YouTube is pretty much the last place on Earth that you want to ask: Am I ugly?
That's because there's no shortage of people who will tell you the truth -- and throw in a little cruelty for good measure. "Hot or not" videos have long been a staple online, but they surfaced as a subject of discussion in the mainstream media after Katie J.M. Baker of the website Jezebel wrote about the growing number of tweens and young teenagers engaging in the disturbing practice of posting videos of themselves online and asking strangers, "Am I ugly?"
"Teens have always sought validation about their looks, way before the Internet," Baker told The Times, "but this goes into a much darker area."
She added: "You can't imagine some of the comments people make. It goes beyond blunt. There are racial comments. Sexual comments."
The above "Am I ugly?" video, which Baker used to illustrate her article, has been viewed more than 517,000 times, racking up more than 10,000 comments, including "Yup you sure are..." to "No! ... GORGEOUS!"
Enter body-positive blogs. "If there's a bright side to all of this, it's the other side to this trend, blogs that are curve-positive," Baker said. Just a few in this growing online niche: Body Peace, Fat Girl's Guide, and Curve Appeal. Proceed at your own risk, however. Some can get a little racy, and are not appropriate for tweens. (Women aren't the only ones who are urged to accept themselves and forget about trying to be as lithe as the Ambercrombie & Fitch models. Check out Chubstr.)
Last month, Tumblr took steps toward cracking down on microblogs that promote unhealthy behaviors such as cutting, suicide and anorexia. As a result, the site took plenty of heat from critics who said it was violating free speech. (Tumblr defended itself, but the reaction was heated from both sides.)
YouTube's guidelines don't go as far in this arena, but it does encourage users to flag posters or commenters that "cross the line." YouTube says it has staffers that review flagged material 24/7 to identify potential violators.
Child psychiatrist Michael Brody, chairman of the media committee of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry, said he was horrified to learn about the "Am I ugly?" video trend, warning that some comments could cause lasting psychological damage.
"Our culture has changed so much in the last 10 years with Facebook and YouTube, where everyone wants to be a star and everyone wants to be a celebrity and we have reality TV. And that's what I think this is a form of -- reality TV," he told The Times. "The problem is that there's a lot of rejection and humiliation and abuse here."
He encouraged parents to monitor what their children are doing online, and to -- without nagging -- start an ongoing conversation about beauty, body image and self-acceptance.
It's also important for kids to know that "nobody really looks like those Victoria's Secret supermodels," he said. They're made up by a team of beauty experts and photographed and filmed in the perfect light -- and that's before all the Photoshopping.
Brody said that everyone craves to be told how special and appealing they are, and parents should make a practice of highlighting a child's outstanding talents without putting an emphasis on his or her looks. (That can send the wrong message that they are valued for their outsides, not their insides, he said.)
He also suggested that parents help guide their kids to find something -- a hobby, a sport, a skill -- that can boost self-image and self-confidence. "Everybody needs to be able to do something well. The love and the positive feelings expressed by parents can go a long way."