The Psychological Dark Side of Sharing Your Daily Life on YouTube

“Last month, Charlie McDonnell was upfront with his fans. He was the first UK YouTuber to reach a million subscribers, and he has been uploading videos to the site since 2007. Then in March, he told his followers on Twitter: ‘I have, essentially, quit the YouTube thing.’ Part of his rationale was that it ‘Turns out that tying up your perceived worth with your level of success on a website is a Very Bad Idea.’ He is one of many who have created a living for themselves on the world’s most popular video-sharing website, and built up an audience from its 1.9 billion monthly users, only to find that the gilded cage they have built themselves is just that: a cage. Take also Gabbie Hanna, a US YouTuber who migrated to the site when the app she made her name on, Vine, closed in early 2017. She now has 6.5 million subscribers who lap up her every word. As she sat on stage in front of several hundred fans this February at VidCon, a conference on online video, she too, shared her feelings. YouTube had ‘poisoned’ her mental health, and, like McDonnell, she now equated her self-worth with the number of views each of her videos received. YouTube’s biggest names are now established celebrities, as recognizable to young audiences as mainstream celebrities. But they also came to fame younger than most, and are pressured by their viewers to continue posting–and to keep being the same person that first made their fans fall in love with them. ‘People are expressing their emotional concerns and fears to YouTubers as if they know them,’ says Leslie Rasmussen at Xavier University in Ohio. ‘The reality is they don’t, and what they do know about the YouTuber is very different to what the YouTuber will ever know about them.’ This one-sided relationship, often between an adoring audience and a celebrity, is known as a para-social relationship. These relationships have been studied for more than 60 years, but they have never been felt as intensely as they are now. Now the relationship has evolved: viewers don’t just let celebrities into their living rooms, they are on their phones, in their bedrooms and bathrooms. They are appearing across social media, entwined into the same news feeds as their real friends. The other fear is that closeness turns to unhealthy obsession. Christina Grimmie was a YouTuber with nearly 1 million subscribers when she appeared at a ‘meet-and-greet’ at an Orlando theatre in June 2016. Such events are a way for fans to meet their favorite YouTube stars and grab a selfie and stilted conversation with their idols. More than 250 people turned out to see Grimmie, including her killer, Kevin James Loibl, who brought two handguns and a hunting knife with him. Loibl shot Grimmie dead, then turned a gun on himself. He had spent months watching her videos, and wanted to become a famous YouTuber himself so he could gain Grimmie’s attention. Loibl’s only friend said that he watched ‘all her YouTube videos, how she interacted with fans, and how she interacted in general.’ That friend also said Loibl called Grimmie ‘his soulmate.’ … The research on its long-term impact is only now beginning, and when we get the answers, it could be too late to do anything. On YouTube, oversharing is the new norm–with all the tragic consequences that can ensue.”

“The Psychological Dark Side,” New Scientist, Apr. 24, 2019