For computer-savvy kids, sites like YouTube, Facebook, and MySpace are just another means of communication. "The Internet is organic to their lives," says Jake Halpern, author of Fame Junkies (Houghton Mifflin). "They've used it forever, they get all their info on it, and it feels like a very friendly medium." Yet easy access -- and the illusion of instant intimacy that it creates -- is what generates one of the downsides of online communities. "Instead of going to school and making friends by talking to someone," says Roni Cohen-Sandler, author of Stressed-Out Girls (Penguin), "kids swap MySpace profiles and amass as many 'friends' as they can as a way of assuring themselves and the world that they're popular." You, like Paris Hilton, are now famous for being famous, albeit on a much smaller scale.
The inherent desire for attention gets pushed to the max when options for exposure are so easily available -- and so far-reaching. "At one time you'd have to stand up on the cafeteria table to make a scene," says Halpern. "Now you just click a mouse." For kids who believe that the achievement bar has been raised too high, an easy alternative to being a winner is to aim for notoriety. Kids who didn't make the team, earn an A, or score a lead in the play can instead get their share of accolades by being bad. The payoff is real: Cheerleaders and jocks who used to ignore you now stop to ask, "Was that your video I saw?"
Even embarrassing another person is a way to get yourself noticed. "A key component of humiliating others -- looking powerful in front of someone you want to impress -- has gotten infinitely easier," says Ron Zodkevitch, MD, a member of Family Circle's Health Advisory Board. "You no longer have to confront the other person face-to-face to do it."
And virtual gossip spreads like a virus. "A couple of years ago somebody posted a photo of me holding a bottle on my Facebook page," says Joanna Follman, of Huntington, Long Island. "It was actually root beer, but it looked like a beer bottle. The people I work with saw it and posted printouts of the picture all over the place." In most cases it might not have been a big deal, but for Joanna, now 21, it was pretty awkward. "My job involved speaking to younger kids about not drinking," she says.