Teen YouTube Videos Shed Light on Self-Esteem Issues
(NEW YORK) -- Naomi Gibson, who lives just outside Denver, always makes a point to tell her 13-year-old daughter, Faye, that she's beautiful. So when she started getting calls from media asking to interview Faye about a video she had posted, she couldn't believe her ears.
"I was floored," Gibson said.
The video was called "Am I Pretty or Ugly?" and asked anyone who watched the YouTube video to comment on her attractiveness.
Faye says that she has long been a victim of bullying. A day does not pass when someone at school does not call her ugly, she said. "I get called a lot of names, get talked about behind my back," she said.
The psyche of a teenage girl is understandably muddled. Faye said she goes to the Web to get opinions from those who don't know her.
"Deep down inside, all girls know that other people's opinions don't matter, but we still go to other people for help because we don't believe what people say," she told ABC News.
What she received were mixed reactions. Though some comments were innocuous enough, others spewed hateful messages toward the young teenager.
One read, "FAYE! Stop asking for this attention. It makes you look so pathetic and dumb."
"It hurt me to see those comments about my daughter," Gibson said.
Faye's case is not unique. Similar videos have been posted in recent months, all asking often-unknown users to comment on whether or not a teen is ugly. Some have accrued thousands of hits, with one video, posted by user sgal01, getting 3,622,844 views. Comments are mixed, with some Good Samaritans imploring the teens to know their self-worth, as more disparaging commentors hurled insults, some even taking a sexual, predatory tone.
But while posting videos like this may be a recent phenomenon, experts say that teens' desire for approval is nothing new.
Dr. Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, says that teens have always had a fervent desire to be accepted.
"This is just an extreme version of something that's very normal," Klapow said, adding, "Another piece that's normal is impulsivity. Give them a medium that is so easily accessible and so potent, you get the problem we're seeing."
Dr. Alan Kazdin, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale, agrees. "There's a part of it that's unfortunate, but there's a part of it that's natural. Technology has made it so that it's not new in principle but new in practice," he said.
Older generations may have used slambooks to share their feelings about peers but, for this technology-inundated generation, the Internet is teenagers' open forum, providing them the comfort and ease to open themselves up to the enormous and often-anonymous cyber-universe.
"The question is not, why would [teenagers] take their problems to the Web? The question is, why wouldn't you take it to the Web?" said Kazdin.
Experts say that part of the appeal of asking viewers open questions comes from the immediate reward the teens get. Rather than sitting down and having a conversation, teenagers can post something on the Internet and immediately experience the thrill associated with seeing a response, whether positive or negative.
But the negative comments can have deleterious effects.
"They have no safe place now," Kazdin said. "As long as they're electronically connected, they become vulnerable."
Gibson had already instituted rules to try and protect her daughter, requiring Faye to tell her when she posted a video so she could screen it. Initially, Faye had been using YouTube to showcase her singing and dancing talents as a way to detract from the bullying that she has been a victim of since she was 11. Now, Gibson says that the privilege may soon be revoked.
"I took away her Facebook and Twitter account because of bullying. She needs to stop putting herself out there. Now people are walking around asking her if she's pretty to her face. It's hurting her more in the long run, I think," Gibson said.
For Faye, the pain of not being accepted is inescapable.
"I feel like I could just go away and never come back…I feel like I've been standing all these years and keep getting torn down," Faye said.
Aside from the emotional damage the video has caused, Gibson has a deeper concern, worrying that the video could be fodder for predators. On several such videos, users have posted lewd and sexual comments.
She has appealed directly to YouTube to try and get these videos and comments taken down. In a statement sent to ABC News by a YouTube spokesperson, YouTube reiterated its policy on underage users:
YouTube is for people thirteen years or older only, and we provide information for teens and parents in our Safety Center on staying safe online. Our Community Guidelines prohibit videos or comments containing harassment, threats, or hate speech -- we encourage users to flag material so we can quickly review it and remove anything that breaks the rules. Videos involving children (anyone under the age of 18) are particularly sensitive. Videos containing children should never be sexually suggestive or violent.
Experts insist that effective parenting can help minimize insecurity, although nothing can completely eradicate it.
"Parents have to get serious about monitoring what their teens and tweens are doing. They've got to monitor regularly. They may not prevent [the video] from going up, but they need to catch it as soon as it goes up. They should use these videos as teachable moments. Perhaps ask the kids, 'How would you feel if you saw these comments?'" Klapow said.
Gibson is hoping that Faye's and her experience can help alert parents before their children's insecurities spiral into something dangerous.
"Hopefully it will open up the eyes of the parents," she said. "The kids aren't letting their parents know what's wrong, just like Faye didn't let me know. Hopefully, parents can get more proactive. [Faye's] internet usage is limited even more, I have the computer locked after a certain time. I've taken all the steps that I needed to take, here's another step I need to adjust and move on from."
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio