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Is YouTube Dangerous for Teens?

Forget the yellow books titled Fill-in-the-Blank for Dummies; today’s teens have their own source to go to for help: YouTube. The online smorgasbord of posted videos has every topic covered: how-to ride a skateboard, how-to tie a tie, and how-to apply eyeliner.

Of course, there are also videos showing teens how-to cut themselves…and hide it and even how-to commit suicide.

Video Buffet
Unless you just woke up from a 6-year comma, you know that YouTube is the premier place to go for online videos. Launched in February of 2005, YouTube has taken over the Internet. According to Internet monitor www.Alexa.com, YouTube ranks as the 3rd most-visited Web site in the world (behind Google and Facebook).

With literally millions of videos available to the online community, YouTube is a veritable video buffet the digital world devours every day. Videos can be uploaded and watched on cell phones, laptops, and handheld devices such as portable video games and mp3 players. If there’s a WiFi signal, YouTube is just a click away for many teens.

According to YouTube’s online fact sheet:

  • 2 billion videos are watched every day. (That’s billion…with a “b.”)
  • Every 60 seconds, 24 hours of video is uploaded (bringing the total number of videos uploaded each day to the hundreds-of-thousands mark).
  • 51% of YouTube users visit at least once per week.

With numbers like those, it’s easy to see that if a kid wants to watch a video, his first stop on the net is YouTube.

All Kinds of Searching
YouTube is best known for its stupid videos. In fact, the amount of goofy videos posted online has even led to the launch of TV shows, like Tosh.O on Comedy Central. However, YouTube also has hundreds of thousands videos designed to teach or instruct.

On YouTube, teens can expect How-To instructional videos for everything under the sun: how-to be a ninja, how to ask a girl to prom, how-to successfully cheat on a test, and even how-to survive a zombie attack. Most of it is silly; only some of it is (actually) funny. These are just a few of the zany searches teens embark upon on YouTube.

But sadly, there are also numerous instructional videos for how to do very dangerous things, like mutilating (cutting) and hiding the scars as well as how to commit suicide. The presence of these videos on YouTube has been causing quite a buzz in the news world for the last week or so. USA Today was just one of many news agencies to address the issue, sharing an article with an embedded video. Even the University of South Florida (where I serve as teaching pastor for a campus ministry) had a medical doctor weigh in on the subject.

The experts’ consistent complaint is that there are thousands of videos on YouTube – totaling millions of views – on destructive behaviors such as auto mutilation, bulimia, anorexia, and suicide. Most experts agree on two points: first, if healthy teens view these videos, they will probably not be tempted to begin self-harm, but second, if teens who already struggle with self-destructive behaviors view them, the videos may “trigger” them to resume their dangerous habits.

After looking into this “alarming new trend” myself, I haven’t found the overwhelming presence of videos on YouTube showing teens how to harm themselves.

Don’t misunderstand me; I found videos of self-harm in various forms. Here’s one that seems to glorify the various acts of mutilation: cutting, picking, burning, etc. Here’s another video of self-harm, uploaded in French, which serves as a reminder of YouTube’s worldwide presence. (Both of these videos required me to sign in – with age verification – before I could watch them.) Along the lines of cutting, I also found videos on how-to hide the scars. Here’s another.

I also found a sad video entitled The Top 4 Tips for Anorexics. Here’s a related video called Anorexia’s 10 Commandments. One European boy posted his 10 Ways to Commit Suicide (All at Once) video, and a cartoonish-yet-vulgar stick figure version of suicide called How-to Commit Suicide…the Cool Way was also available.

In spite of these examples, I didn’t find “thousands of videos” on these destructive behaviors. Self-mutilation is a very serious issue for far too many teens, but I had to enter a dozen search words and scroll through many pages of videos before I came to my first “how-to cut myself” video.

That’s encouraging. However, what do we do with teens who are surfing YouTube with serious questions about these destructive tendencies?

Offline Answers for Online Questions
Again, I didn’t find self-harm videos ubiquitously scattered across YouTube’s landscape. Instead of “thousands of videos” totaling “millions of views,” I found dozens of videos with hundreds of views. Regardless of the numbers, this problem is worth us weighing in on if just one kid is struggling to find answers. If all those views represent a hurting kid, we’ve still got far too many hurting kids.

  1. Don’t condemn YouTube (yet). To put it another way, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Yes, YouTube has videos that seem to glorify cutting and suicide and other destructive behaviors. However, for every video of self-harm I came across, I discovered ten videos of kids’ testimonies to their peers encouraging them to get help by sharing their story of suffering. That said, some critics of YouTube raise the point that if a keyword like “cutting” or “suicide” is entered in as a search, the very first videos in the queue should be these pointing to help…not those giving examples thereof. This would be a simple fix; Google, who owns YouTube, is already doing it. (Just go to Google and type in “suicide.” The first two or three links offer help.) Hopefully, YouTube will quickly make this change.
  2. Put YOU into YouTube. YouTube’s famous tag line is as simple as it is genius: Broadcast Yourself. For the last 6 years, millions of teens have been doing exactly that. It’s time for parents to broadcast themselves! I’m not necessarily talking about launching a YouTube channel and making your kids watch videos of you; just talk to your teens about what they’re watching online. Heck, you might even watch a few videos together online. I highly recommend Bill Cosby’ classics and Brian Regan’s standup. Kids love to watch funny videos. Why wouldn’t they like to watch funny videos with you?

Kids are going online for answers because they can’t find solutions in the real world. You and I can change that…very easily. Get between them and the computer screen, engage them in a one-on-one relationship (or at least a one-on-one conversation), and help them understand the biggest how-tos in life.