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On the home page of YouTube.com I find thumbnails of videos -- from featured clips to paid ads -- as well as a search box to enter text. Anyone can watch, although if you try to click on something YouTube deems "adult," it will ask you to register. (It's free, and a minor could easily give a fake birth year, making himself 18.)
My interest is piqued by a video named "Shaving My Eyebrows." The film launches in my browser: Eyebrow-guy discusses his fear of looking weird as he shaves his beard, head, and brows. The video is also surrounded by "related content," 1,200 videos posted by other users, from "Drunk Girl Shaving Her Eyebrows" to TV commentary on Britney Spears' bald-head episode.
I navigate the site by clicking from one linked video to another, or by "channel-surfing" (much like watching TV). Before I know it, the entire afternoon is gone -- and I've become an expert YouTube user.
I explore the Most Viewed section (found under the Videos tab) and am surprised to find that professionally produced content like music videos and TV clips gets far more views than amateur content. I also realize that YouTube is a loophole around some parental controls: No matter how well you manage your kids' media access (installing V-chips or banning shows like South Park), clips of the verboten are accessible online. Outtakes from R-rated movies are also popular.
I click on the Channels tab and find NoGoodTV, an adult Internet site where celebrities say the F-word as many times as possible. Then I click on another popular channel, Sexy French Maid French TV, and see seven minutes of young women climbing in and out of frilly black skirts and garter belts. I view a video by a young woman who calls herself FilthyWhore, then watch one with porn stars giving explicit sex tips. And while I never stumble upon truly X-rated content, there are constant "comments" inviting viewers to porn sites, as well as videos that directly link to them.
Shocked by what seems to be a universe of video anarchy, I decide to get a professional opinion. According to Liz Perle, editor-in-chief of Common Sense Media (commonsensemedia.org), a nonprofit group in San Francisco that provides entertainment reviews for families, "YouTube videos aren't rated, so kids can watch whatever they want." Without explicit warnings about offensive content, parents remain clueless.
I vow to break out of my shameful little smut spiral. Shopping for inspiration, I find "Hahaha," 1 minute and 40 seconds of a baby laughing like crazy. The tiny giggles are an instant mood-lifter; with more than 23 million views, this is one of the most-watched YouTube videos.
When another video shows up as related content -- this one with the commonly used title "Baby Laughing" -- I'm intrigued and instantly click on it. To my surprise, it turns out to be a hateful white supremacist tirade, directed against golf star Tiger Woods and his family, blaming multiracial marriage for the demise of genetic purity. If I was so innocently led astray by this domino effect of "related" videos, I can only imagine what a curious teenager could find -- especially if he were intentionally seeking it out.
Besides giving the video a name similar to that of the popular baby clip, the white supremacist filmmaker also used another YouTube manipulation: not allowing new posts. A dozen old comments praise the rant, making a casual viewer think the world is full of bigots, but a more careful examination reveals that the person who originally uploaded the video changed the settings so no one -- including dissenters -- can make new remarks. Experts say it's these comments that render YouTube toxic; they can be out of context and can give the impression that hatred is pervasive and acceptable.
Even more cruel are the comments aimed at kids who post their own videos: "Why don't you die?" and "Do us all a favor and kill yourself right now" are common. Videos uploaded by girls also are met with vicious and misogynistic responses, like "Fat cow" and "Shut up and take your shirt off." Although the notes are fired off in the relative anonymity of cyberspace, they can still hurt. "There are horrible, vile threats that are angry enough to frighten adults, not to mention 10-year-olds," says Parry Aftab, an Internet privacy lawyer and executive director of wiredsafety.org, a nonprofit organization aimed at protecting kids from online abuses. "The threats may be empty -- for the most part, people who post aren't identified by real names -- but they're still sickening."YouTube Responds
Examples of cyberbullying are common. Most videos are so grainy they're only viewed a few hundred times, but what if those hits are from people at your kid's high school -- or the video is of your child? Teachers are also frequent targets, purposely provoked until they explode. Or worse: Recently a Charlotte, North Carolina, teacher demanded that YouTube take down a video someone had made of her -- and her butt -- at a fifth-grade commencement ceremony. (The clip was set to Van Halen's song "Hot for Teacher.") But before it was removed by YouTube, it garnered more than 200,000 views and was copied onto other Web sites. It took on a viral life of its own.
Feeling bad for all the unwilling victims, I decide to look for kids who voluntarily do foolish things. I search for "my first striptease," and find underage girls happily bouncing their (clothed) breasts for the cameras. "Girls will disrobe, perform oral sex on a banana -- then post the video for a boy to watch," Aftab says. By the time she realizes what she's done, she can't call it back. The videos can end up on MySpace or Facebook or, worse, be warehoused by sites selling amateur images.
Experts aren't sure why today's teen girls are so enthusiastic about baring it all for the camera. Some of it is cultural -- after all, Paris Hilton's sex-on-the-Internet escapades made her a celebrity, and Girls Gone Wild movies are a huge campus hit. Aftab points out that the always-available technology, like cell phone video cameras and laptop webcams, make it all too easy for girls to experiment with sexual idiocy.
And rampant oversexualization isn't the only visual testimony to kids' indiscretion. Boys film themselves drinking until they vomit or running headlong into fences. Not only could he be prosecuted if caught on film doing something illegal, but "that fence-diving kid doesn't realize he could also be rejected for a summer job because his video shows poor judgment," says Amanda Lenhart, a senior researcher who specializes in teens at the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Kids tend to think they're safe because they aren't identified, she says, but all it takes is one person to bring the film to an authority's attention.
By now I'm past being shocked and have accepted that video-sharing is strangely addictive. Whether kids watch on YouTube, MySpace, or iPods, videos are here to stay.
So I take Aftab's and Perle's advice and decide to talk to my kids about what they watch -- and even to watch with them. After breakfast I pull up a stool at the counter next to Evan, 14, who's on his laptop. "Show me a few of your favorite videos," I say, after having spent the past week worried that YouTube was warping his brain. Turns out he's not trolling for porn, violence, or footage of teen depravity (at least not while I'm around). Instead, he shows me lowbrow comedy like "Charlie the Unicorn," a hilariously twisted cartoon about stolen kidneys.
In fact, the biggest hits on YouTube aren't sadist or dark -- they're goofy. "The Evolution of Dance," one of the most popular videos ever with 60 million views, stars a suburban-looking dude doing every dance move from hip-shaking Elvis to the worm. Animated hippos croon; Swedish pop stars perform on treadmills.
Each of these videos is followed by thousands of LOLs, probably the most popular comment on YouTube. For every sick video, there's one that's side-splittingly funny; for every hateful movie, there's one that's harmless. And although video-sharing is a powerful medium, by keeping alert, staying involved, and talking with my kids, I can remain in the director's chair.
It's not a question of parents loving or hating YouTube," says Liz Perle, of Common Sense Media. "Video-sharing is ubiquitous -- it's on many other Web sites. And since you can't block it -- unless you try to keep your child off the Internet entirely -- you have to equip kids with the information they need to handle it."
To see what your teen is watching, check the history bar of the computer. If YouTube pops up, go to the site and click on History, which will provide links to videos that have been viewed. And if the History tab has been cleared? "You can assume he is watching videos you wouldn't approve of," says Perle.
You may feel powerless, Perle says, but parents have more influence over kids than they realize. Tell them what worries you -- the hate, the smut, the violence, the wasted time. Also review the site's policies with them. "It's just like teaching kids to drive -- there have to be rules, and you have to be in charge. The Internet is a tool," says Perle. "And it's up to you to show your kids how to use it."
Some of the site's content shows the very best of the human race. Positive attributes your kids can observe:
Individuality: Kids can express their interest in music (lip-synching Weird Al Yankovic's "The eBay Song") or love of science (dropping Mentos into a bottle of diet Coke to watch them explode).
Social awareness: Amateur videos protest animal cruelty, addressing the infamous dog-fighting allegations brought against Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick.
Political savvy: A co-sponsor of the presidential debates, YouTube allows viewers to ask candidates questions. Politicians explain their views, as John Edwards did when voicing his support for universal healthcare.
Ingenuity: Teen singing phenom Esmee Denters' amateur videos garnered 9 million views. She has since signed a major recording contract.
Generosity: "Free Hugs," one man's crusade to practice acts of altruistic kindness, has been viewed more than 18 million times.
Copyright © 2007. Used with permission from the November 29, 2007, issue of Family Circle magazine.