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YouTube Kids

Teeny-bopper YouTubers see dark side of fame Add to ...

Her hair dishevelled, little Avery Timm spins around her room, mouthing the lyrics to Ke$ha's Tik Tok, tapping her socked foot and gesturing with her yellow alarm clock.

The goofy montage is captured on Avery's webcam, along with 241 other videos the 12-year-old Sarnia, Ont. girl has uploaded to her YouTube channel since 2008. With more than 380,000 views, Avery's rendition is a viral hit - she's even convinced her classmates that she's "famous."

"I like it and it's really awesome that I'm getting so many views. I worked really hard on the video so I really think I deserved it," said Avery.

The girl, who suffers from a rare form of dwarfism, says the videos are her hobby. Avery's family says the newfound fame has helped her self esteem despite the fact that some viewers have left such vicious responses the Timms have had to disable comments.

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Avery's devotion to YouTube follows in the tradition of other eccentric kids who have taken to YouTube to diarize, perform and give the public a portal into their worlds, only to become voraciously consumed memes in the process.

There was "Sexman," aka " Pruane2Forever," a squawky Canadian boy with braces whose profanity-laced YouTube rants - 197 of them - landed him and an audience with rapper 50 Cent. Boxxy, a jittery elf of a girl, earned international attention and scorn for her embellished expressions and raccoon eyeliner. (Boxxy's channel is now defunct but her videos have been widely remixed and parodied.) Another teen who called himself Daxflame got some 36 million views for the 148 chronicles he delivered neurotically in mismatched shirts and ties, until his disappearance from YouTube last June.

While families like the Timms believe the Internet is a modern outlet for a child's self-expression, critics say the videos and ensuing comments showcase a culture of "mean-spiritedness," and over prioritize celebrity in the adolescent life.

"An audience of one can be powerful to an impressionable mind, whether it's old school and you have the undivided attention of your parents or your younger sibling, or 8,000 hits," said Kathleen Gallagher, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education who holds the Canada Research Chair in theatre, youth and research in urban schools.

She questions parents who allow their kids to showcase the intimate details of their lives before a vast, anonymous audience: "When I think about a parent making a choice to open a young child up to random comments - positive or negative - I might question the judgment of that," said Prof. Gallagher, who has written about identity formation in adolescent girls.

Diane Levin, author of So Sexy So Soon, says parents of young viral phenoms shouldn't be "demonized" but adds, "If you're putting a webcam in their bedroom then you're a victim of the same culture."

"This culture is undermining kids' ability to learn how to be caring, and it's nurturing mean-spiritedness, bullying, a lack of relationship and objectification," said Dr. Levin, a professor of education at Boston's Wheelock College.

Although Avery's Tik Tok video has yielded plenty of fans and genial comments about the girl's talent and cuteness, it has also attracted bullies, including a trio of teenage girls who posted a "reaction video" where they cackle about Avery's appearance. (This video has now been seen more than 4,000 times.)

"There's been some pretty bad stuff posted there," said Avery's grandfather Gerry Timm, who got her started by opening the YouTube account.

I'm not going to take away the only hobby she has that she enjoys Avery's mother, Cassandra Timm

"It hurt her at first, of course, but we talked to her and made her realize, just ignore it," Mr. Timm said. "And a lot of the good people on there came and told her, 'Just don't even pay attention, don't answer, just let them be and they'll go pick on somebody else.'"

"She realizes that if she wants to do this, it's one of those things you have to put up with."

Avery's mother, Cassandra Timm, a psychiatric nurse, says Avery's been a "good sport" about the negative comments and that the attention has been good for her "pride and self-esteem."

"She deletes anything negative and she enjoys anything positive. She enjoys watching the hit number go up."

Ms. Timm said the videos are her daughter's outlet since her disability prevents her from playing many sports in their small community. She has set some rules around the videos: Avery has to get her homework done first, she must leave her bedroom door open when she's recording them and she isn't allowed to engage in private chats with strangers.

Is Ms. Timm worried about who is watching?

"To some degree, but at the same time I've accepted that the Internet's the Internet and there's just going to be no way of keeping images of my children off of there," she said.

"I'm not going to take away the only hobby she has that she enjoys."

Indeed, Prof. Gallagher wonders if having hundreds of thousands of views before you're in high school will soon be par for the course.

"Because social networking is so much a norm, I'm not sure that it would occupy the kind of space and attention that we give it - we who didn't grow up with this - as children who see it as part of their landscape."

But Toronto bullying expert Peggy Moss isn't so sure. When she speaks with teachers and parents at her workshops, she finds many have retained crystal clear memories of their own bullies, even 35 years later.

"We're starting to know what the impact of bullying is. We have a better sense of how much that wounds us going forward," said the former hate-crime prosecutor.

Ms. Moss said that while kids who "stick out" have long acted out to regain some control over their lives, the few boundaries that exist at school around bullying often disappear on the Web.

"My concern with the Internet is that we don't yet know all of the ramifications around the interactions in that space."

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