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Do People Use YouTubers to Replace Real Relationships?

New research clarifies the drivers of YouTube overuse.

"Look in my eyes, what do you see?
The cult of personality
I know your anger, I know your dreams
I've been everything you want to be
I'm the cult of personality
Like Mussolini and Kennedy
I'm the cult of personality"

—In Living Color, "The Cult of Personality"

Addiction to personality porn?

Are one-sided, simulated relationships replacing real relationships, compensation for something not fully realized? More and more people seem to be replacing relationships with real intimate others with interactions on social media. Is this necessarily a bad trend, or is it perhaps superior to dealing with messy, potentially risky, traditional human relations?

Andi Graf, Creative Commons CC0, Wikimedia
Source: Andi Graf, Creative Commons CC0, Wikimedia

Video-intensive platforms present us with a massively diverse array of YouTubers, officially called “Creators.” (Religious overtones, anyone?) It's hard to tell fact from fiction, so real and engaging are these simulators of human experience for one able to become immersed in the fantasies they conjure up.

The trend is toward greater self-disclosure, and highly personal revelations are powerful in creating a sense of real connection with virtual partners. Similar to robotic partners, substitutive relationships with pseudo-personalities meet attachment needs while potentially rewarding insecure attachments. For dismissive attachment style, not needing actual people works great, and for anxious attachment, knowing that what you want is going to be there 24/7 is a huge relief.

Given that there are over 5 billion YouTube videos up and watched daily, with 50 million content developers and an average session length of 40 minutes, understanding how YouTube works psychologically, for better or for worse, is a smart move.

Neuroscience of Social Media

The neuroscience of social media is still in its infancy. Research has shown, for example, that image-based social media blunts feelings of loneliness and isolation. In addition, different social media platforms can meet different needs. Research suggests that Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter serve overlapping, but different, social and emotional functions, with the primary psychological factors being: 1) comparison with other people, 2) feelings of trust and bonding, and 3) finding groups with attitudes and interests aligned with one's own.

More narcissistic people on average post more photos of themselves, put more out on social media, and are self-promotional with a tendency to portray themselves grandly rather than exhibit true leadership. While hard science on how social media affects the brain is limited, early neuroimaging work suggests that too much social media (Excessive Social Media Use, or ESMU) is associated with damaged connections between the right and left hemispheres of the brain, as seen in the main tract between them, the corpus callosum.

It makes sense to hypothesize that people who are disconnected from flesh-and-blood others would find many emotional and biological needs being met by videos that are designed to draw people in, which address individualized topics resonant with viewers’ particular emotional needs and personal struggles, and which deliver new content on a daily basis, avoiding boredom and repetition. They present a manicured version of a relationship, free from many of the emotional risks of real relationships.

Simtimacy — Simulated Intimacy

When using very personal videos, many of which provide guidance, closeness, and warmth (ASMR is an especially good example, with auditory stimulation and intensely personal presence), do people who experience a deep sense of connection have elevated levels of reward activity in the brain, a stronger so-called “dopamine hit,” or changes in attachment biology, reflected in oxytocin (the "bonding hormone"). It would be surprising because oxytocin is implicated in social anxiety genetics and possibly therapeutics.

While such hypothetical changes could meet immediate needs, paralleling the argument with pornography, they may undermine the capacity to approach real people, with our messy, unpredictable relationships. At best, online relations can supplement emotional and psychological needs, even help people, as well-made coaching and educational videos and computerized psychotherapy show. On the flip side, overuse of online connection becomes a kind of “personality porn,” replacing healthy relationships, re-enforcing dysfunctional relationships, and causing detrimental psychobiological changes.

All of these qualities are close to what a real, two-way relationship might offer. Arguably, for many people, asymmetrical relationships with YouTubers can be a huge saving grace, therapeutic, and potentially an emotionally and physically safer alternative than actual human beings. People might, for example, perpetrate abuse or otherwise take advantage of someone vulnerable, whereas this apparently isn't a risk with YouTubers. Simulated relationships with online personalities, especially when addictive, can forestall growth and development, replacing true intimacy and connection—the unpredictable, ineffable experience of taking emotional risks to get close to others with something ultimately unnatural and growth-preventing.

New Research on YouTube Addiction

A recent study digs into how and why people use YouTube to replace relationships with other people. Researchers de Béraila, Guillon, and Bungenera from the Psychology Institute of the Université Paris Descartes-Sorbonne Paris Cité, in Paris, France, argue that YouTube is addictive, following an internet addiction model, providing at-risk users with “parasocial” relationships that supplant real relationships—while feeling totally authentic, maybe even more real than real (hyperreality)—doing more harm than good.

Defining parasocial relationships, they write:

“YouTubers can be described as publicly overexposed active users who share their personal information and personal interests through video content with the rest of the users, the viewers, who remain mostly anonymous. YouTubers engage in self-presentation and, to a certain extent, in self-disclosure in order to build and maintain relationships with their viewers. However, these relationships between viewers and YouTubers are not classical social relationships as they are not reciprocal. They can be compared to relationships with traditional television (TV) characters.”

