Scientists discover surprising effects of excessive YouTube use on loneliness and mental health

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Researchers have found a link between frequent YouTube use and increased levels of loneliness, anxiety and depression, especially in users under the age of 29 who watch content about the lives of others. They are calling for limiting YouTube time, encouraging other forms of social interaction, and improving algorithmic systems to guide users to positive verified mental health content.

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Research conducted by the Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention (AISRAP) suggests that frequent YouTube users are more likely to experience greater levels of loneliness, anxiety and depression.

The survey was conducted by Dr Luke Balcombe and Professor Emeritus Diego De Leo of Griffith University’s School of Applied Psychology and AISRAP. They aimed to comprehensively explore both the beneficial and harmful effects of the world’s most popular streaming platform on the mental health of individuals.

They found that people most negatively affected were those under 29 or who regularly watched content about other people’s lives.

The lead author, Dr. Luke Balcombe, said that the development of parasocial relationships between content creators and followers could be a cause for concern, however, there have also been some neutral or positive cases of creators developing closer relationships with their followers.

These online relationships may fill a gap for people who, for example, suffer from social anxiety, however, they can exacerbate their issues when they don’t engage in face-to-face interactions, which are especially important in the developmental years, she said.

We advise people to limit their time on YouTube and seek out other forms of social interaction to combat loneliness and promote positive mental health.

Dr Balcombe said the amount of time spent on YouTube has often been a concern for parents, who have struggled to monitor their children’s use of the platform for educational or other purposes.

For the purposes of the study, more than two hours of YouTube use per day were classified as high-frequency use and more than five hours per day as saturated use.

The study also determined that more needs to be done to prevent suicide-related content from being recommended to viewers based on suggested viewing algorithms.

While ideally, people shouldn’t be able to search these topics and be exposed to methods, YouTube’s algorithm pushes recommendations or suggestions based on previous searches, which can send users further down a creepy rabbit hole.

Users can report this type of content, but sometimes it may not be reported, or it may sit there for a few days or weeks, and with the sheer volume of content flowing through, it’s nearly impossible for YouTube’s algorithms to stop it all.

If content is flagged as potentially containing suicidal or self-harm topics, YouTube then provides a warning and asks the user if they want to play the video.

With vulnerable children and adolescents engaging in high-frequency use, it could be useful to monitor and intervene through AI, said Dr. Balcombe.

We explored human-machine interaction issues and proposed a concept for a YouTube-independent algorithmic recommendation system that will direct users to verified positive mental health content or promotions.

YouTube is increasingly used for mental health purposes, primarily for researching or sharing information, and many digital mental health approaches are being tried to varying degrees of merit, but with over 10,000 mental health apps currently available, it can really be overwhelming to know which ones to use, or even which ones to recommend from a practitioner’s point of view.

There is a gap for verified mental health or suicide tools based on a mix of AI-powered tools[{» attribute=»»>machine learning, risk modeling, and suitably qualified human decisions, but by getting mental health and suicide experts together to verify information from AI, digital mental health interventions could be a very promising solution to support increasing unmet mental health needs.

Reference: The Impact of YouTube on Loneliness and Mental Health by Luke Balcombe and Diego De Leo, 20 April 2023, Informatics.
DOI: 10.3390/informatics10020039

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