It should come as no surprise that parents are often the last to hear about viral online trends. Many of us just are now catching up, thanks to several stories in the last couple of days, to the phenomenon of “Am I Ugly?” videos that have surfaced on YouTube and elsewhere. Posted largely by middle school-age girls (about 25% are boys), and broadcast from their homes, the confessional videos starkly ask the cyberworld: “Am I Ugly or Pretty?” One of these has received over 3.5 million hits and nearly 100,000 comments.
The videos themselves are hard to watch. They are ripe with all that is painful, awkward and vulnerable about being an adolescent and looking to others to provide a sense of self worth. But they’re equally alarming as a window into how adeptly pre-teens can reveal themselves to the world online. Exhibitionism is one of the mainstays of the Internet, but what is cringe-worthy here is how such young kids can seek and then become the object of anonymous commentary on a mass level—a process that can elicit superficial flattery at best and anonymous cruelty and overt sexuality at worst. The comments may even be more harrowing than the videos.
“Am I Ugly?” videos also bring up another great parenting challenge of our time—managing online and school bullying. In one of the videos, a 13-year-old named Faye describes being called alternately ugly and pretty at school, and it is clear that soliciting validation online is sometimes an attempt to make sense of painful and confusing comments kids endure in their daily lives.
We can bemoan the fact that these vulnerable children make what seems to us to be a self-destructive decision to go public with their insecurity, but our culture is saturated with it—take virtually any reality TV show. These should be one more reminder to pay attention to what our tweens and teens are up to on their iPhones and, more importantly, to pay close attention to them as they try to figure out who they are, and want to be, amidst a world of anonymous eyes.