Future Cinema

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NYTimes article: critique of ubiquitous screens

February 13, 2007
Teenagers Misbehaving, for All Online to Watch

DEER PARK, N.Y., Feb. 8 — Dozens of teenage boys hovered outside Deer Park High School Thursday afternoon, some holding schoolbooks, some holding skateboards and some holding camera-equipped cellphones to record the proceedings.

“There’s going to be a fight,” said one boy with shaggy hair over his eyes. “Anything funny or crazy that people would want to see and talk about, we tape it and post it online.”

School officials shooed the boys away, and at a Starbucks nearby, 17-year-old Gary Buley-Neumar explained: “Kids beat up other kids and tape it, just so other kids will see it and laugh. Or they just post stupid things they did online so other kids will look at their Web page.”

The police are watching as well. On Feb. 2, Deer Park officers announced that five teenagers had been arrested for fence-plowing — a recent fad that involves youths taking a running start and hurling themselves into a fence, sending slats flying. The authorities said the teenagers may have been imitating a popular YouTube video posted last year that received three and a half stars and had nearly 70,000 viewers.

Last month, after viewing a video of the beating of a 13-year-old girl that was broadcast on Web sites including MySpace, Photobucket and YouTube, the authorities arrested three freshman girls from nearby North Babylon High School.

Such sites are flooded with teenage-fight videos, and there are many sites, like PSFights.com, devoted solely to similar acts. In response to such cyberbullying, Steve Levy, the Suffolk County executive, recently asked school districts to designate a staff Internet monitor to watch for Web-posted misbehavior among students.

Schoolyard scraps, spectacular skateboard spills, puppy-love quarrels, goofy antics like placing a slice of American cheese over the face of a snoring buddy, and bruising stunts like hurling one’s body through a neighbor’s wooden fence — these and other staples of suburban teenage life have taken on a new dimension as online cinéma vérité. Instead of being whispered about among friends and then fading away, such rites of ridiculousness are now routinely captured on video and posted on the Internet for worldwide perusal, and posterity.

“Teens have been doing inappropriate things for a long time, but now they think they can become celebrities by doing it,” said Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Schneider Children’s Hospital at Long Island Jewish Medical Center.

“In the past, you’d brag to your friends in the locker room about doing something stupid or crazy or daring,” Dr. Adesman said. “Now the Internet provides additional motivation. But these things can just as easily lead to criminal prosecution as broad celebrity.”

In the classroom, in the cafeteria, in their bedrooms or on the street, teenagers are quick on the draw with the camera phone. They flip, click and post, then hope Web users will watch them.

Most suburban teenagers, it seems, can rattle off a litany of the latest teens-gone-wild offerings as though they were the local multiplex listings: boys holding cellphones under the lunch table to photograph up girls’ skirts; an innocent kiss at a party posted out of context on an ex-boyfriend’s Web site; someone bursting in on friends who are in the bathroom or sleeping, drinking or smoking; students goading teachers into tantrums; assaulting homeless people.

“Teens always do crazy stuff, but it’s just that much more intense and fun when you can post it,” said Nathaniel Visneaskous, 18, of Deer Park. “When you live in a boring town, what else is there to do?”

Parry Aftab, a New Jersey lawyer whose Web site, WiredSafety.org, offers parents help on issues like cyberbullying, noted that “you have girls at slumber parties taking pictures of each other in their bras and panties, and somehow the shots wind up on a porn site.”

“Anytime a teen is around friends now, anything they do can be filmed and put online,” Ms. Aftab said. “They say, ‘I can become a movie star or at least make it onto “The Montel Williams Show.” ’ I tell them: ‘Be careful, because what you do now is forever. When you’re applying to college or an internship or that dream job at MTV, people are going to look at what’s been posted of you online.’ ”

YouTube says it reviews videos posted on its site and removes those that violate guidelines. “If your video shows someone getting hurt, attacked or humiliated, don’t post,” the Web site warns.

Mr. Levy, the Suffolk County executive, said the authorities’ Internet focus has expanded from stopping sexual predators to making “sure the child is not being humiliated by his or her peers on online video.”

“Some kids want their 15 minutes of fame by holding other kids up to ridicule,” he said. “A premeditated attack is assault, but how about the friend who plots with the perpetrators to film it? When does that become a crime?”

Chris Marotta, a high school junior from Huntington Station, not far from here, said that with so many camera phones and digital cameras around, “at any given time, someone’s taping you.”

“Kids put their fights online for street cred,” he noted. “If it’s a bad fight and their face is in the video, they can get arrested.”

Nancy E. Willard, author of the 2006 book “Cyberbullying and Cyberthreats,” said that adults “might not consider it a great idea to post online a video of yourself committing a crime for all to see, but a lot of teens have this idea that life is a game and it’s all just entertainment.”

“In doing this, they’re jostling for social position and status, or establishing themselves in a certain social group, or just attracting attention,” she said. “To them, this is defining who they are and what people think of them. The idea that ‘people know my name’ is an affirmation of who they are.”

Indeed, Adam Schleichkorn, 25, of Huntington, has been proclaiming himself the godfather of fence-plowing, since his seminal 3 ½-star clip, popularized on YouTube, was cited by the news media in reporting the Deer Park fence-plowing arrests. Mr. Schleichkorn, admittedly a bit old for teenage tricks, said he never meant to promote vandalism; the video, he said, shows his cousin hurling himself through a segment of fence that relatives owned and that needed to be torn down anyhow.

No matter. The fence-plowing frenzy, Mr. Schleichkorn said, has driven tens of thousands of visitors to his YouTube page, where his more serious projects — he is a producer of films, videos and advertisements — can also be found.

“A week ago, no one knew who I was — now my name has been on every news and talk show,” Mr. Schleichkorn said. “I don’t care that it’s for something stupid. I was on Fox News cracking jokes. Maury Povich called me today.

“So I’m known as the fence-plowing kid,” he added. “At least I’m known.”

Tue, February 13 2007 » Future Cinema