YouTube, mental health, and parasocial relationships

For reasons I don’t quite understand, there is a part of myself that takes note every time I come across a story about the mental health cost of being a YouTube celebrity. I don’t understand fully why this particular topic fascinates me so because I don’t even know who are the most popular YouTubers even are. While I do have a small set of subscriptions on YouTube, they tend to be of explainers and not personalities.

And yet I am persistently worried about the mental health of the YouTube celebrity.

If you don’t quite understand what YouTube can do to someone’s mental health, I recommend this episode of Reply All called #125 All My Pets.

Taylor Nicole Dean was a self-described shut-in, a teenager who lived in her parents’ home, surrounded by exotic pets. And then she started making videos on YouTube.

Reply All, #125 All My Pets

All My Pets is an extraordinary episode because the story is largely straight exposition. Reporter Sruthi Pinnamaneni didn’t have to infer what changes can happen to a young person who suddenly has an audience of millions – she had the good instincts and luck to capture that transition and she lets the story speak for itself.

My daughter follows several YouTube channels, which are mostly let’s plays of Minecraft and Roblox. To respect her privacy, I won’t name them – but I can tell you that the creator of one channel has been known to take breaks from producing their channel for their mental health and has even taken time off producing their channel so that they could directly help/support another YouTuber going through a mental health crisis.

I’m only going to address mental stresses for YouTube creators in broad strokes because I’m more personally interested in the mental health of the audience than the creators of YouTube channels, but I believe that if you have watched your share of YouTube channels, you will hear YouTubers allude to some of these problems.

The most prevalent problem I have heard from my self-aware and self-reflecting YouTubers have mentioned, is the constant struggle balancing producing content that is good – that being, material that is experimental and interesting to the creator – with producing content that is familiar, well-trod, and already known to be popular. I have a feeling that if I was more well-versed with YouTube I would know the name of this particular genre of video.

One example of the ‘I am struggling with quality vs quantity vs having a life’ (beginning and then at 6 minute mark)

Another example I can personally draw from is from the Cool Ghosts channel, which one could call a video-game based spin-off from good people who make the Sit Down and Shut Up board game channel, except that the creators wanted to make something much more experimental.

“Not an apologies video”

Cool Ghosts moved from being a recognizable video game review channel (although one in which every game was described as ‘the best game ever’) to one that took the format of a TV show from Hell. During one such episode, they reviewed the game, Passpartout: The Starving Artist, which provides another perspective on the challenges of making art for work and the danger of growing a contempt for your audience.

“The intersection of creativity and work”

Matt Les, of Cool Ghosts is profiled by this Guardian article that I highly recommend: The YouTube stars heading for burnout: ‘The most fun job imaginable became deeply bleak’ :

Algorithm-led content curation makes creators feel disposable, challenging them to churn out videos in the knowledge that there are younger, fresher people waiting in the wings to replace them. For YouTubers who use their daily lives as raw material for their videos, there is added pressure, as the traditional barriers between personal and professional life are irreparably eroded.

At a recent party at a conference for YouTubers and streamers, Hourigan was standing with a group of YouTubers when he quipped: “I think every YouTube career should come with a coupon for a free therapist.” Everybody laughed, he recalls, but “in a sad way”.

“By the way,” he adds, “I’m medicated and have a therapist.”

The YouTube stars heading for burnout: ‘The most fun job imaginable became deeply bleak’ :

My favourite advice for YouTubers suffering from existential angst of being so close to their creations, comes from Hank Green who tells YouTubers to diversify your identity:

Find ways to value yourself outside of the metrics of social media. That might be how you feel about your creations. It might be a small community of talented people that you respect and are part of. It might be classmates or colleagues. And, if at all possible, invest in your identity as part of your communities and families. Value your life as a sibling, a child, a parent, and/or a spouse. Value your life as a member of your town or city or neighborhood. Value yourself outside of your creations.

Searching for meaning in attention and influence is excellent fuel for ambition, but life is long and this is not the only job you will ever have. It is not the only reason you matter and it is not the only gift you bring to the world.

How am I Not Burned Out? by Hank Green, Sep 8, 2018
More advice, told with humour and humility

This post was inspired by this video that I watched a couple of days ago called Dream Daddies and Fearful Fathers: How Indies Can Cope with Being Terminally Online by Leighton Gray following the advice to watch from this tweet by Andy Baio:

I also strenuously recommend this video because Leighton Gray not only draws on her own mental health breakdown related to her creative work – which one could surmise was partially brought on from the extraordinary expectations that was placed on her by fans and by herself – she also shares what she has learned by looking at the systematic problems of social media that are borne by creators and audience members, alike.

It was because of Gray’s video that I learned of the concept of parasocial relationships:

Parasocial interaction (PSI) is a term coined by Horton and Wohl in 1956 to refer to a kind of psychological relationship experienced by an audience in their mediated encounters with performers in the mass media, particularly on television. Viewers or listeners come to feel and consider media personalities almost as friends.[1] PSI is described as an illusionary experience, such that media audiences interact with personas (e.g., talk show host, celebrities, characters, social media influencers) as if they are engaged in a reciprocal relationship with them.

Parasocial interaction From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

If you consider ‘production values’, ‘good editing’ and ‘tight and meaningful stories’, as important, you might have a hard time understanding the popularity of so many, many YouTube channels. You might be flummoxed why the kids love watching other people play video games. What I have come to understand is that for many channels, the audience experience is not to consume content but to hang out with someone cool or someone like them:

Garcia and Cassell both like to compare their channels to a neighborhood pub. Streamers become favorite bartenders, charming and constantly available. Viewers, swapping messages in chat, become fellow-regulars. There might be the occasional bar fight—Twitch can be as noxious as anywhere else on the Internet—but the tone is typically convivial. Viewers generate inside jokes, ask for life advice, even discuss their experiences of grief or depression. (They also pair off, as two of Cassell’s moderators did.) “There are two ways to look at Twitch,” Cassell told me. “One is that it’s people playing video games and other people watching, which is what ninety-nine per cent of the world sees. But the other side of Twitch is that you are playing a game with someone on the couch. There’s a level of interaction that’s just not there in standard media.”

How to Get Rich Playing Video Games Online: For the stars of the streaming service Twitch, success means working around the clock” By Taylor Clark, The New Yorker, November 13, 2017

Leighton Gray shares a reading and playlist (called The internet is bad actually) that supports the points that she makes in her talk and that I’m currently working my way through this list. On the topic of parasocial interactions, she recommends the following:

This video is two hours, too long but there are some extraordinary moments in here

What I am now looking for is a video or essay on the complicated and sometimes fraught nature of the parasocial relationship between the YouTuber and their audience that’s appropriate for a pre-teen, namely for my kids.

In the meantime, I try to keep up with who they are watching and I sometimes watch videos with them. When I do so, I give them commentary. I tell them what I like (“I like that this YouTuber protects her privacy by giving herself a fake name”) and dislike (“I don’t like prank videos because they are usually cruel and have a tendency to escalate”), as well as establish some firmer boundaries about what they are allowed to watch (at least in my presence).

I am also trying to be more mindful in my own viewing habits. I’ve largely stopped watching my favourite game streamer, for one. I also take note when the creators I follow are self-reflective enough to know their influence and applaud them when they step away from using their influence, even when they stop making the kind of YouTube video that I love the most: