Like most kids, my 11- and 13-year-olds watch a lot of YouTube. Some of what they watch is unintelligible to me. Why would anyone want to see some guy yelling at the screen while playing a dumb video game? And what about all the horrible antics some of these YouTubers get into, from painful pranks to truly offensive material? But I know it's not all bad — sometimes I actually laugh at some of the more clever stuff, like Good Mythical Morning. So when Markiplier, one of my kids' favorite YouTubers, announced a live show coming to our city, I decided to cough up the cash as a special treat for my kids.
Markiplier, 28, is known largely for his Let's Play videos, which is basically his face in a corner of the screen making wisecracks while he plays video games (Five Nights at Freddy's is one of his specialties). I find these immensely boring and so littered with profanity that I don't love to see my kids watching them. But for all his cursing and gaming, Markiplier (whose real name is Mark Fischbach) is also funny and charming, and he raises a ton of money for charity. The question for me was: What is he going to do on a concert stage? Because if I paid good money to watch him play a video game, I was not going to be happy.
Turns out his show was actually lots of fun. In fact, it's more about skits and improvisation than video games. He and his five friends (whom everyone in the sold-out audience knew by name) played the kind of classic improvisation games you'd see on Whose Line Is It Anyway? — from making up skits based on audience suggestions to holding a very funny dance-off. And the audience loved it. In fact, the screaming was so loud, it may have reached Beatles-level frenzy.
But here's what made the night truly eye-opening for me: I saw approximately 2,000 kids enjoying themselves in a positive, supportive, and sincere atmosphere. This wasn't the dark side of YouTube and its teen fans that gets so much attention, where folks laugh at people getting hurt, make nasty comments, take unwise risks, or make fun of others. The audience cheered on the quirky kids Mark pulled from the audience to show off awkward dance moves or fight imaginary wizards. At one point, something truly astonishing happened. Markiplier invited a young man up on stage to talk about himself and I thought, "Uh-oh. The audience is going to turn on him." What was surely meant to be a brief intro to a silly sketch turned into a lengthy, uncomfortable story about this man's struggle with bipolar disorder and how YouTube had helped him during his recovery. Markiplier listened intently. The audience was rapt. It ended with a promise from Markiplier to raise money for mental illness treatment and the audience shouting encouragement to this stranger.
And this is what YouTube is really about — at least at its best. It's where kids can find support, spontaneity, and authenticity. The evening ended with Mark and his friends sitting on a couch answering audience questions. While some fans asked about hair dye and subscriber goals, many others asked about how to find joy or motivation. And Mark and his friends gave these kids the kind of advice you'd expect from a teacher or parent: Find your passion, be kind to others, and help make the world a better place. The kids ate it up. For all the hand-wringing that parents do over YouTube and the internet — some of it justified — this evening was a sign that maybe some of our fears about raising antisocial kids who only know how to stare at screens is misguided. It was a peek into a possible future ruled by compassionate people who care deeply about each other and the world around them. What more could you ask for?
Tips for finding the good in YouTube
Ask kids to share their favorite videos with you. Not only do you get a peek into their world, but you open up potential conversations on bigger topics.
Share your favorite videos. Whether it's old George Michael music videos or a funny thing that passed through your Facebook feed, show it to your kids. They might not get it, but at least they'll see you engaging with one of their favorite mediums.
Use controversies to trigger important conversations. YouTube is always getting press for something new, whether it's kids doing dangerous challenges or a YouTuber making a bad decision. Kids — especially teens — love engaging in debates about issues they feel passionate about, from net neutrality to how much YouTubers should get paid. Help them exercise their reasoning and communication skills by asking them to explain their stance.
Don't judge. You may think watching people play video games is stupid (yep), but don't let that blind you to the other good stuff kids might get from their heroes. Positive messages about empathy, perseverance, and humility can be woven into just about anything.