YouTube is mirror, mirror on the wall

  • Article by: LEANNE ITALIE , Associated Press
  • Updated: March 3, 2012 - 5:31 PM

Young girls are posting videos asking the eternal question: "Am I pretty?" The reply many times is brutal.

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This image is from a video posted on YouTube on Dec. 17, 2010, showing a girl with a koala hat asking “Am I pretty or ugly?”

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The young girl shows off her big koala hat and forms playful hearts with her fingers as she drops the question on YouTube: "Am I pretty or ugly?"

"A lot of people call me ugly, and I think I am ugly. I think I'm ugly and fat," she confesses in a tiny voice as she invites the world to decide.

And the world did.

The video, posted Dec. 17, 2010, has more than 4 million views and more than 107,000 anonymous, often hateful responses in a troubling phenomenon that has girls as young as 10 -- and some boys -- asking the same question on YouTube with similar results.

Some experts in child psychology and online safety wonder whether the videos represent a new wave of distress rather than simple self-questioning or pleas for affirmation or attention. How could the creators not anticipate the nasty responses, even the tweens uploading videos in violation of YouTube's 13-and-over age policy?

Commenters on YouTube curse and declare the young video creators "attention whores," ask for sex and to see them naked. They wonder where their parents are and call them "fugly" and worse.

"Y do you live, and kids in africa die?" one responder tells the girl in the koala hat who uses the name Kendal and lists her age as 15 in her YouTube profile.

Some offer support and beg Kendal and the other young faces to take down their videos and feel good about themselves instead.

Much has been made of cyberbullying and pedophiles who cruise the Internet, and of low self-esteem among preadolescents and adolescents, especially girls, as their brains continue to develop. There have been similar "hot-or-not" memes in the past, but as more young people live their lives online, they're clearly more aware of the potential for negative consequences.

"Negative feedback that is personal is rarely easy to hear at any age, but to tweens and teens who value as well as incorporate feedback into their own sense of worth, it can be devastating," said Elizabeth Dowdell, a nursing professor at Villanova University in suburban Philadelphia.

In heavy eye makeup and neon orange nail polish, a girl who calls herself Faye not only asks the pretty/ugly question but tells in other videos of being bullied at school, suffering migraines that have sent her to the hospital and coping with the divorce of her parents.

"My friends tell me that I'm pretty," she says. "It doesn't seem like I'm pretty, though, because, I don't know, it just doesn't, because people at school, they're like, 'Faye you're not pretty at all.'"

Faye's profile lists her age as 13. Tracked down in suburban Denver, her mom, Naomi Gibson, told ABC's "Good Morning America" that she knew nothing of the video until reporters called. "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."

YouTube would not comment on the issue, but it advised parents to visit the site's safety center for tips on how to protect their kids online.

Emilie Zaslow, a media studies professor at Pace University in New York, said today's online world for young people is only just beginning to be understood by researchers. She said, "These videos could be read as a new form of self-mutilation in line with cutting and eating disorders."

That potential is real, added Nadine Kaslow, a family psychologist and professor of behavioral sciences at Emory University in Atlanta. "There's this constant messaging about looks and beauty," she said.

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