Sunday, May 22, 2016

An Open Letter to YouTube/Google: Suicide Pranks Are Not Funny

Dear YouTube/Google:

My name is David James.  I am a teacher and coach at College Park High School in The Woodlands, Texas.  First of all, I want to thank you for both your vast reserves of videos as well as your search engine.  I have made use of both religiously in my classroom over the years.  Whether it is finding a simple video to explain the concepts of the American Naturalistic Movement or an extensive list of the writings of Edgar Allan Poe.  Needless to say, both are invaluable resources.

However, the other day, I saw the downside of YouTube.  In order to understand, I need to give you some backstory.  On October 8, 2014, my 13 year old son hanged himself from a ceiling fan at his mother's house in Georgetown, Texas.  Despite all efforts, he was pronounced brain dead on October 13, 2014.  Since that day, I have been working tirelessly to prevent any other family from having to experience what I have lived with since that day, and that brings me to the point of this letter.

On May 20th, I received a text from a friend of mine.  She wanted to share something with me, but was afraid that it would upset me.  She said it was a link her daughter said had been making the rounds at her high school.  I convinced her that it would be ok, that after everything that I have dealt with in the past year, and a half, nothing could shock me, but I was wrong.  I went to the link and discovered it was a YouTube video by a person who refers to himself as Riceman entitled "Suicide by Hanging Prank on Mom!"  Needless to say, I was appalled and disgusted by what I saw.  In the video, Riceman thinks it will be a hoot to pretend to hang himself and let his mother think he had actually hanged himself.  What could possibly go wrong with this idea?  After all, when his mother walked in, she feinted.  Hahahaha...not.

Immediately, I flagged the video and sent a complaint to YouTube asking them to take this video down.  I then posted to social media asking others to follow course hoping that this video would be taken down.  The post was shared, and complaints were made, but as of today, the video continues to stay up on Riceman's channnel along with other classics in which he tries to lure children into a van, get black people to attack him, or tell people on  a campus that he is going to shoot them.

Please understand things from the point of view of myself and many others out there.  I lost a loved one to suicide, as have numerous others out there.  Last year, close to 43,000 people lost their lives to suicide, and on average, each suicide affects roughly 6 people intimately.  That means that roughly 258,000 people in the US are deeply affected every year.  You may also take into consideration that for every successful suicide, as many as 25 people attempt suicide.  For some one such as Riceman to make fun of something such as suicide, and for YouTube to allow it is just not acceptable.

I went to the YouTube policy page and read your policies on Harmful or Dangerous content in order to see what it would take for a video to be age-restricted to removed.  Your polices are:

  • Whether the act in question could lead to serious injury or death.
  • Whether the individuals participating in the act are trained professionals taking all necessary precautions to prevent injury.
  • Whether the act could be easily imitated by minors.
  • Whether the content could be used to commit serious acts of violence.
  • Whether the upload is educational, documentary, scientific or artistic in nature.
First of all, yes, this is an act that could lead to death, especially by minors (see third bullet point).  I have been a teacher for 25 years, and it is rare to meet a teen ager that doesn't see themselves as ten feet tall and bullet proof.  It wouldn't take much for this prank to go wrong.  Second, I am guessing that Riceman is not a trained professional, and he sure as hell isn't taking precautions to avoid injuries.  He is putting himself in positions where he could do irreparable harm to himself and others, and once again, easily imitated by minors.  But the final, and perhaps most important point, his video is just plain insulting.  Hanging accounts for 235 of all suicides, and is fatal in 90% of the attempts. For Riceman to make it a joke is just adding insult to injury for those of us that have lost loved ones to suicide.  Many of us have suffered in the wake of the death of our loved ones, and have a hard enough time  getting though our day to day lives.  The fact that people not only make these videos, but that others watch them, just heaps on the suffering.  

I grew up watching shows such as Candid Camera and America's Funniest Home Videos, but there is a difference between a carefully orchestrated joke or prank, and an untrained amateur with a video camera, no common sense, and a lack of moral decency.  I understand that people such as Riceman have a right to make these videos, just as you, a private company has the right to allow on your site as long as they meet your "standards".  You can age-restrict it, or put a disclaimer or warning at the beginning of the video, but we all know those are as worthless as travel brochures in a coffin. I am imploring you to take into consideration the thousands of people that are suffering in their day to day lives living with the death of a loved one to suicide.

I am appealing to YouTube and Google on a personal level.  Please remove not only Riceman's suicide prank videos, but all of them.  My recent Google search turned up almost 600,000 results with just "youtube suicide prank".  That is just too damn much.  Survivors of suicide have suffered enough in our lives without having to fear finding these videos, and some people need to be protected from themselves.  I also Googled "suicide prank goes wrong" and came back with almost 400,000 hits.

YouTube, the benefits of a site such as yours are immeasurable, and the benefits to society are many, but have you truly considered the risks.  You can tell people that "You don't have to watch it if it offends you," and many won't.  Unfortunately, you know as well as I that some of these videos are soul crushing, painful reminders for people.  it is for them that I am asking you to take them down. Thank you.

David James