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Now showing: The world’s a stage for the YouTube generation —
exercise caution

By Christina Quick

Early last year four high school boys in New York were charged with first-degree assault after one of the suspects posted cell phone camera footage on YouTube of a teen being attacked and beaten in a church parking lot.

In September, a 17-year-old in Great Britain jumped to his death from the top of a building at the encouragement of a crowd of shouting, camera-waving onlookers who seemed eager to document the tragedy.

In November, a Fort Bragg, N.C., soldier was investigated after a YouTube film surfaced showing two toddlers fighting as an adult encouraged them.

In January, a man at a Colorado resort lost his pants and got caught dangling upside down from a ski lift. Within hours, a slide show of the mishap appeared online for all to see.

It seems some people are willing to do anything for a three-minute video clip and a brief shot at Internet fame. It’s been called the YouTube generation, a label earned by amateur filmmakers with discount cameras clamoring for attention in a Wild West marketplace of images ranging from the mundane to the appalling.

Since the launch of YouTube in 2005, video sharing has evolved from a niche idea to a cultural phenomenon that reaches even into the world’s most powerful institutions. During last year’s U.S. presidential election, the candidates and their supporters posted dozens of Web videos designed to influence voters.

The number of Internet users visiting video-sharing sites on an average day more than doubled between the close of 2006 and the end of 2007, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

“We are in a media age unlike any that we’ve had before,” says Mark Kellner, who researches and writes about technology trends. “Video-sharing is part of that, and it isn’t likely to go away anytime soon.”

YouTube estimates hundreds of millions of clips are viewed at the site daily. Some rise to popularity quickly as viewers pass on links to others of videos they like. One Pew study found that more than half of online video viewers share links to the videos they find, and more than 75 percent say they receive video links from others.

Sites such as YouTube encourage users to contribute material, allowing anyone with a few basic pieces of equipment to potentially become a quasi-celebrity.

According to YouTube, 10 hours of video is uploaded every 10 minutes. While that level of participation is impressive, it may be cause for concern — particularly among parents.

“YouTube has made some good-faith efforts to be more restrictive and careful about what content they will post, but with such a huge volume of video content being uploaded, it’s difficult to monitor,” says Melissa Henson, director of communications and public education for the Parents Television Council.

As kids devote an increasing amount of their free time online, Henson says parents should take note of what they’re consuming.

Teens ages 13-17 spent an average of 12.5 hours a week on the Internet last year, an increase of nearly two hours from the year before, a study by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood revealed. Youth ages 8-12 increased their online time from 5.2 hours to 6.5. During the same period, print magazine readership declined in both age groups.

So where is all that youthful Internet traffic going? According to Nielsen Online, YouTube is the top destination among preteens and those ages 12-17, as well as youngsters ages 2-11. Last year, more than three times as many kids visited YouTube than viewed Disney Channel or Nickelodeon Web sites.

“Kids love that they can make videos of themselves and friends and pass them on to other friends,” Henson says. “They can also get clips from movies, TV shows and famous performers. There is a wealth of information on YouTube, but unfortunately there are also hazards.”

Though YouTube policy forbids pornography, a recent analysis by the PTC found some videos on the site advertise Web addresses and include links to pornographic sites.

“That was the most disturbing thing to me — that kids could so easily get to hard-core porn Web sites through YouTube,” Henson says. “Even if you have Web filters, they may not block a child from following a link posted on an allowed site.”

The PTC report also raised questions about the comments field that appears below each video. Even when the video content was family-friendly, researchers found many of the comments posted by users included profanity and violent or sexual speech.

While running searches on Miley Cyrus, Jonas Brothers, High School Musical and Hannah Montana, the PTC found 422 instances of explicit content in the comments text. An average of 68 percent of those instances included profanity, and 31 percent of the profanity was “of the most offensive nature.”

“It becomes problematic when kids are able to access video content in the absence of adult supervision,” Henson says. “Even if they’re searching wholesome terms like the Jonas Brothers, there are no filters on the language that can be used in the comments field. A child very innocently looking at a Hannah Montana video might see some very sexually suggestive or profane content posted by other users.”

Monitoring online activity likely will become more difficult as video iPods and Internet cell phones become more common among youth.

Accessing content through technology isn’t the only danger. An alarming number of teens are sharing inappropriate images of themselves. A recent study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found 22 percent of teen girls and 18 percent of teen boys had sent or posted on the Internet videos or photos of themselves nude or seminude. The percentage is even higher among college-age adults.

“We have only just begun to delve into this medium,” Henson says. “Our recommendation is that if it’s important to you that your child have a cell phone, get one that will not allow them to take or send pictures or access the Internet.”

The PTC also makes the following recommendations:

• Keep a careful watch on media consumption and encourage other activities as well.

• Place the computer in a common family space, not in a child’s bedroom, so computer activity can be supervised.

• Check iPods to see what has been downloaded and what content has been viewed.

CHRISTINA QUICK is staff writer for Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.

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