switch to another stream where something more engaging is taking place – and may never come back.

In a caring, non-judgmental way, help him realize that you do not want to restrict him, but to create a plan for how he uses YouNow and other streaming apps effectively to achieve his goals without compromising his safety, privacy, or reputation. Be present and parent him in this realm as you do IRL—subscribe to his YouNow stream, and let him know that you are there to support him should he encounter any situation, online or offline, that he isn’t sure how to handle.

Michael Rich, MD, MPH, is Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, Associate Professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard School of Public Health, and practices Adolescent Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital. He is the Founder and Director of the Center on Media and Child Health (CMCH) as well as a pediatrician, researcher, father, and media aficionado. Read more about Michael here.