YouTube, they note, is not full-on social networking. Rather than fostering connections among users, YouTube focuses on passively viewed content. Interactions with content-generators—Creators, like YouTube smartly and dramatically markets—and other users are very limited, mainly trolling, cheerleading, and discussion comment threads about loved and/or hated videos. De Béraila and colleagues review prior work on YouTube, making the point that YouTube’s popularity goes along with increased addictive behaviors by providing high levels of reward to viewers.

Using a cognitive-behavioral perspective, the authors designed a study to look at key determinants of YouTube addiction, a laudable and timely “first step for designing effective prevention and intervention targeting YouTube addiction.” Focusing on the non-biological aspects of addiction, they borrow from the Internet addiction literature to study YouTube use, noting there are “distal” and “proximal” factors that influence thinking, decision-making, and behavior. Distal causes include already having a problem before even using YouTube, such as suffering from social anxiety, which can be severe enough to constitute a clinical condition associated with mental torment, painful social interactions, avoidance of social interactions, and significant dysfunction. The “proximal” causes include the user experience, what it feels like, and how it rewards behavior—the behavior, in this case, is watching more “parasocial” videos.

Their study was conducted via an online survey, polling users of Facebook and Reddit groups about their YouTube use to identify the groups most likely to also watch a lot of YouTube. The research team contacted over a thousand online groups, covering a range of related interests, ending up with complete responses from a total of 932 respondents. Measurement tools included the Internet Addiction Test, modified to reference YouTube only; the widely accepted Liebowitz Social Anxiety Scale; the Parasocial Interaction Scale, originally used to look at TV viewing of news personalities; attachment style using the Relationship Questionnaire, which asks participants to identify from among four vignettes which attachment style best matches their own; and measures of social isolation including the UCLA Loneliness Scale, the Multidimensional Scale of Perceived Support, and behavioral estimates of whether people are living at home or not, are in a relationship or not, or meet with friends regularly or not—along with demographic measures like age, ethnicity, educational, and socioeconomic background, and YouTube use.

Nearly two-thirds of the respondents were women, with an average age of a little bit over 21 years old. Nearly 51 percent reported watching YouTube videos at least 4 hours in the prior week, with less than 20 percent watching less than an hour. According to the addiction rating scale, 17.7 percent had at least a mild YouTube addiction, and 1 percent had a more severe use problem.

Social anxiety and parasocial relationships use was strongly correlated with YouTube addiction. Parasocial relationships themselves were correlated with greater social anxiety, anxious and avoidant attachment, and loneliness, supporting the idea that people may make up for what is lacking in other areas with YouTube use, placing them at risk for addictive behaviors. Statistical analysis showed that social anxiety not only is associated with but also predicts parasocial relationships, a potentially causal relationship. Subtle and important, they also found a “moderation effect” for social anxiety on both parasocial relationships and YouTube addiction—greater and greater levels of social anxiety deepened the need for parasocial relationships, significantly increasing the risk of addiction.

Buyer Beware

People with social anxiety disorder are at greater risk of engaging in lopsided relationships with personality-rich YouTube Creators in lieu of pursuing potentially more fulfilling and balanced relationships with real people in real life. While there is a lot of good stuff on YouTube, and a role to play for virtual parasocial relationships as a part of a broader, more complete social context, excessive YouTube parasocial activity can lead to destructive addictions. Social anxiety often makes it hard to get to social functions and makes it easy to avoid getting to know people and more difficult to steer clear of social and professional engagement, leading to reduced success and satisfaction. Social anxiety is often associated with negative self-image and self-talk, leading people with social anxiety to imagine that others are thinking terrible things about them, laughing at them when they are laughing about something completely unrelated, and judging them harshly when they probably aren’t thinking about them at all.

Because of these and other symptoms, parasocial relationships are appealing. You can curate the relationship experience. You pick people who are unrelentingly positive, edited in any sense of the word, who are giving messages you know won’t be troubling, and with whom you can identify and ultimately feel far safer than with people in real life, who can be unpredictable. While real relationships can feel too dangerous, parasocial relationships are safe—too safe. Especially if social anxiety is connected with developmental trauma, as it often is, in addition to the core symptoms of social anxiety, people with trauma often have difficulty telling who is a good match for them from people who may take advantage, or turn out to be very different from what they thought. This makes it harder than ever to develop in-the-flesh relationships that are safe—and not too safe.

Anything popular is going to be rewarding, with only a subset of people for most of them developing a mental illness, at least until the brain hackers and advertising psychologists get the special sauce just right so we are all hooked. But as almost 20 percent of people in this sample have a mild YouTube addiction and 1 percent a more severe problem, that means that potentially millions and millions of people are at risk and could respond to interventions to interrupt the connections, for example between social anxiety and parasocial relationships. While the grim specter of “cellphone zombies” has already arrived, as we walk around transfixed by our screens, oblivious to external reality, full augmented reality (AR) has not. AR could enhance, possibly transform, human experience without destroying it the way that digital addictions do, but caution is needed given how powerful these tools are. The genie can easily get out of the bottle.

Until we develop better technologies—understanding digital health risks and benefits—and only if we engineer healthy interdependence with technology, the risk of misuse and addiction will continue to worsen. Especially as big data and machine learning hack consumer behavior, we are going to lose more and more control over our own decisions, while maintaining an illusion of autonomy and agency. In principle, it is up to us whether we become healthy cyborgs, symbiotic with AI and biotechnological augments—or unresisting hosts to pernicious parasites.

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