Reality TV and Abu Ghraib have taught teens how to win fame from sadism, writes Matthew Holehouse
It's the latest craze. We're all at it. Apparently. Actually, I can't say that I have ever been happy-slapped, or slapped someone happily. In fact I don't know of anyone, even anecdotally, who's been a victim. There haven't been any cases in the local paper, which given its meticulous reportage of all crime from stolen washing lines upwards, suggests that none have taken place.
Still, for some reason, the national newspapers are carrying daily shockers of teenagers who've recorded themselves assaulting passers-by in increasingly imaginative ways, caught when the footage gets sent to one phone too far. It goes without saying that it's pretty nasty and brutish to be sick on a bus passenger or to threaten to knife a 10-year-old, and even more so to capture it on camera. But, unless I've just been extraordinarily lucky in having this Viking-like rampage pass me by, the attention that it has been given feels disproportionate. If anything, the media has created a self-fulfilling prophecy, with one case inspiring another through the newspapers.
So why the fascination? There's the mixture of fear, curiosity and loathing that surrounds any crime story. But happy slapping offers a journalist something more than an ordinary beating. The use of camera phones neatly binds modern technology with youth violence and, in the mind of the older reader, represents the scary, confusing degeneration of the modern world.
How can you possibly stop someone filming assaults on a gadget the size of a bar of soap when you can't set the video recorder?
And the name itself - a gift to headline writers - is something of a shock.
It's joyfully inappropriate, like calling drive-bys funny-gunning or murder silly-killing, and has an almost ironic cruelty. There's a childishness to it, the disfigured echo of Happy Meals and Happy Families, and a recognition of its own playful Clockwork Orange sadism. Put the chavs in desert fatigues and you effortlessly have the teenage guards of Abu Ghraib, giving a thumbs up for freedom over happy-slapped Iraqis.
No one has asked why this is happening, as if it is what youths today naturally do. It's more than just thuggery. The grainy footage celebrates the bravado of the perpetrator for appearing on camera being violent, rather than for the violence itself. Equally, the torment for the victim is in being humiliated on camera, rather than the physical pain. Essentially it's exhibitionism: Big Brother with baseball bats. Why else are you able to post your latest tricks on a slapping website?
Reality TV taught us that stardom doesn't have to be the product of success, but rather is success in itself. How you achieve it doesn't really matter. Thanks to happy slapping, even the least talented teenager can be famous for 15 low-resolution seconds. We protest, but we are the audience, gawping at headlines with outraged applause.
Matthew Holehouse has just finished Year 12 at Harrogate grammar school.
His column will run throughout the summer