Is YouTube a Dangerous Place for Your Children?

By Hugh C. McBride

When it comes to Internet dominance, few sites rival the growth and reach of the video-sharing site YouTube.

Three years after the site’s December 2005 launch, it remains the go-to source for the latest viral videos, nostalgic clips, and performances from professionals and amateurs around the world. In December 2008 alone, more than 24 million unique visitors logged onto YouTube and viewed more than four billion videos.
But as parents have been arguing for generations, “popular” doesn’t always mean “good,” and YouTube’s rapid ascent has been accompanied by more than a few questions about its effects on younger users.

Celebrating Bad Behavior?
According to a digital ethnography study conducted by a Kansas State University working group led by Professor Michael Wesch, more than 150,000 videos are uploaded to YouTube every day. Many of these videos were created by teens (YouTube policy forbids users under the age of 13), and while the vast majority of youth-created videos are relatively innocuous, a few more incendiary uploads have raised considerable concern.

For example, in March 2008, eight teens in Polk County, Florida (six girls and two boys) lured a fellow student to one of the perpetrator’s homes, where the six girls attacked and beat her, videotaping the assault with the intent to upload it to MySpace and YouTube. The victim ended up with bruises, hearing damage, and a concussion; five of the attackers pled guilty and are awaiting sentencing; and YouTube underwent a torrent of criticism (even though police confiscated the tape before it made it onto the site).

“There are many, many high school-age fight videos on YouTube,” David Samo wrote in his “Tech Scout” blog on the L.A. Times website April 8, 2008. “Just search ‘school fight’ and order the results by date. Kids of all genders, colors, ages and nationalities are fighting, all over the world. And obviously, there’s often a kid with a cellphone present to record it.”

The same day that Samo posted his critique, tech expert Farhad Manjoo published a defense of YouTube on the Machinist blog:
The idea that the Web has desensitized kids to beatings and that MySpace has given rise to teen brutality is extremely dubious. For starters, despite high-profile news stories, we’ve got no evidence that that’s the case – that bullying, fighting, or generalized teen angst has worsened during the MySpace era.

Also, doesn’t it seem just as plausible that headline-making incidents like this could deter, rather than provoke, violence in kids? They videotaped their crime to post it on YouTube: It’s disgusting, but more than that, it’s profoundly stupid.

The Internet, with its speed and permanent memory, doesn’t easily forgive; even if these kids manage to avoid jail, the Web will give them no props for this. The video and their mug shots are everywhere, and this thing will stay attached to their names in Google for decades.

Encouraging Online Harassment?
Even parents who are confident that YouTube won’t prompt their children to turn to lives of crime may want to take a closer look at the site before allowing their kids to upload videos.

On Feb. 6, parenting expert Denise Witmer took on the topic of harmful, harassing YouTube comments in her Parenting Teens blog on “Kids are very vulnerable,” Witmer wrote, “and something that can seem fun to them can become potentially harming.”

Witmer’s comment was written in response to a mother who discovered that even careful, parent-supervised online activity can have disturbing consequences for impressionable children:
My 10-year-old daughter decided to make her own videos, just like some singers she likes do it. She recorded a few ones in which she talked about her favorite music, showed her favorite dolls and danced around the room. She then decided to post them on YouTube.

She asked me if I thought it was dangerous for her to do that and after some reflection I thought it would be safe if she didn’t reveal in the videos any personal information.

Last week she asked me to check the comments posted on her videos with her. I was shocked to see that there were about 18 obscene messages posted from unknown people! I realized I had made a big mistake to underestimate the consequences of allowing my daughter to expose herself, no matter how innocent the videos were, on the Internet.

YouTube has developed quite the reputation for negative comments, with even the most innocent videos not immune from written attacks by mean-spirited, anonymous commenters. Allowing your children to post comment-enabled videos without restricting what others can write about them will greatly increase their exposure to online harassment and cyberbullying.

The good news is that with consistent smart parenting, a young person’s YouTube use can be a positive experience.

How to Help
Taking the following steps can help you make sure that your children aren’t putting themselves at risk when they use YouTube:

  1. Visit the site yourself. Anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can access YouTube for free, so take a few moments to tour the site to see what all the fuss is about. Visiting the site will dispel any “fear of the unknown” that you may be experiencing, and will also allow you to speak intelligently about the topic when you are talking to your children.
  2. Monitor your kids’ YouTube use. Depending upon their age and trustworthiness, your children shouldn’t be doing much online without your knowledge and approval. Limiting their screen time, putting the computer in a highly visible location in your house, and checking their browsing histories can help you monitor and control the sites they are seeing – and can help you to ensure that they’re not developing an unhealthy dependence upon the Internet. Talk to your children about what they’re doing online, express any concerns you have, and work with them to establish computer rules that the whole family can live with.
  3. Teach your children how to stay safe online. Review any videos or photos before they post them online, and make sure that they don’t contain identifying information such as license plate numbers, your address, or the name or location of their school. Make sure that the files aren’t geo-tagged (embedded with information that can place them on a map), and be sure that they haven’t tagged the photos with names, locations, or other identifiers. And of course make sure that they know to never arrange an in-person meeting with someone they’ve corresponded with online.
  4. Disable comments on your children’s videos. YouTube is an easy way to share videos with friends and family members around the world. To eliminate unwanted commentary from anonymous malcontents, just select “disable comments” when uploading your video.
  5. Report offensive content. Every YouTube video is displayed over a series of links, one of which is “Flag.” Click this link to report any video with content that you believe is inappropriate or in violation of the site’s community guidelines (which include bans on criminal activities, excessive violence, sexual explicitness, predatory behavior, and copyright violations).