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Kids who want to learn to spin on their heads turn to YouTube

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Will Liu, 18, first learned how to break dance from YouTube videos and is now teaching others with his own "how to" videos. (Courtesy of YouTube)

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Liu incorporated helpful tips into his "how to do a windmill" video that he felt were missing in other instructional videos posted on YouTube. (Courtesy of YouTube)

After finishing his homework, Christian Realmuto, 15, grabs his pick, tunes his guitar, cranks up the amp and turns on the computer. He is now ready for his guitar lesson with icehawk1223. Christian found icehawk1223 when he typed “how to play Sweet Child o’ Mine” into the search box on YouTube, the popular video sharing site known for its extensive library of amateur home videos. Christian spends up to two hours every night watching icehawk1223 to learn how to master the solo of the famous Guns n’ Roses song. He is preparing to perform it with his band at his church’s annual talent show.

Christian is part of a growing number of teenagers who are mastering new hobbies and skills, some more unusual than others, using instructional videos found on the Internet. By taking barriers like travel, money and, to some extent, parental permission out of the equation, Internet how-to videos have been turning teenagers into amateur musicians, magicians, even break dancers. Unlike traditional lessons, the online videos are accessible, free and offer a hobby they can call their own.

“I think if I had a teacher I’d stop wanting to play it,” said Christian, a freshman in Manhattan who also studies the flute at Mannes College, a Saturday conservatory program.

Lately Christian practices the guitar twice as much as the flute, preferring to strum “Paint it Black” by the Rolling Stones to scales and arpeggios.

Do it yourself videos have been increasing in popularity since video sharing sites like YouTube have existed—so much so that offshoot sites like 5min, ExpertVillage, VideoJug and Graspr, which specialize in instructional videos, have also been attracting users. While the bulk of these videos offer quirky tips like how to fold a bedsheet or how to respond to a rude bartender, the number of videos devoted to helping one develop specialized activities like how to do magic tricks or how to beat box are holding some teens’ attentions.

Ben Cowan, 16, of Brookings, Ore., spends most of his time on the Internet watching and learning from YouTube videos. He was first drawn to the site about a year ago when he wanted to improve his wakeboarding tricks, which soon led to a new hobby known as blade boarding, an emerging sport that combines different aspects of snowboarding, skateboarding and surfing.

Ben eventually submitted a video of his own to a contest on YouTube showing his blade boarding tricks. He won $375 as a second and third prize-winner. Since then, he has picked up other hobbies. He shows his grandmother magic tricks he learned from watching a tutor called myquicktricks and refines tae kwon do moves he learned at his uncle’s studio by reviewing similar lessons taught by his YouTube teacher, ChosonNinja. He doesn’t think he’ll be entering any magic trick contests or open his own martial arts studio, but they are still worth practicing.

“They’ll just be good memories,” says Cowan.

The wide range of hobbies offered online have given teenagers access to learning activities that might have otherwise been discouraged by their parents as not necessarily worthy of listing on a college application or financially out of their reach. They can learn how to speak Mandarin or tailor a suit in one click.

Solomon and Grace Lee of Little Neck, Queens, had no idea their 13-year-old son, Solomon Jr., was practicing dance moves like the pop and lock and the moonwalk in his room. Inspired by classmates who practiced break dancing tricks in a nearby park two years ago, and later by the shock–and-awe dance moves in movies like “Step It Up 2: The Streets,” Solomon logged onto YouTube, and his bedroom became his dance studio. Solomon said he and several of his friends all learned how to break dance solely from the Internet.

“There was nothing else that I could use to learn how to break dance,” said Solomon.

Some teenagers are going from being the student to the teacher. Will Liu, 18, a senior in Ann Arbor, Mich., who goes by the online handle hotpockets999, first learned how to break dance from YouTube and then started to create his own videos after he felt confident enough to show off his moves. His first tutorial shows viewers how to do the windmill. The seven-minute video was taped in a high school classroom and took him nearly 30 hours to make. It has been viewed almost 14,000 times since he posted it a month ago.

Having watched more than 20 different YouTube videos to master the windmill, Liu knew which tips to highlight and which ones were missing entirely, like twisting one’s hip when coming out of the rotation. Liu says that about half of his video traffic is from people ages 13 to 17, based on demographic reports available to video creators on YouTube.

“It’s really hard to find this kind of stuff unless you buy it, and some people, they just want to do something and not have to pay for it,” said Will. “I haven’t gone out to find people because I don’t really have time, and that’s another reason why YouTube is really cool.”

Some parents say they approve of this method for picking up new skills but are treading cautiously before embracing their children’s new hobbies. Christian’s parents, Wendy and Richard Realmuto, were happy when he stopped playing Guitar Hero, a popular video game that simulates a rock band, and started learning the real thing. But playing guitar is a third priority, after school and the flute.

Grace Lee, Solomon’s mother, echoes those thoughts.

“I just want him to enjoy something he likes, but I try to create a balance between what he likes and what I think he needs,” she says of her son.

That teens are drawn in by the ability to log on anytime and learn at their own pace comes as no surprise to Dr. Paul Foxman, director and founder of the Center for Anxiety Disorders in Burlington, Vt., and the author of the book “The Worried Child.”

“I think most teenagers consider school to be stressful, it’s a lot of pressure, you know, academically and socially, so if you’re doing something on your own you’ve eliminated two big sources of stress,” said Foxman, who added that learning skills independently can have a positive effect on self esteem.

There are limitations to getting two-dimensional instruction. Corey Burke, 29, also known as myquicktricks and Cowan’s favorite magic teacher on YouTube, says that it is difficult to get the sense of presentation across when you are unable to see how the student is applying the lesson. In the future, he is thinking of offering video streaming tutorials using webcams so that the student-teacher connection can be more interactive.

Though he is picking up guitar with ease, Christian says he would not want to learn flute online. Nuances like learning how to breathe correctly to get a better tone is much easier to learn from a person standing in front of you. Christian watched a couple of “how to play the flute” clips, curious for some free pointers.

“I looked at one to see how it would be,” said Christian. “But at the end of the video they said ‘go to your local music shop to get a teacher to show you how to do it.’”

E-mail: yak2106@columbia.edu