By Kate Hayden, firstname.lastname@example.org
I want to talk about a YouTube video your kids and grandkids might have seen this week. The premise is of a 22-year-old American man gawking over a dead body in a Japanese forest.
There’s a lot to unpack about platform star Logan Paul’s behavior, but I want to focus on how people view these videos. Once there’s a first on social media, there will never be a last.
The background: Paul, a vlogger with millions of young fans who call themselves the #Logang. Casual news followers might recognize his younger brother Jake Paul, a former Disney Channel star who has had high-profile brushes with law enforcement (fanbase #jakepaulers).
Last week, Logan Paul and his crew traipsed into the Aokigahara forest under the guise of ghost hunting. The forest is internationally known as a “suicide destination,” where, for complex reasons, people go to kill themselves. It is not uncommon for people traveling off the forest’s established trails to find deceased bodies.
That is what Paul found and filmed, apparently blurring only the individual’s face but showing most of the body hanging from a tree. The video has now been removed from YouTube (I haven’t watched it), but the Verge reports that Paul ended the video by urging viewers to seek treatment for mental illness. He’s been panned across the internet for insensitive treatment of a victim, graphic footage and thoughtlessness (for the sake of space, I’ve attached links online for context to this story).
THE LOST GATEKEEPERS
When I was in college, a professor pulled up a dark video on the internet of a room, and put it on pause. She told us that she wasn’t going to play it, because the next scene would be the beheading of an American soldier. The barrier between my brain and the graphic death of a man was a pause button.
Legacy news media, such as nightly newscasts and daily newspapers, used to act as a gateway between audiences and the gory realities of human nature. During the Vietnam War, editors weighed whether a photo’s “news value,” or visual representation of the story, was more impactful than another, less graphic photo.
This is how they decided to publish photos of mortally injured American service members, or the 1968 “Saigon execution” photo — the moment Vietcong operative Nguyen Van Lem was shot in the head (documented by AP photographer Eddie Adams). The bullet can be seen exiting Lem’s skull. It was published to establish the war’s daily brutality for the American public.
Many tech executives and public figures today, politicians especially, praise how social media has annihilated the gatekeeper function of media. Trained editors don’t even vet their reporter’s social media feeds — reporters, who are mostly (but not all) trained in the industry, make judgments moment-by-moment on everything from car accidents to terrorist attacks, knowing that whatever they don’t tweet, a bystander will probably post anyway.
Studies are finding that journalists who view traumatic material secondhand (think about submitted Syrian-conflict cell phone videos) are more likely to develop symptoms of psychological distress than journalists who view traumatic events for prolonged periods of time (think about war photographers working in Afghanistan).
Those are professionals — how could the rest of us cope?
SOCIAL MEDIA: THE GATECRASHERS
In 2004 and 2005, Facebook and YouTube were established, explosively ushering in social media during everyday life. This did two things: it gradually fired the gatekeepers of legacy media, and convinced lawmakers/citizens to rely on the startup businesses to manage user privacy and viewing algorithms.
It seems relevant to note that I had my first Myspace profile at age 11, not because I was allowed to; it was easier not to tell my parents about social media. All I had to do was math: in what year was I “born” to be 13 years old?
The flood of creative makers was extraordinary — I practiced Spanish and learned knitting and photography with YouTube’s help — but the platforms also learned the hard way that they couldn’t keep up vetting obscene or graphic content, including pornography, human trafficking, child/animal abuse or conspiracy theories.
YouTube has tried to moderate family videos by opening stand-alone app YouTube Kids in 2015, which was meant to let parents set the timers and search settings while blocking mature content from the playlist algorithm.
In November 2017, BuzzFeed News published reports examining how YouTube accounts manipulate filters to end up in YouTube Kids. Some of the videos were family-friendly cartoon characters put in inappropriate settings. Others were live videos that placed real children in distressing or predatory situations.
The result was the same: you could place a tablet with YouTube Kids in the hands of your 4-year-old, and within an hour, the auto-play playlist could show your child creepy, gross-out or even exploitative videos you would not have allowed on the TV.
YouTube pledged to remove the channels and review procedure, but it’s clear that social media platforms can’t be relied on to slow the flood.
That brings us back to Logan Paul’s decision, in a Japanese forest, to film a dead body before the police arrived.
He has since apologized — twice — on social media platforms, and said his only intention was to bring awareness to mental illness and suicide prevention. There are ways he could have effectively accomplished that for his massively pre-teen audience (such as consulting professional media ethics guidelines) but the short story is that Paul did it badly, and may have caused or added harm to viewers in the process.
Content creators and host websites don’t know how to protect children. You can try to control or even put a household ban on sites like YouTube, but that’s not going to protect them, either.
You can start by talking to them. Get to know your child or teenager’s daily media diet — what apps they use, what vloggers they watch and what subjects they search.
Common Sense Media (www.commonsensemedia.org) offers guidelines on how to talk about news/media literacy skills based on your child’s age, from preschoolers to teenagers. It’s a great starting resource for parent/guardians and teachers on movies, games, apps and more.
Gradually help your kids build skills to evaluate other media and create their own content responsibly. Maybe someday when the next Logan Paul pushes a ‘dead body’ episode out, your kid will unsubscribe — and create something positive with their time.