Glancing at the ground, the tween with freshly applied eyeliner and lip-gloss hesitates as she begins her monologue about middle school drama. Without looking at the camera directly, the girl tells the YouTube audience her dilemma while laughing nervously. Clicking away, she displays a string of photos to the viewers, leaving it up to them to decide the ultimate question: “Am I pretty or ugly?”
Girls ages 9 to 14 have been uploading videos onto YouTube with titles like “Am I pretty or ugly?" More than 500,000 videos have been featured on the site since 2011. Adults and experts alike are captivated by this new phenomenon that deals with issues of self-esteem in girls at a young age and a new, digital means of validating beauty.
According to Renee Engeln, a psychology professor at Northwestern University, people have always worried about how they look. Engeln refers to Helen of Troy as a historical example of obsessing over beauty, saying that the only difference now is that people care more because the Internet provides a constant stream of images for comparison. “We imagine the world as it looks like online,” Engeln said.
Dr. Francesco Belviso, a licensed clinical psychologist in Evanston, Ill., said the media complicate matters even more by creating beauty images that make every little girl think she wants to be a princess. “The standard is an impossible standard,” Belviso said.
Belviso and Engeln believe that the girls in these YouTube videos are engaging in typical behavior, seeing and thinking like other girls their age. Belviso and Engeln’s only concern is that they are asking personal questions within a much more public sphere.
“One worry about this younger generation is that they don’t understand the nature of privacy,” Engeln said.
According to a Pew Internet & American Life Project study, teens have increased the amount of information they’re sharing on social media sites since 2006. Among teen social media users in 2012, 24 percent said they post videos of themselves on social media sites, while 91 percent posted photos.
This increase in sharing information on the Internet concerns Belviso. “Teens are no longer in a group of five girls or boys who are trying to figure things out,” Belviso said. “They are with this audience of anonymous commentators that can say mean stuff without any fear of repercussions.”
Dr. Asmat Jafry, a child psychiatrist at Edward Hospital in Naperville, Ill., fears that commentators who post negative feedback will affect the girls’ self-esteem. “Somebody’s opinion can cause a lot of damage to their psychological makeup,” Jafry said. “They can be really hurt by what some people write.”
Jafry blames the YouTube trend on the “drive for people to look a certain way.” She said that there’s an unrealistic concept of beauty that is making the girls feel anxious about their appearances.
On the other hand, Engeln believes their behavior is more of a result of dysphoria, a state of sadness or distress. She also links the videos to social comparison theory, which is about our drive to compare ourselves to others by collecting data and figuring out where we stand. “We want an accurate view of ourselves in all kinds of dimensions,” Engeln said.
Teresa Quinn, a school social worker at Chute Middle School in Evanston, characterized this type of behavior as self-destructive because the girls are relying on outside opinions or factors to determine their self-worth.
“There is a hope that when they post to social media, people are just going to feed into their self-esteem,” Belviso said. “But that’s not the case. Even if they get positive answers, it’s never going to be a valuable effort.”
Another study released by the Pew Research Center in 2007 found that posting photos and videos online initiates conversation. Of the one in five social networking teens who have posted videos online, 48 percent said people “sometimes” comment on their videos, while 24 percent said that people comment “most of the time.” In total, 57 percent of all online teens watched a video on a video-sharing site such as YouTube.
After Denise Davidson, associate professor of psychology at Loyola University of Chicago, watched the videos and read certain comments, she wondered why parents were not monitoring what their young daughters were posting on YouTube. Davidson called the trend “alarming” because he thought the “psychological ramifications are enormous” when the girls open the door for criticism or praise.
Engeln had similar concerns, reacting strongly to the age group posting the videos.
“That’s who’s doing it?” Engeln said. “I think their parents ought to monitor their computer usage. Who lets a 9-year-old do that?”
As reported by a 2012 Pew Research Center study, 46 percent of parents of all online teens have engaged in conversation and were concerned about a post to their teen’s profile or account. Half of the parents of online teens have used parental control or have monitored their child’s online behavior.
Some experts think even more involvement by parents can prevent this YouTube trend. They believe the basis of the girls’ behavior is the lack of parental and peer support in their children’s online presence and their battle against society’s definition of beauty.
“There’s this element of intentional parenting, constantly trying to combat that script,” said Alecia Wartowski, a mother of three children and resident of Evanston, Ill. Wartowski said parents should be thoughtful and not forceful when conversing with their children.
“If I were a parent of one of these kids, I would try to figure out what my child likes or is good at, and how I can help them build some resilience to the world to help them create an identity through their interests,” Wartowski said. Wartowski proposed that parents should hone their children’s time and energy into features other than looks and should foster in their children a critical understanding of the world. Jafry agreed with these efforts, noting that physicians can only educate the parents; they have the ultimate decision on how to handle this.
Besides parenting, Marci Fox, licensed psychologist in Boca Raton, Fla., and contributing author of Think Confident, Be Confident, said another way to solve this problem is to focus on the child, building her confidence and using cognitive therapy. In her book, Fox emphasizes believing in the self and eliminating any self-doubt.
“It’s about helping people pull out their thoughts,” Fox said. “In terms of these girls, it’s helping them recognize and pulling out that thought of being ugly, and having them think what ugly means.”
Engeln said the trend speaks to another solution: a need for more feminist education to teach girls at a young age not to just reject beauty, but to question it. Although solutions to the “Am I pretty or ugly?” videos such as parental engagement have been proposed, Engeln still feels anxious about the future of the trend.
“I think people are trying to fight back,” Engeln said. “I see little micro revolutions that are happening, but I don’t think anyone will overthrow the dominant culture.”