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

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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 features editor at Shortlist.com, she was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer, and tweets at @ameliargh.