A YOUNG girl in a childish koala hat looks out from your screen. Staring at you with big eyes and shyly pulling her hat down around her ears, she asks you a question: “Am I pretty or ugly?”.
This is the content of a video that was posted on the YouTube website on Dec 17, 2010. It has since been viewed more than four-and-a-half million times and provoked more than 110,000 comments, many of which are shockingly negative.
When this young girl sought the opinion of strangers, I doubt she expected to be told, “You need a hug … around your neck … with a rope”. Nor was she likely to have anticipated being asked, “Y do you live when kids in Africa die”.
This young girl is American but she is not the only one exposing herself in such a way. There are up to 1,000 of these videos on YouTube, mostly of girls, almost all in their early teens or younger and all worried about their looks.
What do these videos represent? Why are these young people making themselves vulnerable to attack? Is it a sign of distress in an image-obsessed age? Is it a classic case of adolescent self-questioning and attention-seeking? And what damage could such negative feedback do at such a formative time in their lives?
“Physical appearance is so highly prized these days,” says Professor Imelda Coyne, head of children’s nursing and research at the School of Nursing and Midwifery at Trinity College Dublin. “Teenagers have always worried about how they come across to others but now they are preoccupied with it. They seek approval and putting a video on YouTube might seem an easy way to get it. But as these videos show, it’s actually quite destructive.”
Coyne believes we have never been so aware of our appearance. “Young girls have always wanted to know that they are pretty,” she explains. “But it’s escalated. Take a look at teen magazines and the quizzes in them. ‘Will I get a boyfriend?’ ‘Am I pretty?’. These are dreadful. And then there are magazines which zoom in on the amount of weight Rihanna may have gained or lost. Young people are affected by this and it can lead to problems with body image, self esteem and excessive dieting.”
Dr Gillian Moore-Groarke, a Cork-based psychologist, agrees young people are ever more focused on how they look. She links it to the growth of social networking sites such as Facebook.
“Teenagers are enormously influenced by how their peers pose in photographs and in many cases it’s a continuation of the trend of sexualising teenagers at a younger age,” she says.
The fact that some young people are going so far as to post videos asking the public to comment on their looks has to indicate a problem, according to Moore-Groarke. And when these youngsters encounter hostile feedback, there can be far-reaching consequences.
“The transitional stage of pre-pubescence is the most vulnerable and when most psychological problems emerge,” she says. “Negative responses are often internalised and teenagers can take them to heart. This can lead to social withdrawal, depression and in some cases self-harm.”
Dr Joseph Duffy, director of clinical support with Headstrong, the national centre for youth mental health, has his own take on the phenomenon. “What strikes me about it is that teenagers have been socialised into using the web as a way of connecting,” he says. “It offers immediate feedback and that’s very attractive.”
This feedback may not always be beneficial, however. “Adolescents are forming their identity and they want to know how they compare to others,” says Duffy. “In the past, they might have thought these things in their heads or discussed them with close friends but now they put it online hoping for an instant response. They can start to base their self-esteem on how many likes they’ve had on Facebook or how many hits their video has had. This is how they start to measure their friendships.”
The negative comments they receive can have serious psychological consequences. “Adolescents need to learn they are in control of their own destiny,” says Duffy. “It’s a building block to resilience. But being exposed to these comments makes you think that the control is outside of you and it can lead to feeling alienated.”
Some of these videos may simply be attention-seeking. “Sometimes, it’s what young people want,” says Coyne. “They like and want the attention. They just don’t realise how vile it can be.”
Nor do they think ahead to the consequences of their actions. “Twenty-year-olds put up photos of themselves without a thought as to who will see them or what they might say,” says Coyne. “Who can blame children as young as 11 for doing likewise?”
They also consider the internet a friendly place to be. “They are so internet-savvy and technologically competent,” continues Coyne. “They think they are in a forum that they and their friends use. This makes them feel safe.”
But they are far from being protected. “It may be natural for young people to ask questions of themselves,” says Moore-Groarke. “But when they do so in such a public forum as YouTube, it leaves them vulnerable to predators.”
Some experts think that something should be done about this. “Teenagers can be bullied into thinking they are worthless,” says Moore-Groarke. “Parents need to be vigilant as to what their children are exposing themselves to online. While we need to respect the privacy of teenagers, we must warn them about putting things ‘out there’ in the public arena.”
Coyne goes even further. “There is not enough education,” she insists. “We tell them not to talk to strangers. But we’re not telling them how to manoeuvre the internet safely. Teachers don’t feel equipped to deal with it either and many parents aren’t as internet-savvy as their children.”
She believes a comprehensive approach is necessary. “We need a ‘Be Safe’ programme for using the internet and children need to be shown from a very young age what can go wrong,” she says. “They need to be made aware of the trolls out there and the fact that people all over the world can see what they are putting online.”
Parents must be educated too. “I would imagine that in most cases, the parents are not even aware what’s going on,” says Coyne.
YouTube has not commented on the ‘Am I pretty?’ controversy but it has issued a statement advising parents to visit the site’s safety centre for tips on how to protect children online.
In the meantime, Headstrong are taking a lead with educational projects about the advantages and disadvantages of the internet. “These videos give us a sense of a young teenager alone in their bedroom, lonely and trying to connect to the world through the internet,” says Duffy. “We need to show them the consequences of posting things online. We need to talk to them on their terms. And we all need to learn how to use the internet to a positive end.”