YouTube, MySpace, Facebook — tweens and teens are using these sites to star in their own reality shows. But what gets lost when good kids act bad for the world to see?

By Gay Norton Edelman

Scary Home Videos

They're not your usual home videos: Teenage boys crashing their car into a neighbor's fence for sport. A young girl pole dancing in skimpy underwear. A profanity-spewing video-gamester faking his suicide. Two teenage girls assaulting another girl with a deadly weapon. Those are just a few examples of kids so caught up in getting the attention of friends — and strangers — that they relinquish privacy, deliberately violate social norms, and willingly join in on law-breaking sprees.

The most disturbing aspect of this look-at-me frenzy, though, is the lengths to which kids will go to make it into the spotlight. Kids too shy to do an oral presentation at school head home and post a video of themselves provocatively performing in barely-there clothing — or less. Some kids will even fake their own humiliation, as two college students successfully did last February, when they staged a foul-mouthed breakup that had both of them looking astonishingly nasty.

Not that the real-life crowd watching the fight came off any better. Unaware it was all just a hoax, the crowd hooted, hollered, and cheered — as well as grabbed their cameras to film it — as accusations of sexual betrayal flew back and forth. All to the delight of nearly half a million YouTube visitors.

Life for teens, it seems, is being lived flat-out online. But what feels natural to kids appalls most adults. Why would anyone subject himself to cruelty, expose himself to ridicule, risk parental and legal consequences, and possibly ruin his reputation forever? The explanation is a tangle of human nature, kids' developmental needs, pop culture, technology, and parenting gone awry. We took a look at the reasons kids are taking such outrageous risks in this disturbing new manner.

The Watch-Me Generation

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.

How Peer Pressure Plays a Role

Teens have always been thrill-seekers, but now their risk-taking is egged on by endless new videos and blogs of peers doing foolish or dangerous things. The sheer number of these peer insanities makes those activities seem normal and okay to kids, says Kathie Nunley, EdD, an educational psychologist in Amherst, New Hampshire, and founder of Tamer exploits can also start to seem boring when you've viewed them on your computer screen a thousand times. Then there's competition with all those images. Typical kid-think can go like this: I see online brag photos of my friend drunk at a party. So next weekend I have to top that.

Our society's obsession with 24-7 celebrity coverage pushes the notion that living your life in full view of others is a good idea. "If celebrities, who seem to be most kids' role models nowadays, don't seem to care about privacy, why should they?" asks Michele Borba, PhD, author of 12 Simple Secrets Moms Know (Jossey-Bass). It's not just celebrities, either. American Idol aspirants let it all hang out, as do the people on reality shows like Real World and Laguna Beach.

All this look-at-me living is reflected in a new shallowness among kids, says Borba. "This is the faceless generation. They're communicating without the in-person contact that develops empathy, commitment, and relationships." If it doesn't feel like it matters all that much if you humiliate yourself or your friend, why not do it?

Interestingly, the relaxed feelings about privacy seem to go hand in hand with a new toughness. Asked whether critical comments about photos and videos posted online would be worrisome, 14-year-old Kendall Toole of Santa Clarita, California, responds, "People are entitled to their opinion. If you don't want to hear what they think, you can just disable their comments." (Kendall has posted YouTube videos of herself and her friends "just joking around" and some head shots on IMDb, the Internet Movie Database.) If you're less concerned about what others think, you're more likely to go for broke with what you post.

Why They Do It

As parents of adolescents have always known (even before science proved it), the brain doesn't fully develop until the early 20s. "Because adolescents have this wild, uninhibited hypothalamus [the primitive do-what-feels-good-now part of the brain], and a rather immature prefrontal cortex [the more rational what's-best-for-the-long-term part]," says Nunley, "they're not the best decision makers." Those immature minds meet hyper-hormonal bodies, and you've got online videos of kids beating each other up in the school yard and the like. In other words, the mouse gets clicked long before the brain actually kicks in.

Personality-wise, quick changes and hairpin turns are the norm for teens and tweens, and it's perfectly developmentally appropriate for them to play around, discovering what their tastes, interests, and values are. "As children begin dealing with core identity issues, they need ways to show the world that they have something of value to offer," says Eugene C. Roehlkepartain, senior adviser of the Search Institute in Minneapolis. Teens are using every tool available, and they're creating new personas based on the flood of information — especially from the Internet and reality TV.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Even though moms and dads live on Earth and kids live in cyberspace, we're still their parents. Once we understand why they're succumbing to the meaner opportunities provided by online communities and video-sharing sites, we can begin to counteract those forces. The key, says Dr. Zodkevitch, is to deal with the underlying issues. "Ask yourself, do your kids need more ways to feel worthwhile?" he says. "Can you provide other options for them to experiment with finding out who they are?" By redirecting them into smarter means of self-expression and teaching them what really matters, we can keep our kids and their online adventures within the bounds of common sense.

Stop Internet Thrill-Seeking

The ways to prevent kids from going wild online start with basics like insisting that computers only be used in public places in your home, installing parental-control programs, prohibiting personal-info sharing, and looking over their shoulder when they Web surf. But to fully address growing fame-game temptations, experts also recommend the following:

  • Dial down your own addiction to celebrity gossip. It makes living your life publicly seem okay and doesn't show the downside of a lack of privacy. Instead, talk up real heroes. "Kids need to know that people who have actually achieved something are more important than people who go clubbing without their underwear," says Dr. Zodkevitch.
  • Address your teen's craving to be constantly connected and entertained. "Kids today get bored easily and often have difficulty being alone," says Dr. Zodkevitch. Set up a tech-free time every day — or at least once a week — when everyone in the family turns off the computers, video games, and cell phones.
  • Teach your child that how you treat other people is what matters most. It's more important than whether you can make them pay attention to you or envy you. "Kids need to know that it's more vital and rewarding to make a contribution to the world than to stand up and yell, 'I am here,'" says Dr. Zodkevitch. Doing volunteer work together as a family will instill a sense of thoughtfulness in your kids.

What's Happening Online

The following is just a sample of the footage we saw on the Internet — in some cases the kids are easily identifiable.

  • A college sorority sister completely passed out, sprawled in an empty bathtub after her 21st birthday party.
  • Teens declaring the toddler in the van with them is on illegal drugs as the 2-year-old girl's eyes roll back in her head.
  • Teenagers and college students openly using drugs and drug paraphernalia, which is clearly labeled in picture captions.
  • A teenage boy in a moving car with friends, purposely opening the back door to try to knock a passing kid off his bike. The teenager himself tumbles out of the vehicle onto the street.
  • —Caren Oppenheim

The Odds of Finding Fame

Shows like American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance? make it seem easy to become a star overnight. It's nice to dream, but kids also need a reality check. Below, a look at the odds of landing a job in one of the following professions.

  • Dancer — 1 in 3,832
  • Actor — 1 in 1,968
  • Musician or singer — 1 in 585
  • Lawyer — 1 in 198
  • Accountant — 1 in 121
  • Childcare worker — 1 in 112
  • Nurse — 1 in 61
  • Teacher — 1 in 38
  • Secretary — 1 in 36


Source: The Bureau of Labor Statistics

Copyright © 2007. Used with permission from the October 2007 issue of Family Circle magazine.