Mental Health

People who use YouTube are often more lonely, study finds

A study found positive and negative effects to YouTube, but some of the negative effects could impact users' health.

A person uses the YouTube app.
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The world's most used streaming platform is hurting frequent users' mental health, a study shows.

Researchers from the Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention (AISRAP) found people who regularly watch YouTube have higher levels of loneliness, anxiety and depression. The most negatively affected are those under 29 years old — a vulnerable group that is difficult to protect, they noted.

YouTube has grown exponentially from its launch in 2005. It's now the second most popular search engine after Google, and with 2.6 billion users, it's the second most popular social network.

Although there are positive impacts, including people seeking mental health support on the platform, lead author Dr. Luke Balcombe and Dr. Diego De Leo, former AISRAP director and Griffith University emeritus professor, found certain behaviors complicate the platform's impact, like the development of parasocial relationships.

“These online 'relationships' can fill a gap for people who, for example, have social anxiety," Balcombe said. "However, it can exacerbate their issues when they don’t engage in face-to-face interactions, which are especially important in developmental years."

Silencing social media accounts for Mental Health Awareness Month
Silencing social media accounts for Mental Health Awareness Month

Silencing social media accounts for Mental Health Awareness Month

Getting away from the devices and spending time outside has been linked to improved mental health and stress relief, health officials say.

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The study determined this lack of deep human connection, especially in young people, may lead to residual illness.

Recently U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared loneliness and isolation as the nation's latest epidemic, saying it's as deadly as smoking. Plus, research on loneliness and social isolation has shown links to heart disease, dementia, mental illness and a weakened immune system.

To safeguard from worsening mental health effects, the study said YouTube needs to have a better system of detecting and filtering out potentially harmful content. 

The platform's algorithm can push suggestions based on previous searches. That means suicide-related content can be recommended to already vulnerable users, and it's almost impossible for the algorithm to stop all of the harmful content from passing through due to sheer volume.

"With vulnerable children and adolescents who engage in high frequency use, there could be value in monitoring and intervention through artificial intelligence," Balcombe said.

The study notes prevention and risk awareness are key in best protecting at-risk users, noting health practitioners and guardians need to be aware and ready to intervene in risky use. They propose possibly having independent-of—YouTube algorithms help in detecting these suggestion issues, as well as having professionals design a positive mental health advertising campaign.

"There is a gap for verified mental health or suicide tools based on a mix of AI-based 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," Balcombe said.