"A week ago, no one knew who I was. Now my name has been on every news and talk show," Adam Schleichkorn told The New York Times. "I don't care that it's for something stupid."
If you don't recognize the name, Schleichkorn has been credited with giving birth to "fence-plowing," a YouTube fad in which youth run and hurl themselves into fences. Schleichkorn's original video of his cousin plowing through a weather-beaten fence attracted more than 125,000 views and has inspired a variety of imitators.
Schleichkorn doesn't condone vandalism, but he appreciates the attention. "So I'm known as the fence-plowing kid," he said. "At least I'm known."
To be known
It used to be that tales of bad behavior had limited reach. We all heard about what the "bad kid" did, but the story was usually limited to a school or a town, spread mostly by word of mouth. Today, however, social networking and video sites such as YouTube turn youthful indiscretions into viral sensations. And while some adolescents will spend years living down an embarrassing choice, others actually see the Internet or reality TV as a shot at 15 minutes of fame — even if it's for "something stupid."
When Apple's iPad hit stores, 19-year-old Justin Kockott bought one purely to smash it up and share the experience on YouTube, where the video has received more than 2 million views. He explained to the Los Angeles Times, "I wanted to be the first one to do it." New iPad: $500. Aluminum bat: $20. Instant celebrity: Priceless.
Other adolescents have paid a higher price for media exposure. The popularity of girl-fight videos on YouTube has inspired a sharp rise in violent brawls among young women. And I've read that a handful of teenage girls have tried to get pregnant simply to qualify for MTV's reality shows "Teen Mom" and "16 and Pregnant."
It's natural to wonder, What are these kids thinking? There are two answers to that question. First, some ill-conceived choices (such as putting metal in a microwave) may be birthed out of boredom and curiosity. Blind to consequences, a kid can say with a straight face that it seemed like a good idea at the time. On the other hand, more and more young people are seeking validation via the media. Not only are they inclined to record their antics for posterity, but they also feel a certain significance when others tune in to watch. It increases their sense of self-worth. And if their video happens to go viral and make them famous, so much the better.
Narcissism or humility
VeggieTales creator Phil Vischer raised an interesting point when I interviewed him recently. "What are kid fantasies today?" he asked. "To be a rock star [like] Hannah Montana. 'I want to be a star! I want to be in Hollywood. I want to be rich and famous.' That has become our collective national obsession, and we're selling it to kids."
The frustrating reality is that pop culture will continue to fan flames of narcissism in our children. And that can play out in damaging ways. The good news is that parents are still in the best position to shape a child's judgment, values and self-worth. We can affirm them and help them see that it's better to build strong character than to seek attention through bad behavior.
Christian families have yet another advantage: The Bible reminds us that God's children are completely accepted, secure and significant — no YouTube stunt required.