March 21, 2018

When asked, “Who do you most admire in the world?” every year more and more of my students respond to my first-day-of-school survey with the unlikely answer of YouTube celebrities. Like most adults, it took me some time to figure out what being famous on YouTube meant. YouTube stars rank above traditional celebrities in their influence on 13-18 year-olds.

During my teen years, I was drawn to the mysterious personas of 90s musicians that seemed to exist only inside my CD jewel case. YouTube celebrities are mostly mystery-free, speaking directly to their fans through their video logs (vlogs), sometimes on a daily basis. Where I was intrigued, always wanting answers and insight from someone like Kurt Cobain, teenagers today can hear it all, know it all and ask anything of their “just-like-me” celebrities.

On the positive side, anyone with a great idea and a camera phone has the do-it-yourself ability to reach millions of viewers. YouTube tutorials abound explaining how to get more followers and views. Even “boot camps” existArticles and blogs warn parents of the dangers of YouTube influencers, many of whom will do anything for a click.

Despite being a high school teacher, I only learned about Logan Paul, one of the most famous YouTubers in the world, this year when he made headlines  for filming a man who hanged himself in Japan’s “Suicide Forest.” During the 15-minute video, Paul did what he does best: big reactions. He nervously laughed, looked at the color of the dead man’s hands and appeared shocked.

As popular as Paul is, he’s also heavily disliked. A rap video he made with his brother and his “Suicide Forest” apology video are both on YouTube’s top 10 most disliked videos of all time. 

Love him or hate him, young people will learn a lesson from Logan Paul. You will be celebrated and can get rich for being a narcissistic jackass, until you cross the line into an epic fail, after which you’ll turn into a social media pariah.

This cycle doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Another high-profile YouTube celebrity, Pewdiepie, recently faced a similar, though less publicized scandal for using a racial slur during a live-streamed YouTube video.

What I’m genuinely curious about is how the fallout from the scandals and epic fails of stars like Logan Paul and Pewdiepie will impact my students’ decision-making process.

This is the Logan Paul question: Could a savvy, narcissistic buffoon like him actually help young people heighten their morality and make more responsible choices?  

The More the Clicks, the Harder They Fall

I’m not as worried as many of my colleagues and fellow parents are about the next generation’s relationship with their online heroes. In a technological landscape where the rules are being made up as we go along, moral codes are dictated more by what’s done wrong than what’s done right. Swift reactions from influencers create a bandwagon effect, which help construct a consensus view of these public relations disasters. A tweet from Aaron Paul (no relation) about Logan Paul’s suicide video garnered 88,000 retweets and 390,000 likes. “Suicide is not a joke,” he wrote. “Go rot in hell.” In the tweets that followed, some of the Logang (the nickname for Logan Paul fans) tried to defend him, but most agreed with Aaron Paul. Logan Paul crossed a line and will suffer for his disrespectful mistake.

I see this pattern in my journalism classes where we discuss media issues. Last school year, I played the maligned Pepsi commercial featuring Kendall Jenner for my students (ages 15-18). Of the 30 students watching, only about three could identify what made the commercial so universally “tone deaf.” The rest didn’t know what the fuss was about. 

After telling them to look at reactions to this commercial on Twitter, many students began agreeing that the commercial over-simplified the struggles of movements like Black Lives Matter.

I don’t fault my students for cementing their opinions based on other people’s reactions. I find it hard to live outside of my social media echo chamber as well. And despite the fact that social media didn’t exist when I was a teen, I struggled with both mimicking my heroes and forming my opinions around the vocal majority.

Attracted to “Off-Limits” Content

Just like my students might have been drawn to the Logan Paul “Suicide Forest” video, I found my teenage self obsessed with discovering content that would have been rejected or censored on television. I sought out noisy music, offbeat humor and maybe more than anything, content that sent a shiver down my spine. I wanted to see anything forbidden and dangerous.

Before YouTube offered the “forbidden” in recommended videos of brawls, drug use, semi-nudity and outlandish pranks, we had bootleg VHS copies that would get passed from friend to friend. I’m not proud to say that I watched all the “Faces of Death” and “Banned from TV” videos, which showed horrific scenes often of real people dying (though many were later proven to be fakes).

Viewing the horrific scenes gave me a rush that I was witnessing something terrifying and off-limits. I felt bad about it, but I didn’t know why. Relaying the images to other kids that hadn’t seen them offered up some high school clout.

One day in school a teacher brought up the “Faces of Death” videos as a discussion topic, much like I brought up Logan Paul with my students. She said, “Anyone that watches those videos is a horrible person.” I remember realizing at that moment that I didn’t really have much of a defense for watching what I did. The videos were exploiting those who died tragically. “What if it was your relative?” the teacher reminded us. The ensuing discussion allowed me to see the error in my ways; to realize I needed to filter not only my actions, but also on what I allowed myself to watch.

This year, I didn’t need to tell my students that publishing a video taken of a suicide victim is disrespectful. I didn’t need to explain that nervously laughing about suicide is shameful. If students didn’t find Paul’s actions appalling, then the echo chamber of social media provided that lesson.

In discussing Logan Paul with my students, I observed that even those that defended Paul acknowledged he crossed a line. One admitted to being a big fan, but found his video “degrading,” and she worried when she saw her younger sister watching it. Everyone in the class agreed that he’s having a negative influence on young people. But doesn’t that realization from teenagers show that he’s actually impacting them positively? These teens (at least seem to) have condemned his behavior.  Paul’s career trajectory has changed course and he’ll likely never recover completely from his gaffe. Not only do young people have the ability to frame their morality around public figures’ mistakes, but they also have the ability to speak with their clicks (or lack thereof).

YouTube as a Parent

I had to go to extreme lengths to obtain “Faces of Death” and then hide it from my mother, who would have been horrified to have it in her house, had I gotten caught. If I had a parent that owned every “Faces of Death” video and told me I could watch them at my leisure, I’d probably have gotten desensitized and bored of them fairly quickly.

With the Logan Paul scandal, news outlets began warning parents about their children’s YouTube usage. “Have you ever wondered what your kids are watching on YouTube,” one blog begins. Not only is graphic content easy to find online, but often recommended under YouTube’s algorithm.

With YouTube viewers outnumbering television viewers around the world, the recommendation system is under fire. Content creators that follow the algorithm often cite that they must create videos that are more shocking and violent in order to grow clicks.

Sure, I found violent content in my youth, but violent content didn’t find me. A recent article from The Guardian has the author beginning with a Logan Paul video and following what came “Up Next” until it ended with “two boys, aged about five or six, punching and kicking one another” until one lost a tooth.

I worry about the 5 and 6 year-old kids that not only have a platform for their fistfights, but have a viewership that consumes it, like I consumed “Faces of Death.” I stopped watching after 90 minutes. Then I stopped watching completely once I realized how awful it was.  But with an endless stream of disturbing content being promoted to young people, how will they come to realize it is time to look away?

Michael Cullinane 
is the Journalism and Marketing Director at Nicholas Senn High School in Chicago. He holds a Master’s degree in Digital Media and Storytelling from Loyola University Chicago.