In the era of influencers, every kid has that one content creator that they go to every time they feel sad, depressed, angry or anxious. The one person’s videos make fans forget about the worries of life.
A lot of creators I follow fit that bill. I watch their videos as I fall asleep or when work stresses me out and I just need a break.
After a long time, you could start to form an emotional attachment to the influencer. They have been with you during your worst and best times, by your side no matter what — like a best friend.
But that bond is a one-way street, and the affection is unrequited. It’s a phenomenon known as parasocial relationships, which form when a viewer doesn’t understand the gap between themselves and the person on the other side of the screen. And that gap is becoming razor thin in the age of social media. For some fans, the creator is a friend they can hang out with despite never meeting them.
This feeling can fester into an unhealthy obsession. Female creators like Pokimane have it especially bad. Some male viewers have an impression that a parasocial relationship is more than just a friendship — it’s somehow romantic. They have gone so far as to get mad at Pokimane when she refused to say whether she had a boyfriend or not. To these fans, the thought that she could be with someone other than themselves was infuriating.
Despite so many horrible effects of parasocial relationships, several social media websites promote them to drive up engagement. Most popular YouTubers and Twitch streamers try to act “real” and down-to-earth to get more views and followers. They aim to make the viewer feel like a part of the video.
This is most apparent in reaction videos, where a creator will provide live reactions to some other video. The creator actively draws the viewer in, often looking straight at the camera and talking directly to the audience. With every audible gasp and exclamation, creators act as if their viewers are right alongside them.
This point isn’t meant to blame creators. It seems natural to make content this way. and the big view counts sure help. A lot of them mean no ill will when doing this, and these actions are harmless in a vacuum. But that also doesn’t stop horrible people from using parasocial relationships to their advantage.
One of the most nefarious parts of parasocial relationships is that creators use them to hide their true identities. Look no further than the Minecraft YouTube community.
Formed around the lighthearted, kid-friendly video game, the Minecraft community online has been susceptible to grooming, manipulation and abuse. Creators like LionMaker have used their underage fans’ adoration and trust to make sexual advances on them, and others like SkyDoesMinecraft and Tobuscus have covered up their abusive personal lives with their kid-friendly social media personality.
Popular creators like Mini Ladd, CallMeCarson, David Dobrik and James Charles have also been accused of sexual assault, grooming or abuse.
The internet can be a terrifying place for kids to roam, and the allure of friendship-like bonds on YouTube can be a trap for the unattentive. While there are thousands of amazing creators looking to make the world a happier place, a few bad apples can spoil the bunch.
Maybe it’s the human need for a sense of belonging that attracts us to these creators. We crave feeling included, and YouTube gives fans exactly that.
But this doesn’t mean we should ban children from watching funny videos on the internet. A lot of my growth during childhood came from watching YouTube, and it acted as an escape from my teenage struggles. But I do believe that we are meddling with technology and social trends that we don’t fully understand yet.
The sad truth about social media is that we are trying to figure out its negative side effects while mindlessly consuming its content. We navigate uncharted territory fully knowing that apps like Instagram and Facebook are destroying our confidence and increasing anxiety among teenagers.
While these lands should still be explored, we need to tread carefully. If we don’t, we’ll fall victim to the very things we created.