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Why are children on YouTube saying their parents are dead?

“Can I get a like because my papa died”: inside the strange world of children's YouTube comments

Anna-Marie has taken to the YouTube comment section to inform the world that both her hamster and her bird have died.

The young girl – who looks somewhere between eight and ten years old in her profile picture – is not a famous YouTuber, but is commenting on video of a major star on the site.

After expressing her opinion on the video, she writes: “Please don’t give me nasty comments because my hamster died and my bird and I am still really upset.

“I don’t mind if people don’t like to this comment to me,” she writes, “but if people could can you like to me for my hamster and bird.”

By using her dead pets to solicit Likes from her peers, Anna-Marie is by no means an out-of-the-ordinary young YouTube user. Children on the site have started commenting about dead pets, parents, and grandparents in order to earn Likes on their comments, or subscribers to their channels.

“Can I get a like because my papa died,” reads a comment on a similar video. “Can I get 50 subscribers my mums in hospital,” reads another, just one comment above this.

Many of these commenters have no doubt suffered unfortunate losses, as some of the more niche examples (“can i get about 100 likes because some one died in my nans street wr [sic] all love him”) prove. But the popularity of this type of comment implies that there must, on occasion, be some pretending going on. The question is: why?

“My initial thoughts on this phenomenon would be that these young people have learned that there are societal norms around death and about grief,” says Dr Joanne Meredith, a social and media psychologist at the University of Salford. “In other words, there is a social convention that if someone has had someone close to them die, you tend to treat them particularly nicely, and do things for them. Therefore, by posting these kinds of things, they are making use of that norm in order to get something they want.”

Three comments from the same user, on different videos

What the children want in this instance could be anything from social media fame to, simply, attention. Meredith notes that the Twitter account @HarryMyCatDied chronicles One Direction fans who tell Harry Styles about their grief in order to get a response from their favourite celebrity.

Dr Linda Kaye, a cyber-psychologist at Edge Hill University, explains that sometimes, however, these YouTube comments simply allow children to get the “social belonging” or “relatedness” that all humans crave.

“Perhaps these individuals who reach out in this way to gain this ‘social approval’ are not having their social needs fulfilled by their existing relationships with friends and family,” she says. “Adolescents may be particularly prone to this sort of behaviour, as this is a period of great change, in which peer relationships often become more fundamental to them than parental ones.”

Meredith also theorises that this phenomenon may be related to "Munchausen By Internet" – where people fake illnesses online to get attention. However, she is careful to note that it is possible that many of these children are telling the truth and simply using their loss to their advantage. 

Perhaps, additionally, when other children see that this gets them Likes and subscribers, they follow suit. It is apparent that children will copy similar comments in order to get more Likes on YouTube – take this example of three comments in a row where children invite one another to spot the odd emoji out.

It is unfair to malign children for these actions, however, as many adults behave in similar - and much worse - ways. A Buzzfeed News investigation last month discovered that adults on Facebook were stealing images of disabled children in order to get more engagement on the social network. In comparison, emotional manipulation on YouTube is often much more innocent, and even cute.

 “I am ten tomorrow can I get ten likes,” says one comment. “I'm scared today 1 like = 50% of courage,” reads another with 93 thumbs up. “This is Bob,” says a comment next to a snail emoji. “He is starving and thirsty… if you would help him like this.” Some children, additionally, aren’t simply looking for Likes and comments, but genuine emotional support. “I have a bully I wach you [sic] videos to make me feel better thank you,” reads a comment, followed by emotional support from another user.

Yet Dr Jacqui Taylor, a specialist in the social psychology of online communication, warns that there could be consequences to children pretending that their parents are dead online. “It is a worrying development as it is indicating that the seeking of attention online using deceptive stories is occurring in younger children than before, but that also more serious deceptions are being used,” she says. She speculates this could be damaging for children if they continue their deceptions or are publically shamed when the truth is revealed. “[On the internet] deceptions can snowball in seriousness more quickly, and are exposed to a larger audience. They have the potential to have lasting effects on the young person.”

On the whole, however, the trend seems innocent – if a little strange. A 2015 survey of 9-15 year olds by the University of California found that children who use social media are driven towards fame, and it appears that in a saturated market of YouTubers, children are going to new extremes for this type of attention. If your hamster and bird die along the way, why not use this to your advantage? 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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Meet the evangelical Christian persuading believers that climate change is real

Katharine Hayhoe's Canadian missionary parents told her science and God were compatible. Then she moved to Texas. 

During Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, alarm rose with each mention of climate change. Denial, dismissal and repeated chants of “hoax” left no doubt as to his position.

Now President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement has been seen as a seminal moment in the fight against climate change - one which many fear could lose the battle ahead of humanity.

