An 11-year-old girl lies on the floor of her bedroom. On the desk behind her is a trophy that clearly identifies her name, her hometown, and the school she attends. She stares at her computer and responds to questions on the screen with a winning sincerity. 'Do you dance?', 'Yes, badly'. 'Do you have a bf (boyfriend)?', 'No, what for?' She appears to be video-chatting and is comfortable enough to be doing it in a loose t-shirt and pajama shorts.
What's wrong with this picture? Mainly the fact that the girl has no idea who is on the other end of her Internet connection. For example, she has no idea who I am but I am looking into her bedroom watching her answer increasingly personal questions from more than a hundred other anonymous viewers.
Welcome to the world of 'YouNow.'
YouNow.com is a website self-professed to provide 'the best way to broadcast live and get an audience to watch you.' At any given moment there are hundreds of live video feeds and watching them requires no registration, age verification, or identification of any sort. Viewers communicate with the broadcaster through written comments. Broadcasts are organized under various categories with some of the most popular being 'Dance,' 'Girls.' 'Twerk,' and 'Truth-or-dare.' Broadcasters can earn 'likes' from viewers and accumulate 'fans,' while advancing in 'levels.' But the real competition is for viewers. With so much choice, children do increasingly daring things to avoid losing the attention of their audience.
YouNow lists the behaviors and the content that they consider to be unacceptable. For example, the guidelines prohibit nudity or sexually explicit content, as well as 'grooming and solicitations' which are defined as 'behavior intended to manipulate another member into producing sexual images of themselves, or provide personal information.' Yet girls frequently flash their bras, their breasts or their underwear in response to viewers' incessant demands. When two 10-year-old girls went online to show off their ability to rap, they were soon being asked about the color of their underwear, and encouraged to 'flash' and 'make out together.'
Children are also regularly encouraged by viewers to perform dangerous 'dares' such as the cinnamon challenge (eating a spoonful of cinnamon without drinking -- a behavior that can cause severe choking). Viewers often threaten to leave for another broadcast if the youth do not comply with their requests. One girl choked, gasped and struggled for air after attempting a challenge. Comments reflected the horror of the situation: 'OMG, OMG THAT WAS SO SCARY,' 'THOUGHT YOU WERE GOING TO DIE THERE. ALMOST CALLED 911.' But these comments were soon replaced by others encouraging her to: 'Now do the cinnamon one.'
Other theoretically prohibited but commonly seen behaviors include threats, taunts and insults, profanity, and underage drinking. Out of eight behaviors prohibited by YouNow, the only one that I did not see violated within one hour of viewing the site was copyright infringement -- and I am not sure if it is legal to broadcast copyrighted songs over the site.
Whether YouNow's ineffectual moderation and policing of their website reflects a deliberate choice, or merely the difficulty of supervising hundreds of live streams simultaneously I do not know. What is clear is that their guidelines exist in theory alone.
What is also clear is that many children are inviting the world anonymously into their bedrooms, naively sharing their identity, privacy and intimacy with strangers. YouNow also exits as a smartphone app, enabling children to broadcast from virtually anywhere and negating crucial parental supervision. Prior to writing this post I conducted a completely unscientific poll of colleagues and friends asking if they knew about YouNow. Many of them have children and all of them use social media. None of them had heard of it. When I described it, one horrified parent called it 'pedophile heaven'.
YouNow's style of personal broadcasting represents a new kind of internet peril and it is imperative that awareness among parents grow. Children need to be aware of the risks and to have clear guidelines for safe behavior. When the girls I mentioned earlier were asked about the color of their underwear another viewer told them: "Don't tell him that. That's not funny or cute' and warned them that things would escalate. Their response? 'He doesn't know where we live,' and 'We're just 10! We don't even have anything to show.'
It is also imperative that YouNow take greater responsibility for the risks their website creates. Greater public scrutiny will cause them to take this responsibility seriously. I hope that a serious or tragic event is not needed to trigger this scrutiny.
For a young child, in the safety of her own house and her own room, the adoration of strangers can hold strong allure, and the unknown people at the other end of the internet might not seem real. But the risks being faced and the risks being taken are very real.