The Associated Press
NEW YORK — The young girl shows off her big, comfy koala hat and forms playful hearts with her fingers as she drops the question on YouTube: "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 as she invites the world to decide.
And the world did.
The video, posted Dec. 17, 2010, has more than 4 million views and more than 107,000 anonymous, often hateful responses in 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 whether the videos, with anywhere from 300 to 1,000 posted, represent a new wave of distress rather than simple self-questioning or pleas for affirmation or attention.
How could the creators not anticipate the nasty responses, even the tender tweens uploading videos in violation of YouTube's 13-and-over age policy? Their directness, playful but steadfast, grips even those accustomed to life's open Internet channel, where revolutions and executions play out alongside the ramblings of anybody with digital access.
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.
Much has been made of cyberbullying and pedophiles who cruise the Internet, and of low self-esteem among pre-adolescents and adolescents, especially girls, as their brains continue to develop.
There have been similar "hot or not" memes in the past, but as more young people live their lives online, they're clearly more aware of the potential for negative consequences.
"Negative feedback that is personal is rarely easy to hear at any age, but to tweens and teens who value as well as incorporate feedback into their own sense of worth, it can be devastating," said Elizabeth Dowdell, a nursing professor at Villanova University in suburban Philadelphia. She has researched child Internet safety and risk behavior in adolescents in partnership with the Justice Department.
In another video posted by Kendal, she offers to "do two dares" on camera, inviting her open-channel audience to come up with some as she holds a little white stuffed monkey.
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," that have them noting what they hate and love about the way they look.
"I just don't like my body at all," says Faye as she pulls up her sweat shirt to bare her midriff.
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