“Am I hot or am I ugly? You can be one-hundred-percent honest.”
It has become a growing YouTube trend: teen/tween girls posting videos of themselves asking random viewers if they are pretty or ugly.
A simple search query on YouTube will yield many pages of results. One video in particular has been viewed more than 5 million times (and more than 120,000 comments). Others have been viewed several thousand times each. And with each new video, common teenage insecurities are amplified to a global level, leaving girls open to thousands of voices of insult, criticism, and harassment.
- A girl who looks like she’s pushing the ripe old age of 9 asks if she’s fat or skinny. She stands on her bed and strikes a pose while she sings a Maroon 5 song, making you wonder where in the world her parents are.
- One girl stands on a chair (so we can get the full-body shot) and berates her looks. “I personally think I’m fat and ugly because that’s been told to me my whole life by people.”
- Another girl who claims to be in junior high talks about how most of her friends are only 70 pounds, but she feels fat because she’s 110 pounds. Then she walks over to the bathroom scale to prove it.
- One girl scrolls through kissy pictures of herself apologizing for her lack of makeup. “My friends tell me that I’m pretty. It doesn’t seem like I’m pretty though,” she confesses.
After watching a number of these videos the script becomes predictable. Usually the girl prefaces her video with comments about how others have told her she’s pretty but she doesn’t believe them, or how others have made fun of her for being ugly, and she wants the rest of the world to weigh in on the matter. Some girls doll themselves up for their YouTube debut. Others apologize for having a bad hair day or for not wearing makeup.
What should parents make of this trend, and how can they use it as a unique parenting opportunity?
Losing Inhibitions: The Allure of YouTube
The Am-I-Pretty trend offers parents a look at two cultural phenomena: (1) the allure of the Internet as a means to amplify our lives, and (2) the common theme of insecurity about the way we look. Counselors agree: both are worthy topics for parents to discuss with their children, especially their Internet-savvy teens and tweens.
Thirteen-year-old Faye posted a video containing several photos of herself, asking YouTubers if they thought she was attractive. She later told ABC News, “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.”
Now, thanks to sites like YouTube, these “other people” can be anybody with an Internet connection. “Since it is natural and normal for girls to want to know ‘Am I pretty?’ and to desire reassurance by their peers, I am not surprised that they have turned to faceless millions on the Internet in an attempt to receive that reassurance,” reports Skye Bryant who works for SoulCare Counseling in Bedford, Texas. Bryant believes YouTube offers these girls a unique medium to get “honest” feedback.
“If they ask their parents and friends, the typical response will be ‘Of course you’re pretty.’ But in their insecurity, the girls feel they cannot trust these opinions to be objective,” Bryant reports. “In their minds, they believe that they will get a more honest answer from someone who does not know them.”
The Am-I-Pretty trend is a manifestation of what Psychologist John Suler calls the “online disinhibition effect.” In layman’s terms, people often feel empowered by the Internet to express themselves in ways they would not do in face-to-face conversations. In the case of these young women, their interaction with YouTubers isn’t happening in real time: they can record the video, post it, and then walk away, letting replies trickle in over time. In the case of the viewers, leaving a comment can be an anonymous interaction, allowing them to feel free to say whatever they want without fear of consequences.
Of course, YouTube is not the only place where this disinhibition effect is seen. Sitting invisibly behind their screens, young boys venture onto seedier websites full of sexual content, knowing no one has to know. Sitting casually in front of their Facebook profiles, teens can post whatever images of themselves they want, unaware of how their online persona reflects their character. The medium of the Internet gives users a fresh boldness to flirt, insult, or express themselves in new ways—and unfortunately this can lead to real-world dangers and temptations.
A Forum for Bullying
The most immediate danger of Am-I-Pretty videos is their ability to harness comments from viewers. Comments can range from ruthlessly cruel to raunchy to degrading. While YouTube allows users to remove comments on their videos they find offensive, tweens and teens still read them, bringing further damage to their already fragile body image.
Bullying online (or cyberbullying) is very common in youth culture today. Nearly 90% of teens who use social media say they have seen someone being mean or cruel to someone else online. Among youth, 15-17-year-old girls report online bullying the most (more than 40%), and nearly a third of online teens say they have been targets of a range of annoying or potentially menacing online activities.
Parents can prevent these problems by holding their kids accountable to what they say, see, and do online. “The first thing is: Get proactive,” Donna Rice Hughes told Today Show’s Matt Lauer. “Know what your kids are doing. Have an ongoing dialog and communication with them. Supervise what they’re posting: their pictures and their videos.”
Aside from the modern technological side in this phenomenon, Am-I-Pretty videos crystallize in high definition the almost-cliché teen drama of body-image insecurities.
Dr. Gail Saltz says teen girls are posting these videos as a way to cope with these insecurities. “This is a masochistic defense mechanism that teenagers are using to quell their anxiety,” she says.
Skye Bryant believes beauty images in the media play a major role in this. “This century we have seen an explosion of media-propagated beauty idols,” Bryant protests. “Today, the ideal image of ‘beauty’ includes sex appeal, athleticism, and general outward perfection that few women can attain. One cannot walk into a grocery store without seeing airbrushed magazine covers of the ideal female form. Young girls are bombarded with ads, TV shows, movies, music videos, and magazines telling them what beauty is and how to achieve it.”
Ella Hutchinson, LPC, agrees that the bombardment of media is one of the obvious and disheartening roots of this phenomenon, but she also believes it begins long before a young girl sets her eyes on a fashion magazine. It begins with the values parents display at home.
“I have a friend whose 4-year-old daughter gets stopped in public by perfect strangers commenting on how cute or pretty she is. I watch as both parents openly admire her beauty in front of her and have her show off the cute things she does to guests. Then I watch her mom constantly berate herself, saying how fat she is. I hear about how her dad frequently encourages his wife to lose weight while he looks at pornography daily.
“I have wondered about what would happen if this little girl were to get into an accident where her face was maimed or if she gets acne or becomes heavier than society says she should be? How will this girl handle it if a boy she has a crush on doesn’t respond in kind? How will she handle it as an adult if her husband looks at porn or has an affair? If she doesn’t have her looks, what does she have?”
Hutchinson believes parents can guard against the overvaluation of physical beauty in many ways. Parents should praise their daughter’s mind, personality, and talents more than her appearance. Fathers should express love and affection to their wives instead of being caught gawking at images of women in media, or worse yet, pornography. Mothers should display a personal confidence not based on outward attractiveness.
For Hutchinson, parents play a pivotal role in forming the values of their kids that goes well beyond just controlling their media diet.
Researchers recently did a comparative analysis of TV shows made for tween audiences (ages 9-11). They looked at samples from 50 years of television dating back to 1967. Their question was: What values are encouraged in these TV programs? When they sampled media from this decade the No. 1 value promoted was fame, a value that didn’t even rank in the top 10 in all decades prior. The same researchers believe sites like YouTube are primary contributors to the amplification of this value in media.
Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory University and author of The Dumbest Generation, believes social media like Facebook and YouTube are contributing to a widespread immaturity in teens. Social media has made teen social life a “24-7 condition,” he says. This means teens can take their cues from one another to an unprecedented degree. “This is something altogether new in the history of human civilization,” Bauerlein comments.
What’s the solution? Professor Bauerlein says: Pick up a good book for a change. Read great accounts from history about people who faced real stakes in their lives, people who sacrificed for something greater than themselves.
“The trivia of youth are amplified by these digital tools,” Bauerlein. “What is the motto of YouTube? ‘Broadcast Yourself.’ Well guess what? ‘Yourself’ may not be that important. That may not be such a great subject to focus so much time on.”