Why Are So Many Teens Spilling Their Secrets on YouTube?
Doug Bernard | Washington DC
Their form, by now, is fairly standard. A young person sits silently in front of their computer webcam, cards in hand. Music plays in the background: maybe a pensive solo guitar, or a bittersweet song about love and loss. One by one they flip their cards down, each with a sentence, an idea or just a few words and a sketch, all while staring soulfully into the camera.
Take, for instance, NatashaMarrie‘s video titled “a confession.” Seated in what looks like her bedroom, she smiles shyly, waves at the camera, and begins turning over cards one after the other. “I’m truly a happy person…” reads one as she nods, “even with all the hardships I’ve been through…” reads the next, her sad expression suggesting what’s to come.
We quickly learn that her parents’ divorce has left her lonely, that her grandmother didn’t think she was “2 good”, and that she says she has been abused “physically and emotionally.” With each new card she tells us something very personal about her life, all while the singer in the background croons “I’m wearin’ my heart on my sleeve, ’cause girl I need you desperately…” Three minutes and forty seconds later her cards are gone, her secrets laid bare, and NatashaMarrie smiles and waves a sweet goodbye. Fade to black.
Welcome to the Note Card Confessional.
Blame Bob Dylan
In 1965, film maker D.A. Pennebaker was making a documentary of singer Bob Dylan’s tour through England. To open the movie, Pennebaker and Dylan cooked up an idea. Shot in black and white in the alley behind London’s Savoy hotel (and featuring a confusing cameo by Beat poet Allen Ginsberg) Dylan silently shuffles through a stack of large cards with words or phrases from his song “Subterranean Homesick Blues” while the music plays in the audio track.
It was an instant hit, becoming what some call the first modern music video. And it established a visual language that was appealing, easy to reproduce, and highly adaptable. Enter YouTube, cheap video processing, and a culture that’s more accepting of individuals sharing personal secrets and troubles, and you get the note card confessional.
But where Dylan’s video was lightly amusing, these note card confessions draw from deeper, and sometimes darker, wells of human emotion. They hold little back, and watching such earnest young faces silently recount traumas isn’t always easy.
One curious aspect of these flip card confessions is the consistency between videos. Never do the confessors speak their transgressions aloud, instead letting the cards do their talking for them. Emoticons – like : ( for a frowny face – and doodles of flowers or hearts punctuate emotional peaks of the story, with the music underlining it with an overall mood or message. Through it all, we the audience look the confessor directly in the eye, watching their face for all those human nonverbal cues that text alone can’t convey, while reading their secrets.
If the numbers are to be believed, these note card confessions are strangely watchable. And they are exploding in popularity, which has some professionals concerned.
A Different Approach
“Confessions are especially tied to feelings of guilt; feelings of guilt about a specific behavior,” says Dr. June Tangney, professor of clinical psychology at George Mason University. “And they’re especially unlikely in cases where people feel shame.”
Tangney’s research specialization is in what she calls “moral emotions,” notably shame and guilt. Often used interchangeably, they are, she says, very different emotions. In short, shame is something one feels about their entire being; guilt is something one feels about a particular act. “When people feel shame they’re inclined to want to hide, to escape the situation, to sink into the floorboards,” says Tangney. “It’s feelings of guilt about a particular behavior that’s likely to motivate confessions, apologies and attempts to repair.”
Psychologists have long known these emotions don’t only come from what one does (or fails to do) but from what happens to others close by. A war veteran may feel guilt about comrades who died; a victim of abuse may experience debilitating shame. Confessing – documenting those things you regret – can be a powerful tool in healing a bruised psyche.
But should such confessions be public, especially from those so young? “I would counsel a different approach,” says Tangney:
“You have to wonder, particularly about young people who are in distress who are looking for some relief to that distress, whether they’re able to make good decisions about who and how they share this information, and how there are ways it may be harmful to them. I’d be concerned about people…finding out about this and using it in a way that could be perceived as bullying or stigmatizing. I don’t think young people can fully grasp just how public these confessions are likely to be.”
“I Just Wanted To Tell My Story.”
