In schoolyards across the country, all it takes to attract a crowd is the call "Fight! Fight! Fight!" But now, students increasingly are showing up with cameras to record the brawls, then posting the footage on the internet–and some of those videos have been viewed more than a million times.
One year after national outrage at the videotaped beating of a 16-year-old Florida girl by other teens intent on posting the video to YouTube prompted calls for web sites to better police their content, experts say the problem has only gotten worse.
School officials and cyberspace watchdogs are worried that the videos encourage more violence and sharpen the humiliation of defeat for the losers.
"Kids are looking for their 15 megabytes of fame," said Parry Aftab, executive director of the internet safety group WiredSafety.org. "Kids’ popularity is measured by how many hits they get, how many people visit their sites."
Not all of the fights are spontaneous or motivated strictly by animosity. Some are planned ahead of time by combatants who arrange for their own brawling to be recorded. This can be a mutual decision or, as in the Florida case last year, a planned assault on an unsuspecting teen (see "Videotaped beating sparks national outrage").
Scores of bare-knuckled fights appear on YouTube or on sites devoted entirely to the grainy and shaky amateur recordings, which are usually made with cell phones or digital cameras.
In one recent video, two girls are egged on by friends and soon begin punching and choking one another. In other videos, a boy appears to be knocked unconscious by a well-placed haymaker, and a second boy spits out blood after suffering a blow to the mouth.
"One of the reasons for doing this is to attract attention," said Nancy Willard, executive director of the Oregon-based Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use. "The more vicious the fight, the greater the attention."
On YouTube, viewers rate the action by brutality level and sometimes make profanity-laced observations.
One video was set to music and included pre-fight interviews. The combatants, who were not identified by their full names, hurled insults like prizefighters at a weigh-in.
Some videos carry the names of schools, which can help administrators identify and discipline the fighters.
"Quite frankly, YouTube proves to be quite an ally for us," said Roy Knight, superintendent of the Lufkin Independent School District in Texas.
Last year at the district’s high school, an administrator heard a fight, but arrived too late to catch the action.
Kids would not identify the pugilists, but the principal later searched YouTube and found the fight, Knight said.
"I feel my brain shakin’," one of the boys complains on video after he is knocked down twice by a flurry of punches.
The students were suspended and spent time at an alternative school for teenagers with disciplinary problems, Knight said.
At Vallejo City Unified School District in Northern California, parents last year alerted school officials to dozens of campus fights that had been posted on the internet.
"For the kids, it’s entertainment and fun," said Jason Hodge, a spokesman for the school system 30 miles northeast of San Francisco.
But officials took the fighting so seriously that they adopted a policy this school year banning students from recording fights. Violators can be suspended.
Some of the fights are intended primarily to build fame for the brawlers, but experts say others have more sinister motivations.
In New Jersey, police say a teenager who attacked a girl in 2006 arranged to have the confrontation recorded and posted on the internet to harass the victim.
The 16-year-old attacker at South Brunswick High School pleaded guilty to harassment and assault and was placed on probation. The 14-year-old who recorded the incident also got probation.
"You’re being assaulted or beaten up once, but then it’s videotaped to make sure everybody sees your humiliation. That can be pretty devastating," said Patti Agatston, co-author of Cyber Bullying: Bullying in the Digital Age. She is a bullying prevention specialist with the Cobb County School District in Georgia.
Two years ago, a YouTube video showed a middle school student from suburban Cincinnati being pounded with fists and getting her hair pulled.
"I couldn’t even watch," the girl’s mother, Jan Perone, recalled recently. "When I first saw that, all I could do was cry."
The judge ruled the fight was consensual. But Perone said her daughter, now 14, did not want to go back to school, and her grades fell. Her mother said she now lives with a relative in another state.
California Assemblyman Pedro Nava introduced legislation last year calling on web sites such as YouTube to look for videos that violate the site’s policy against violence and remove them.
Scott Rubin, a spokesman for Google-owned YouTube, said users can flag videos for graphic or gratuitous violence. The company then reviews those videos for possible removal.
But Rubin said the large volume of content posted to the site–15 hours of video every minute–does not allow the company to search for inappropriate material on its own.
"The flagging system works," he said. "Is it perfect? No, of course not. But it’s a good system."
Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use