How refreshing to see my alma mater, Harvard Ed School, welcome Lady Gaga to campus to launch the Born this Way Foundation, dedicated to creating a safe community that helps connect young people with the skills and opportunities they need to build a braver, kinder world. It looks like they’re developing a youth media organization, complete with the now de rigeur traveling “Born to be Brave” bus!

Of course, it will take more than a bunch of smart teens with a bus and foundation money to address the challenges faced as young people discover the power, pleasures and paradoxes associated with “being mean.” Adolescents are developmentally focused on taking risks, pursuing experience for the sake of experience, and seeking out novelty, complexity, and intense situations. Engaging in meanness and stupidity – and discovering the complicated consequences – is part of the way we grow up.

The Thrill of Novelty and Unpredictability. There are healthy and unhealthy ways to acquire social power. Unfortunately, among some teens, one quick and easy way to gain social power is to watch or create a drinking video. There are thousands of them online. Several have more than one million page views. These videos feature young people drinking to excess, sometimes with humiliating consequences. A few days ago, Lower Merion High School in suburban Philadelphia sent a letter home to parents informing them about YouTube drinking videos featuring their students.

Controversial online content can be tasteless, gruesome, obscene, emotionally disturbing, full of rage and pain, or just plain bizarre. Videos may feature Holocaust deniers, exhibitionists, and dangerous drivers. You can learn cutting and other forms of self-mutilation by watching online videos. And fight videos are popular online entertainment, which feature children, teenagers, or young adults engaged in real or staged fighting. Almost every high school in America has a fight video online, such as this one from Hope High School in Providence, Rhode Island.  People, young and old, are attracted to novel and unpredictable content like this because of the adrenaline rush of heightened attention that it produces.

Opening Up Conversational Space for Controversy. In order to promote digital and media literacy competencies, educators can open up a respectful and safe conversational space to examine ethical and social issues associated with controversial online content. It’s not easy, however. Lots of teens will shrug off controversial content as no big deal, maintaining a pose of disinterested stoicism to avoid revealing genuine feelings on a complex and controversial topic. Many teens maintain high levels of secrecy involving their online activities and will not admit to exposure to offensive content or participation in problematic behaviors. But I’ve found one way to open up authentic dialogue about controversial online content by discussing a particular type of YouTube video: the online scary maze game pranking videos.

The Pleasure/Power/Paradox of the Prank. Pranking videos can serve as a starting point for launching critical conversations about the complex ethical relationships that exist among users of online social media. Nearly everyone knows somebody who takes delight in playing pranks. The pleasure of the prank can be described by the concept of symbolic inversion, where expressive behavior inverts or contradicts commonly held cultural codes, values, and norms. By inverting power relationships, pranksters gain a form of social power.

I have never met a 12- to 19-year-old who isn’t familiar with this online prank. The video phenomenon began around 2002 when interactive flash videos known as scare pranks or scary mazes began to emerge across the Internet. Upon clicking the link, the viewer is presented with a puzzle game that requires a high level of concentration, only to be disrupted by an ear-piercing scream and ghastly photos from horror films. Scary maze websites were originally shared via e-mail, chat rooms, or instant messages before the advent of YouTube.

A YouTube search on the keywords “scary maze game” displayed more than 48,000 videos (up from 11,000 in 2011!) which generally feature a person who is scared by playing the game. Videos have been created by YouTube users from Spain, France, Germany, Turkey, China, and other countries. The top-ranked video, “Scary Maze Prank–The Original,” has been viewed more than 25 million times! The video features a very young boy playing the maze game on his home computer. When startled by the sound of screaming and a gruesome face dripping with blood, he screams, hits the computer monitor instinctively, and then runs away from the computer, crying uncontrollably in a deeply visceral fear response.

Educators and parents can choose to ignore or engage with young people on this important issue. Learn more about the instructional methods I’ve developed to open up conversational space about controversial videos in Chapter 7 of my new book, Digital and Media Literacy: Connecting Culture and Classroom.

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