There are literally thousands of these videos online. If you’ve never seen one, just go to the video share site of your choice, such as YouTube, and search for “note card confession.” Nina, Dwight, Ashlee, Jayce; they’re all there and many more, note cards lined up, just waiting for you to click on their video and learn of their secret heartaches and longings.
Among them is Emmanuel Perron. A high school student in Rockland, just outside Ottawa, Canada, Perron initially seems happy enough, flashing a broad smile as he sits at a kitchen table. But it becomes clear that the French-Canadian senior is also wiping tears from his eyes as he flips through his cards, recounting stories of being bullied and his response. “I’ve cut (mutilated)” reads one card; “I’ve wanted to (commit) suicide” the next.
“I was sick and tired, and got the motivation to post the video on my story,” Emmanuel tells us from his home. “It’s seeing reality of the effects that bullying has on others. They would see what bullying causes to its victims. It impacted me very badly; caused me anxiety and depression, which led to suicidal thoughts and cutting.” (Cutting is slang referring to intentional acts of self harm, such as cutting the skin, often in response to extreme anxiety and stress.)
The morning his parents first saw the video, he says they cried for an hour. “My father was actually kind of shocked it was affecting me that bad, and it kind of opened his eyes to how bullying had affected me.” In a way, says Perron, his father never heard him as clearly as when he sat silent on YouTube. “I just wanted to tell my story,” he says.
His story now has over 19,000 thousand views, and Perron says he’s heard from hundreds of people from around the world, offering support, good wishes, and sometimes looking for a little help. “One girl in particular, she was kind of feeling depressed one night and I was able to convince her to go to the hospital because she was thinking of committing suicide. She said I was the only person she would listen to.”
Since changing schools, Perron says he’s still taunted by bullies, although now mostly online via Facebook or other networking sites. But he’s also heard from old and new friends who say they’re inspired by his story, and hopes his confession continues to go viral. “I’m definitely much happier now,” he says, adding that he hopes to study photography once he graduates. It’s an encouraging story: young person overcomes adversity and finds happiness. Unfortunately, these note card confessions don’t always have a happy ending.
“I Believe Jonah.”
Seeing Ben Breedlove on his YouTube videos, you would never guess that the Texas teen had a bad heart. He seems healthy, happy and optimistic – everything you could want for someone starting their life. But Breedlove suffered from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a serious heart condition, and by the age of 18 had already survived several close-call heart attacks. On December 18, 2011, he posted two note card confession videos in which he offered thoughts on his life and his flirtations with death, including most recently when his heart stopped for three minutes. Breedlove recalls being in a place of peace. “I didn’t want to leave that place” one card reads. One week later, on Christmas Day, Breedlove died in Austin, Texas.
Even if you didn”t know this, Breedlove’s note card confession videos are difficult to watch. Once you’re aware he was just a week away from dying…well, this writer, for one, can’t watch them. But others do, and of the nearly 7-million views (as of this writing) they’ve received, many have left thanks, thoughts, condolences, or personal stories of their own in the comments section.
Earlier last year, Jamey Rodemeyer, an openly gay teen living in Buffalo, posted a video where he discussed the incessant bullying he received at school. In it he’s candid – he doesn’t sugar-coat his experiences – but also encouraging, telling viewers that “it gets better – I promise.” Shortly after on September 18, at the age of 14, Rodemeyer hung himself; his lifeless body was found by his sister.
Then there’s the case of Jonah Mowry. To the strains of Sia’s “Breath Me”, Mowry holds his arms to the camera showing scars from his cutting. As he prepared to begin 8th grade, he put together his note card confession, tearfully recounting his struggles with suicide, mutilation, bullying and other painful travails. Millions saw his video, re-posting it on sites like Facebook and turning young Mowry into an Internet sensation. “A lot of people hate me” reads one card as tears stream down Mowry’s face. It’s a heartbreaking story…but is it true?
