by GUEST COLUMNIST JUSTIN ROBERTI
Are you worried about the health or livelihoods of you and your loved ones? You are not alone. The CDC takes your stress seriously enough during the pandemic that they have published signs and guidelines for detecting and handling stress and anxiety. The CDC suggests to manage your own stress you consider taking the following steps:
- Know the facts on COVID-19. Know the symptoms of the virus and contact a health professional before doing any self-treatment.
- Identify where you can get treatment and other support services like therapy — including teletherapeutic services if necessary.
- Take care of your emotional health so you can better handle the need to protect you and your family.
- Take breaks from the news — it can be upsetting.
- Take care of your body — eat healthy, get regular exercise, get plenty of sleep, and avoid alcohol and drug use.
- Take time to unwind. Take time to do things you enjoy (like writing articles, I find.)
- Take time to connect with others — friends, family, and roommates are all an important part of your COVID-19 routine if you want to keep any semblance of normalcy.
- Connect with the community through religious and support organizations. I suppose Zoom meetings for services and support groups are a thing?
Battling Socially-Distanced Ennui
Stella, the Golden Wonder
We can attest personally attest that the best panacea for COVID-19 blues is a Golden Retriever, nature’s happiest dog. Stella also helps ensure we walk to the park a few times each day, so bonus points for exercise.
But for those not fortunate enough to have a goldie dog, loneliness has been a major concern, to the point where it was called out separately as a major potential health risk accompanying the pandemic in a study conducted by Florida State University College of Medicine.
Surprisingly, the study found people are more resilient than expected.
A new study published by American Psychologist has found that the social distancing and quarantine conditions that have come along with the COVID-19 pandemic has actually not led to an increase in loneliness.
The nationwide study by Florida State University College of Medicine, researchers surveyed more than 2,000 people before and during stay-at-home orders.
“There has been a lot of worry that loneliness would increase dramatically because of the social distancing guidelines and restrictions,” lead author and assistant professor at the College of Medicine Martina Luchetti said in a press release. “…We found that overall loneliness did not increase. Instead, people felt more supported by others than before the pandemic.”
“Even while physically isolated, the feeling of increased social support and of being in this together may help limit increases in loneliness,” Luchetti said.
But where are people finding this support, entertainment, and human contact? For people already working from home, making real connections with co-workers can be tricky and not always advantageous, friends and families are not always local and traveling is generally not advisable.
Well, people are dealing in a number of ways, but it seems that when not on video calls, viewers are turning to YouTube.
A March 2020 survey published on Statista showed that 64% of respondents expected to use YouTube more and 39.4% expected to use it much more frequently while social distancing.
There has of course been a huge spike in YouTube viewership, with one study showing nearly double the time spent viewing in the first week of April 2020 vs. 2019. But the increase in what has been viewed on YouTube have changed over time:
- In April there was a 75% spike in “Authoritative News” viewership
- In May, there was an increase in “how-to” videos for mundane tasks reported by USA Today
- June brought an increase in Twitch and YouTube Gaming Streamers
These seem like the standard stages of Grief adapted for the internet world — a little bit of denial and anger as we seek some answers, then gloomy acceptance as we take the time to finally fix the toilet that runs, then Depression and Acceptance — bring on the video games.
The Power of Parasocial Relationships
What all of these forms of content have it common is people — the people watching and the YouTubers presenting the content. And in a world battling loneliness and real anxieties, what does that say about our parasocial relationships? We can say from our own experience that there are YouTubers whose voices we hear every day — which is more than anyone who doesn’t actually share a home with us.
One YouTuber, Zachary Morris, Chief Creative Officer and on-air presenter of horror channel and production company CZsWorld, is among my personal subscribes and took the time to answer some questions regarding the nature of parasocial relationships with fans.
“Definitely, I feel that over the last couple years I’ve really turned to my channel into a community. I always try to spend some time every week interacting with people on an individual level on social media, in video comments, and in those community posts. I also think that just being a creator for a few years now has opened the door to more interaction and sense of community. With each video we’ve got more inside jokes and material to look back on or connect over,” Morris said.
