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Family Room

Even if you're less hip than Hermitt to the streaming-video phenomenon, you've probably at least heard of YouTube. In the summer of 2006 it was one of the fastest-growing sites on the Web, outpacing MySpace on its way to being dubbed "Invention of the Year" by Time. It was also among PC World Magazine's Top-10 Best Products for that year. Nevertheless, while the site has been heralded as a user-friendly repository for everything from movie clips and home videos to hard-to-find concert snippets, it has also been questioned for postings of copyrighted material and, of greater concern to parents, risqué images including celebrity sex footage.

A Strange New World
Most teens have already tinkered with this site or, at the very least, heard friends and classmates bonding over the clip du jour. If your adolescent has never dabbled on YouTube, he or she is part of a shrinking minority. Determining the ages of YouTube's countless users is tricky, but there's no overestimating its importance to teens, who spend 72 hours per week using electronic media. Says Jim Taylor, vice chairman of the research firm the Harrison Group, "Teen life has become a theatrical, self-directed media production."

The prevalence of video cell phones combined with the relative ease of online posting has made YouTube a forum for amateur cyberjournalism. The site has even scooped traditional media, as when a video-camera user uploaded footage of Seinfeld's Michael Richards unleashing a torrent of racial slurs at a Los Angeles comedy club. YouTube also broke the story of Montana Republican Conrad Burns falling asleep in a Senate hearing. And since criminals are getting shot more often these days (by cameras), YouTube has become a digital bulletin board for law enforcement.

But news seekers be warned: YouTube's lack of authoritative gatekeepers and pro-family filters demands that users be "critical viewers." William Romanowski, author of Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture, explained, "YouTube offers a source of alternative ideas, from news to entertainment. But this kind of information doesn't go through the same scrutiny as would a scholarly article, news show or [packaged] entertainment product."

YouTube is also a stage for emerging talent. When the WB network passed on a sitcom fittingly titled Nobody's Watching, the pilot was leaked to YouTube, much to the delight of several hundred thousand users. NBC responded by purchasing the show. Most famous among YouTube's rising stars is South Korean guitarist Lim Jeong-hyun who, face obscured, stunned YouTubers with a five-minute rocked-up arrangement of Pachelbel's Canon.

Click at Your Own Risk
Before turning children loose however, it's important to consider the site's darker side. A dependence on user-generated content means that its offerings are only as wholesome as its weakest member's morals. Teens can accidentally stumble on offensive material. For example, a clip called "The F.N.G.R." (a secret agent parody featuring a man with a bionic middle finger) recently got spotlighted on the site's home page. In less than five minutes, curious viewers experience blood, violence, lewd sexual dialogue and constant exposure to an obscene gesture.

Speaking of obscene gestures, even a whimsical rendition of The Who's "My Generation," sung by a chorus of gray-but-spry Brits, ends with one man defiantly giving the camera the finger. Who would've expected such a thing? No one, especially since YouTube itself provides no warning labels or ratings for age-appropriateness. Offensive material is sometimes innocently titled. And while the site does allow users to "flag as inappropriate" certain videos, the tolerance level is extremely high. Even after 100,000 views, no one saw fit to flag Pesto, a mob serial loaded with f-words.

Of equal concern are user-response videos and comments accompanying each posting. They appear to go largely unpatrolled, meaning that profane content can appear alongside even harmless clips.

It's one thing for the morally minded to take a wrong turn, but the risks don't end there. Teens' curiosity can lead them into dangerous places—all neatly indexed by search term. A search of "breasts" for example yields more than 27,000 videos, "penis" more than 15,300. The site also serves as a rage page for troubled youth, as in a high-profile case in which two students in Nebraska posted a threat-filled video directed at their high school.

Reaching the YouTube Generation
The possibilities for creating Christ-honoring content on YouTube have not escaped the church. In fact, the January issue of Christian Audio/Visual magazine explored the site's usefulnesss for broadcasting sermons and plugging upcoming events. Churches are responding. A search of "church sermon," for example, yields more than 2,000 results, a smorgasbord of sermonettes across many denominations.

Even so, Dr. Doug Groothius warns, "If you use YouTube—or anything on the Internet—as a substitute for disciplined study, you can be deceived very easily. Simply having a huge wealth of information is not the same as having reliable knowledge." Groothuis, the author of Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism, is also concerned about YouTube's time-waste factor. An avid jazz fan, he steers through the site on his way to classic bop footage. He has also found valuable academic lectures there. But he limits his YouTube cruising and suggests that others do the same. "It shouldn't be an obsession for anybody. It should be on the margins of life."

Indeed, much of YouTube's buffet of visual stimulation could be described as a time-waster high in empty media calories. For every inspirational or clever bit exist dozens of pointless postings, which Hermitt knows all too well. "My kids would rather watch the inane, funny stuff like kids lip-synching," she said, "but I limit that severely."

One reason adults might not spot a YouTube obsession is that they're unfamiliar with their children's general online habits. "Sometimes we assume that the way we use the computer is the way the younger generation uses it. That's not accurate," said Andrew Careaga, author of E-ministry: Connecting with the Net Generation. He explained that adults use the Internet to fact-find, whereas adolescents use it to browse and build community. Careaga recommends that parents take the family computer out of their child's bedroom and place it in a highly visible area. He also stresses the importance of setting time limits for using YouTube.

In the end, is it worth letting children explore YouTube and peers such as Dailymotion, Google Video, Veoh, Blip.TV or Vimeo? Like all media, video-sharing sites have the opportunity to instruct and inspire. But they're in a class by themselves as a potential danger. As Forrest Gump might say, clicking on a video link is like plucking a tempting confection from a box of chocolates: You never know what you're gonna get.

Google believes in the site's long-term viability, having purchased it for $1.65 billion, though some experts suggest that it could eventually fall out of fashion with younger users looking for the next fad. What used to attract surfers for its roguish, fringe appeal is going mainstream. In the meantime, conscientious parents such as Hermitt will continue to enjoy the benefits of YouTube—but only if they remain highly involved. "You should not allow your children to use YouTube," Hermitt explains. "You should use YouTube with your kids."

Published April 2007

Plugged In Plus
In February 2010, responding to persistent criticism from parents concerned that children have too much access to racy videos, YouTube added parental controls designed to block any material flagged as "inappropriate for young teens." That Safety Mode option limits access to nudity, pornography, graphic violence (including news stories) and narcotics. It can also either collapse all comments posted beneath the videos, or simply filter out the ones containing profanity. This is a positive step for families, though Scott Rubin, YouTube's head of child safety policy, admits that it's not a perfect solution. "It's a formidable job," he told CBS News. "With 20 hours of video uploaded every minute to YouTube, we really count on our community members ... to know our community guidelines, those rules of the road, to flag videos they think violate  the rules." In other words, funtionality requires the cooperation of YouTube's millions of users, and is only as strong as its weakest link. As tech blogger Sarah Perez noted, "Enable the filter if you must, but remember, no technology--and especially not this one--can serve as a replacement for actual parenting."