A YouTube trend that has teenagers asking "Am I pretty or ugly?" could have tragic consequences, according to a New Zealand child psychologist.
In one clip, a young girl wears a big koala hat and forms playful hearts with her fingers as she drops the question "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, inviting the world to decide.
The video, posted on December 17, 2010, has more than 4 million views and more than 107,000 anonymous, often hateful responses. It's 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 if the videos, with anywhere from 300 to 1000 posted, represent a new wave of distress rather than simple self-questioning or pleas for affirmation or attention.
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, though her demeanor suggests she was far younger at the time.
Another commenter posts: "You need a hug.. around your neck.. with a rope.."
Some offer support and beg Kendal and the other young faces to take down their "Am I Pretty?" and "Am I Ugly?" videos and feel good about themselves instead.
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.'"
She narrates a slideshow of still close-ups of herself to make the judging easier (she's had more than 112,000 views) and joins other girls who have posted videos on another theme, "My Perfect Imperfection," - where they declare what they hate and love about the way they look.
Auckland based child psychologist David Stebbing says the trend is "horrendous".
He says it's an invitation to give away any control a person has over their self-worth.
"You externalise that [self-worth] to someone else, they can decide whether you're good enough."
He says someone who posts a clip like this is obviously emotionally vulnerable. By putting themselves up for public scrutiny "there's any sort of possibilities".
"At best it could damage their wellbeing at a given moment, and at worst I guess this is the sort of stuff that can lead to committing suicide."
He says humans are naturally interested in what other people think about them, and teenagers tend to care even more what people think.
"A technology like this, it enables you to ask those sort of questions in a forum that you wouldn't normally have access to," he says.
"The normal moderators of human behaviours don't exist on the internet."
While he's yet to hear of any local cases, Stebbing says "I don't see any reason why it couldn't be the same sort of behaviour here."
He suggests parents instil as much self-worth in their children as they can, encouraging them to be happy and proud of their own achievements, so they don't seek praise from others, and keep a close eye on what kids are up to online.
- With APBy Nicky Park @Nicky_Park Email Nicky