I asked Morris if there was a negative side to those parasocial relationships but from his POV it is all positive, at least in the horror genre.
“I think the horror community as a whole is mostly very positive. Maybe it has something to do with us already being a genre that’s oppressed by mainstream culture (awards shows, media platforms, news outlets), so we kind of know that we don’t need to tear each other apart.” “There are a couple of exceptions that come to mind, like people making threats over my defending of a The Nun advertisement jump scare or people taking issue with dark humor, but not representative of my viewer base as a whole.”
If people are stuck in their homes and watching YouTube more than before, it seems inevitable that viewers will form an emotional bond to the presenter — or a parasocial relationship. I asked Morris — otherwise known as “HotTopic Shaggy-Doo” and any number of other monickers he uses in his videos — if he feels he is authentically himself when he does his videos.
“I think my character on screen, like many creators, is a magnified version of myself. So it’s still authentic to the real me, but Zac times 2 or Zac times 3.”
“As far as censorship, if we’re talking about gore and profanity, I don’t think any of my fans would really be bothered by that stuff. The reason it’s censored in the videos is that YouTube is very strict about what kind of content they allow creators to make money on, and they make it very difficult for horror creators because any kind of violence, gore or profanity — basically just anything interesting — gets my advertisers taken away. That said, I think a lot of the best horror movies rely on psychological horror and suspense, so it’s not the end of the world for me to have to leave that stuff out,” Morris said.
Zach’s responses (beyond being the only creator I wrote who actually answered the questions) fulfilled most of my hopes about the creators i follow and how I like to think of the parasocial relationship dynamic — positive and sincere on all sides, lucrative for the creator and fulfilling for the viewer who gets a deeper experience by “getting to know” the creator.
Parasocial Relationship Blues
I also spoke with UK Council of Psychotherapy representative, Tamara Sears, Psychotherapist & Counsellor comments. Her take on these relationships is — less positive.
“In the absence of a fulfilling and emotionally intimate relationship, an attachment to a social media influencer or celebrity can fill the gap. Such a relationship may provide a degree of comfort by softening any feelings of isolation, however, they can also exacerbate it because there are limits to how emotionally fulfilling an influencer can be. An influencer or celebrity can never replace, over a longer-term, the feelings of being heard, understood, and cared for that being in a close intimate personal relationship can provide.”
“Resentments can build-up towards an influencer who is unable to fulfill such needs. It is not uncommon for people whose needs are not being met to blame themselves because they believe themselves to be unlovable or not worthy of being loved. So instead of addressing the loneliness and isolation that social media might initially have comforted, it is compounded as they are left alone with their unmet needs. It’s important to remember that the agenda of an influencer is business orientated. An influencer is there to attend to an influencer’s needs, not the needs of someone else.”
I’m not likely to change my YouTube viewing habits any time soon and as COVID-19 continues to spread in the US and worldwide, it’s unlikely viewers will turn off YouTube to seek the community groups that the CDC suggests. But Tamara Sears’ comment at the end if a kind of “caveat emptor” for the viewer — there are YouTubes (like Zac) who enjoy their community and are sharing what they love. There are YouTubers who are using the parasocial bond to further their own ends (such as Amanda Palmer who I discussed in my recent article). As self-care becomes a daily reality and duty for all of us, it is a responsibility of all content consumers to judiciously choose what you choose to consume and how much you buy into that relationship. YouTube is vast and growing, and truly a marvel to those of us old enough to remember looking for funny and informative videos on the Web before YouTube existed. But as with all things, caveat emptor to the consumer.
Justin Roberti has a background in media and fine arts and has been writing and doing PR/marketing for over 20 years for Fortune 500 and startups in media, gaming, consumer tech, mobile tech, fintech, and blockchain. He is the PR Director for blockchain agency Zage.io.