But one scientist has been fighting a war of her own on the ground, against those who typically doubt the facts about global warming more than most - the evangelical Christian population of America.

And to make matters even more unusual, Katharine Hayhoe herself is an evangelical Christian who lives in the indisputably "bible belt" of Lubbock, Texas.

The atmospheric scientist has been named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people and one of Politico’s 50 thinkers transforming American politics. Now she is using her considerable heft to speak to those who are hardest to convince that there is a manmade problem that threatens the Earth’s future.

I meet her at the science and music festival Starmus in Trondheim, Norway, where she is to address the attendees on Thursday in a talk entitled "Climate Change: Facts and Fictions".

Hayhoe was born in Canada, to missionary parents. Her father, a former science educator, showed her that there was no conflict between the ideas of God and science. However, it was something of a surprise to her when she discovered her pastor husband, whom she married in 2000, did not feel the same about climate change. It took her two years to convince him.

What started as a conversation became an organised project when she moved to America's South in the mid 2000s. 

“Moving to Lubbock was a culture shock," she tells me. "When I moved there I wasn’t doing much outreach, but it moved me in that direction.

“Lubbock is very conservative. It’s small and isolated.

“I would say the majority of people in Lubbock are either dismissive or doubtful about climate change. I was surrounded by people - neighbours, parents of friends, people at church, colleagues down the hall in the university - who weren’t convinced.”

So Hayhoe, who works as an associate professor and director of the Climate Science Centre at Texas Tech University, set to work. She began to collect the responses she was seeing to the climate change discussion and prepare her counter-argument.

“When I talk to people who are doubtful, I try to connect with the values they already have," she says. “The greatest myth is the myth of complacency - that ‘it doesn’t really matter to me’.

"But I would say that the second most insidious myth is that you only care about this issue if you’re a certain type of person. If you’re a green person, or a liberal person, or a granola person."

The stereotypes mean that people outside that demographic feel "I can't be that kind of person because that's not who I am", as she puts it.

Hayhoe convinced her husband using data, but rather than repeating a formula, she tries to find out what will resonate with different people: "For many groups, faith is a core value that people share.”

Whether she’s speaking to city planners, water company managers, school kids or Bible believers, Hayhoe says her hook is not the facts, but the feelings.

“I recently talked to arborists," she says. "For them, trees and plants are important, so I connect with them on that, and say ‘because we care about trees, or because we care about water or what the Bible says then let me share with you from the heart why I can about these issues because it affects something that you already care about’.

“My angle is to show people that they don’t need to be a different person at all - exactly who they already are is the kind of person who can care about climate change.”

Hayhoe came to public attention in the United States after appearing in a Showtime series on climate change. She has appeared on panels with Barack Obama and Leonardo DiCaprio, and launched a web series. As well as plaudits, this level of fame has also earned her daily threats and online abuse. 

“My critics think they’re coming from a position of religion, but they aren’t," she says. "They’re actually coming from a very specific political ideology which believes that the government should not have control over people’s lives in any way shape or form - very libertarian, free market, free economy, Tea Party."

She believes that in the United States, faith and politics has been conflated to the point "people can no longer tell the difference". 

“Now it’s conservatism that informs religion," she elaborates. "If the two are in conflict - like the Bible says God has given us responsibility over everything on this earth - then people say ‘oh, we can’t affect something as big as this Earth, God will take care of it anyway’."

Around half of those who attack her on social media identify themselves as Christians, she notes, but almost all call themselves conservatives. 

As a scientist, she’s been preparing data herself - naturally - on her online attackers, with depressingly familiar results.

“As soon as you stick your head out of the trench, you get it. There have been papers published showing that white men disproportionately form up that small group of dismissives. They’re almost all men. When I track my social media comments, I would say that 99.5 per cent of them are white men.

“Out of 1,000 negative comments, I have maybe five from women.”

After the climate change argument moved up a gear - following the Paris withdrawal - Hayhoe admits that she and her fellow scientists are concerned, although she pays tribute to the businesses, cities and states from the US that have committed to following the Paris agreement themselves.

On the subject of the chief white male denier, Trump himself, Hayhoe says she has a discussion point which she feels may convince him to think carefully about his role in the fight against global warming’s impact on humanity.

“I would attempt to connect with the values that he has and show him how acting on this would be in his best interests," she says.

“One guess would be ‘what do you want your legacy to be? What do you want to be known as, the man who destroyed the world, or the man who saved it?’”

Katharine Hayhoe is speaking at Starmus on Thursday June 22. For more details, visit Starmus.

Kirstie McCrum is a freelance journalist. Follow her @kirstiemccrum.

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