Shortly after, Mowry posted a second, non-confessional video. In it, he’s lying on a bed with a friend, and the two are talking animatedly, laughing with seemingly few cares (he’s since taken it down but others have re-posted it.) It didn’t take long before someone else posted “HAI DAIR Jonah Mowry admits he lied” on YouTube, igniting a fierce debate over whether Mowry’s first confessional video was true or not. Supporters and detractors began publishing their own note card replies, and “I Believe Jonah” became a rallying cry that attracted the support of celebrities like Ricky Martin and Lady Gaga. Much of the commentary was, frankly, ugly. Whether or not Mowry had challenges before posting his confessional, challenges found him soon after. For the record, Mowry has apologized for any confusion, but insists the first confessional was true.
Privacy? Who Needs Privacy?
So what would motivate someone taking to the Internet to spell out in detail their secret pains and private anguish for public view? Why memorialize it on YouTube, with your own face and in your own words, where it will last forever? And why do so many other people watch?
Emmanuel Perron says he was inspired by Jonah Mowry; he posted his video because he wanted to help people. Kaitlin Brand agrees with that sentiment, although the two have never met, and her story is very different from that of Perron.
A high school sophomore in Grand Rapids, Brand begins her note card confession in a style similar to many others: she’s seated by herself in what looks like a quiet room in her house. “My name’s Kait” reads one of her earliest cards as she smiles and waves. The only hint of what lies ahead comes from the title of the song by The Band Perry, playing in the background: “If I Die Young.”
At 1:17 into the video she pauses, breaths deep, and reveals her secret. On October 5 of this year, Brand’s mother committed suicide. It was, in fact, 16-year-old Kaitlin who first discovered her mother, hanging in the woods behind their home.
“Yeah, that was pretty shocking…” says Kaitlin’s father Pete Brand, understating the obvious. But just three weeks after this trauma, Kaitlin – without telling anyone in her family – posted her note card confession video on YouTube; a video that is surprisingly optimistic and free of bitterness. She smiles brightly as she kisses a picture of her late mother. “You’re probably wondering why I’m smiling instead of crying” reads one card. “It’s because my mom would want me to be Happy : D” reads the next. For father Pete Brand, that’s no surprise:
“I think what you see in the video is that she clearly understands life, and she knows how to put things in perspective. The video talked about the fact that a lot of her friends thought she was the strongest girl in the world, she doesn’t feel that way. But it also shows that she wants to smile even though she really wants to cry. And the reason she wants to keep a smile on her face is because she knows that her mom would have wanted her to be happy. And she doesn’t believe that she is alone. Even though her mom is gone, she believes she has a guardian angel looking over her shoulder. And she knows that her mom is in a better place, because she’s no longer suffering from anxiety and depression.”
Brand is proud of his daughter and what she put together. But the digital marketing executive also understands the Internet can be a dangerous place, especially for an emotionally vulnerable teen. “There’s good and there’s bad,” he says, noting that with thousands of people now contacting Kaitlin from around the world, he handles her electronic communications for the time being.
“The very act of putting that video together and out on the Internet – that act alone is strong enough, and it doesn’t have to continue. She had no idea it was going to go beyond maybe just a couple hundred views. But once it really started to take off, at some point, she realized she was helping people. Then one day she said to me ‘Dad, I know what I want to do now; I want to help people.’ And she’s already doing that.”
Helping people, reclaiming the past, clearing your conscience; these are all reasons so many teens may be posting note card confessions. Another reason may simply be that so many before have done so, making it less of “a big deal” among their peer groups.
For Professor June Tangney, one of the principal benefits to the confessors may just be the feeling of fixing what feels broken. “People really benefit from writing about past traumas in their lives, that by telling their story they’re able to make better sense of it, they’re able to get more of a sense of control of it.”
Still, there’s a wide difference between writing something in a private journal, or telling those closest to you, and throwing it all out on the Internet where anybody can view it and respond to it. Tangney questions whether young people, in particular, can fully evaluate the potential risks of that along with the possible rewards:
“They’re not necessarily thinking about future employers or other important people in their lives having access to this kind of material. There are some things that are really important to share with other empathic individuals… It certainly attests to their need for relief from distress and closure, but I think that maybe young people don’t think through how long things, and how broadly things, are posted on the Internet.”