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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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From Darwin to Damore - the ancient art of using "science" to mask prejudice

Charles Darwin, working at a time when women had little legal rights, declared “woman is a kind of adult child”.

“In addition to the Left’s affinity for those it sees as weak, humans are generally biased towards protecting females,” wrote James Damore, in his now infamous anti-diversity Google memo. “As mentioned before, this likely evolved because males are biologically disposable and because women are generally more co-operative and agreeable than men.” Since the memo was published, hordes of women have come forward to say that views like these – where individuals justify bias on the basis of science – are not uncommon in their traditionally male-dominated fields. Damore’s controversial screed set off discussions about the age old debate: do biological differences justify discrimination?  

Modern science developed in a society which assumed that man was superior over women. Charles Darwin, the father of modern evolutionary biology, who died before women got the right to vote, argued that young children of both genders resembled adult women more than they did adult men; as a result, “woman is a kind of adult child”.

Racial inequality wasn’t immune from this kind of theorising either. As fields such as psychology and genetics developed a greater understanding about the fundamental building blocks of humanity, many prominent researchers such as Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin, argued that there were biological differences between races which explained the ability of the European race to prosper and gather wealth, while other races fell far behind. The same kind of reasoning fuelled the Nazi eugenics and continues to fuel the alt-right in their many guises today.

Once scorned as blasphemy, today "science" is approached by many non-practitioners with a cult-like reverence. Attributing the differences between races and gender to scientific research carries the allure of empiricism. Opponents of "diversity" would have you believe that scientific research validates racism and sexism, even though one's bleeding heart might wish otherwise. 

The problem is that current scientific research just doesn’t agree. Some branches of science, such as physics, are concerned with irrefutable laws of nature. But the reality, as evidenced by the growing convergence of social sciences like sociology, and life sciences, such as biology, is that science as a whole will, and should change. The research coming out of fields like genetics and psychology paint an increasingly complex picture of humanity. Saying (and proving) that gravity exists isn't factually equivalent to saying, and trying to prove, that women are somehow less capable at their jobs because of presumed inherent traits like submissiveness. 

When it comes to matters of race, the argument against racial realism, as it’s often referred to, is unequivocal. A study in 2002, authored by Neil Risch and others, built on the work of the Human Genome Project to examine the long standing and popular myth of seven distinct races. Researchers found that  “62 per cent of Ethiopians belong to the same cluster as Norwegians, together with 21 per cent of the Afro-Caribbeans, and the ethnic label ‘Asian’ inaccurately describes Chinese and Papuans who were placed almost entirely in separate clusters.” All that means is that white supremacists are wrong, and always have been.

Even the researcher Damore cites in his memo, Bradley Schmitt of Bradley University in Illinois, doesn’t agree with Damore’s conclusions.  Schmitt pointed out, in correspondence with Wired, that biological difference only accounts for about 10 per cent of the variance between men and women in what Damore characterises as female traits, such as neuroticism. In addition, nebulous traits such as being “people-oriented” are difficult to define and have led to wildly contradictory research from people who are experts in the fields. Suggesting that women are bad engineers because they’re neurotic is not only mildly ridiculous, but even unsubstantiated by Damore’s own research.  As many have done before him, Damore couched his own worldview - and what he was trying to convince others of - in the language of rationalism, but ultimately didn't pay attention to the facts.

And, even if you did buy into Damore's memo, a true scientist would retort - so what? It's a fallacy to argue that just because a certain state of affairs prevails, that that is the way that it ought to be. If that was the case, why does humanity march on in the direction of technological and industrial progress?

Humans weren’t meant to travel large distances, or we would possess the ability to do so intrinsically. Boats, cars, airplanes, trains, according to the Damore mindset, would be a perversion of nature. As a species, we consider overcoming biology to be a sign of success. 

Of course, the damage done by these kinds of views is not only that they’re hard to counteract, but that they have real consequences. Throughout history, appeals to the supposed rationalism of scientific research have justified moral atrocities such as ethnic sterilisation, apartheid, the creation of the slave trade, and state-sanctioned genocide.

If those in positions of power genuinely think that black and Hispanic communities are genetically predisposed to crime and murder, they’re very unlikely to invest in education, housing and community centres for those groups. Cycles of poverty then continue, and the myth, dressed up in pseudo-science, is entrenched. 

Damore and those like him will certainly maintain that the evidence for gender differences are on their side. Since he was fired from Google, Damore has become somewhat of an icon to some parts of society, giving interviews to right-wing Youtubers and posing in a dubious shirt parodying the Google logo (it now says Goolag). Never mind that Damore’s beloved science has already proved them wrong.