It might be funny to watch some guy jump off his roof onto a trampoline. But some say “stunt videos” encourage teens to take dangerous risks—and should be banned.
In 2009, a 15-year-old boy decided to become famous. His plan was to soak a basketball in gasoline, set it on fire, and sink a perfect three-pointer. He would film the glorious scene and post the video on YouTube. He dreamed of being an Internet celebrity.
Unfortunately, the plan didn’t work out quite as he imagined. As he took his shot, his clothing burst into flames. He was rushed to the hospital with second- and third-degree burns on his chest and legs.
He survived, but he’ll have the scars forever.
No Pain, No Gain
YouTube hosts countless clips of people, many of them young teens, attempting wild, dangerous, and downright stupid stunts. Many of the videos are inspired by shows like Jackass and Fear Factor, and they cover pretty much any risky activity you can imagine: playing with fire, “surfing” on top of moving cars, soaring off flimsy homemade ramps on bikes and skateboards, shooting people point-blank with paintball guns.
Stunt videos on YouTube get millions of hits. But according to some experts, they are far from harmless entertainment. These experts say that by hosting such videos, YouTube encourages young viewers to take potentially deadly risks.
Research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that more than 180,000 Americans die from accidental injuries every year. That works out to one person every three minutes. More than 14,000 of them are under the age of 19.
Is YouTube to blame?
Laughing at Violence
Daredevils—from the “human cannonballs” of the 1800s, to legendary stuntman Evel Knievel, to Jackass’s Johnny Knoxville—are nothing new. People have always found it entertaining to watch others attempt risky things, and also, sometimes, to watch them fail. Audiences love to see a good wipeout or blowup, at least as long as it’s not too serious. In fact, viewers often shriek with laughter at stunts gone wrong.
Laughter may seem like an odd reaction to violence but, says family therapist Clair Mellenthin, “our tendency to laugh at people getting hurt goes back in human history for centuries.” She believes such laughter is a defense mechanism—a way of coping with disturbing situations. “Even little babies laugh when they see people fall down,” she says.
Some of the earliest Greek comedies featured characters falling off the stage, being chased by wild animals, or smacking into walls. And now, in the age of the Internet, anyone with a camera and a YouTube account can create this kind of “entertainment."
YouTube provides access to an audience of millions. Many of those viewers—particularly teenage viewers—are inspired by what they see and eager to try it for themselves. “YouTube has taken the one-upmanship of playing in the neighborhood to the global level,” says Mellenthin. “The peer pressure is greatly increased, because now we can see what others are doing literally around the world.”
Don’t Blame Me, Blame My Brain
There is another reason, beyond peer pressure, that many teens are willing to risk their safety and even their lives for the sake of a 30-second stunt video: Their brains are telling them to. During your teen years, the area of your brain that seeks pleasure and reward is well-developed. However, the area of your brain that controls judgment, the prefrontal cortex, is not. This fact, combined with the hormones that are surging through your body and your natural desire for new experiences, can lead to serious risk-taking: The voice in your head that tells you to do something exciting is a lot louder than the one that tells you why you shouldn’t.
This doesn’t mean risk-taking teens aren’t thinking. Often, they can see quite clearly how dangerous a certain activity is. They just do it anyway.
“A lot of risk-taking is not impulsive,” says Valerie Reyna, a psychology professor at Cornell University. After carefully considering a risk, teens are likely to decide it’s worth it for the thrill. Adults are more likely to skip this weighing of pros and cons and automatically rule out high-risk activities.
It’s true that the odds of being killed while leaping from your bedroom window into your swimming pool may be relatively small. But there’s a problem with this logic that most teens don’t quite get. That is, no matter how small the risk, the worst possible thing can happen to you. And as Reyna says, when trying something risky, “it only takes once” to be killed.
Not Worth It
Fully developed brains or no, Reyna believes, teens do have the ability to take precautions and behave sensibly. Most know that no matter how exciting or hilarious something they saw in a video might be, they shouldn’t do it if it’s obviously dangerous.
Defenders of YouTube’s right to display stunt videos argue that it’s not YouTube’s responsibility to censor its content. Instead, they say, it’s parents who must ensure that their teenage kids are behaving safely and responsibly.
It’s not as if YouTube isn’t making an effort, though. According to its official Community Guidelines, the site “draw the line at content that’s intended to . . . encourage dangerous, illegal activities that have an inherent risk of serious physical harm or death.” YouTube staff members comb through the website 24 hours a day, looking for videos that violate their policies—but are they doing enough?
Whether or not you believe YouTube should have stricter rules, here’s a piece of advice: Never light a basketball on fire.
That’s just stupid.