Teenagers are popping up all over the web in homemade videos asking the vast and anonymous world of internet commenters a heartbreaking question: Am I ugly?
The videos – posted to YouTube and Tumblr accounts and across social media – are a new and damaging trend, and Needham’s Youth Services director says that parents need to be talking to their children to make sure they don’t put their deepest insecurities online.
“Compared to a diary a generation ago, a diary was something that is private – where you could cathartically write about your thoughts and fears. This is not so private,” said Jon Mattleman. “These YouTube diaries are dangerous because they’re permanent.”
The videos, titled “Am I pretty or ugly?” ask commenters to say whether teenagers are pretty or ugly. The teenagers urge them to be honest, and insist they can take whatever criticism comes their way.
Commenters are happy to oblige. “Both. You pretty ugly,” writes one anonymous guest on a young girl’s video. Other comments are lewd and filled with profanity.
“Kids are looking for approval, they’re hoping for something positive,” said Mattleman. “The reality is that you’re always going to find a jerk in there. Someone who’s inappropriate emotionally or sexually. Kids will remember those inappropriate ones and say, ‘Am I ugly?’”
Mattleman said that children can be deeply affected by the comments they read. The children in the videos, he said, are struggling with the classic fears of teenagerhood – body issues and low self esteem.
“Past generations would deal with it differently,” he said. “This generation uses the medium that’s right there. It’s technology.”
It’s technology that could follow them forever. Teenagers don’t think about permanence on the web, he said – but a video they post today could show up in a Google search in ten years.
Mattleman said that parents need to be talking to their teens. He said he wasn’t aware of any Needham children that had posted videos, but said he’d spoken to several who knew of the trend.
“I think it’s important. Kids are talking about it,” he said.
The best thing parents can do, he said, is to listen. If a child has already posted a video, he said, there’s not much a parent can do other than try to understand, and encourage their child not to post another.
The best piece of advice that teens should be following on the web, he said, is that if you wouldn’t do something in person, then you shouldn’t do it online.
“Would you ever walk down the hallway at the high school asking random people you don’t know ‘Am I pretty, am I ugly?’ Most kids are going to say no,” he said. “That’s a really good guide.”
Evan Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org