June 21, 2006 at 10:51 PM ET
When you think of Internet video, you probably think of the crazy Numa Numa dance or other harmless clips that sweep the Web like wildfire.
But there's another kind of fire that's found its way onto those user-created Internet video sites like YouTube and Google video -- children, lighting themselves on fire in front of cameras, all to get high rankings or even win prizes from video Web sites. And that's just one example of the sort of dangerous pranks that are now filling up these sites. An MSNBC.com investigation reveals that some video sites are jam-packed with clips of dangerous, even life-threatening stunts. It's become a dangerous game of "Can you top this?" that already has resulted in serious injuries, and could eventually lead to more dire consequences.
Graphic: click to see a slide show: To give MSNBC.com readers an idea of the kinds of violent videos that are making their way onto User-submitted Internet video sites, MSNBC.com has created this slide show. Only single images of the videos are shown -- still, some are graphic.
"Nobody can determine how bad this will get until we see a hospital report," said Jon Sorenson, a spokesman for the New York State Consumer Protection Board. His agency issued a warning to parents about online video violence on June 13.
We've chosen not to show the videos here, but we've decided to publish a slide show of still images pulled from the videos to give you a flavor of the content.
There are stupid tricks gone horribly wrong. In one clip, a young man dons a banana suit and covers himself in lighter fluid, then torches himself and badly burns his face. The video ends with him in a shower, bathing the side of his face in cold water to control blistering.
In another, men and teenagers build "dry ice bombs" in plastic bottles, then watch as one of them explodes in someone's hand and nearly blows off his fingers.
There's also apparently premeditated violence: In one, a child announces he's about to attack after another kid who "pisses him off," then is followed by a camera as he chases down and repeatedly shoots the child with what appears to be a BB gun, causing the youngster to fall to the ground writhing in pain.
And there's accidental horror caught on tape. In another video, a child hanging dangerously out of a car door is struck in the face by an oncoming car. In this video, as in several others, the most gruesome passage is repeated and played in slow motion.
Then there's sleight-of-hand video editing, such as a clip that appears to show a teen-ager running into the road and lying down as a bus passes over him.
Sorenson said all these videos encourage copycats, and many have already led to serious injuries.
"This is going to lead to someone getting really hurt. It has led to that already," he said. "Clearly, people are getting hurt making these videos … there's blood. It's true that kids do these stupid things (anyway), but could you ask for a better template for doing stupid things?"
Critical of Google
Sorenson was particularly critical of Google's service, because he said he's seem many of the violent videos selected for prominent featuring on Google's video home page or its new "Movers and Shakers" list.
"Their system certainly does promote dangerous videos because of the way they are represented," he said.
On Tuesday, MSNBC.com saw the banana suit clip featured on Google's main video page.
Sorenson said Google told him it screens all videos for inappropriate content, and does remove some videos, but added, "It's hard to reconcile any review with the videos that are being featured."
Google spokesman Steve Langdon said each video on Google's service is viewed by a person before it's placed on the site. Videos are selected for the home page using an automated process, but he said screening tools are used to restrict certain kind of clips from appearing there.
"We restrict which videos appear on the home page in an effort to filter out material that may be inappropriate for children," he said in an e-mail. For additional information, he pointed MSNBC.com to the Web site's terms of service, which indicates that the site may refuse to host content that includes "graphic violence or other acts resulting in serious injury or death."
Violent clips were a bit harder to find at Google video's main competitor, YouTube.com. But there are numerous clips showing boys and young men playing with fire. In one, called "Now my forearm," a young boy lights the lower half of his arm on fire. A voice on the video says, with a laugh, "I imagine that hurt."
YouTube company spokewoman Julie Supan issued an e-mail statement to MSNBC.com, saying the company has "no significant problem in this area."
She did not answer questions about specific videos on YouTube.
Paid for explosive video
Violent videos can be found elsewhere on the Internet. At Break.com, site owner Keith Richman holds video popularity contests and pays the winners. Last year, he paid $500 for rights to video of a dry ice bomb blowing up in a man's hand, according to Charlie Dyess – the man featured in the video.
The four-minute-long movie shows a group of men and teen-agers in a warehouse in Alexandria, La., making "dry ice bombs." When one failed to explode despite repeated attempts to trigger a blast, the 38-year-old Dyess picked it up. It exploded immediately.
"At first, I thought my fingers were gone. I thought I blew them off," Dyess said. Shrapnel from the bottle tore into his arm, and he temporarily lost hearing in his right ear.
Dyess recovered, and not long after, he and the man behind the camera – friend Jason Rogers -- decided to enter Break.com's contest. They won second place, good for $500, he said.
The clip also is currently available on the Google's video site.
At the time of the filming, Dyess said he was working on a movie project with his church's youth group – that's why there are several teens in the video. He agreed the video may in fact inspire other stupid pranks.
"But I know from working with youth that no matter what you preach they're going to do anything they want," he said.
Many copycats followed
In fact, he said after the movie won second place, a flood of copycat films were submitted to Break.com, which at the time was called Big-Boys.com.
"Right after that they got a mass load of nothing but all types of bombs," he said. "You see people willing to sacrifice burns and bruises to get that shot to win a competition." After all, he pointed out, unless a stunt goes wrong "you don't have a shot."
Rogers, who has a small video production company in Alexandria that films weddings, said he believes kids and adults are trying dangerous pranks simply because video cameras are present.
"It's surprising what happens when you put a camera in front of somebody," he said. "Sometimes it does encourage people ... to do dumb things."
Break.com also features a regular female contributor named PinkZombie who attempts stunts such as stapling her arm or putting firecrackers in her cheeks. So far, she's earned $3,500 from the site. Such stunts are often a part of becoming what Richman calls an "e-lebrity."
"People post to us not just because they want to get paid but because they want people to know who they are," he said.
Where is the line?
His site does edit content, and chooses not to publish some dangerous stunts, he said.
"The site is entertaining and irreverent ... but we don't put up things we think will offend people," he said. Other video clips come with warnings saying stunts depicted are dangerous.
But that's not enough, says Sorenson, who continues to complain to video sites.
"Looking at these things...there is no apparent monitoring of videos to determine if it is over the line, or if in fact there is a line," he said.
But Dyess, who nearly had his hand blown off, was more philosophical about the problem. He said long before Google video, YouTube, and the like, teenagers were performing stunts in front of video cameras -- many inspired by the MTV show "Jackass."
"These kids are bored and they want to do something," he said. Video cameras and Web site distribution have "brought the prankster out in everybody."
Dyess' partner, Rogers, also blamed television, saying sites like Break.com are no different from network televised boxing matches.
"Why do we watch boxing?" he said. "It only exists because we pay to see somebody get knocked out. We want to see somebody get hurt, but not to the extreme that it's life threatening."