If you found yourself engaging more on Facebook or scrolling endlessly through TikTok during the COVID-19 shutdown, you’re not alone. For millions of people, social media platforms facilitated much-needed comfort and connection, allowing us to be together virtually while physically separated.
Shuo Niu, professor of computer science at Clark University, has spent the past year and a half studying how YouTubers have used video sharing to help their viewers combat feelings of isolation and loneliness.
“My research looks into how the nature of video sharing — the posting and watching of videos — affects people mentally and socially,” Niu says. “How does that type of social media serve as a platform to form new social activities?”
Niu and his team of student researchers examined several recent trends in online video sharing, including the #StayHome #WithMe movement on YouTube, autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) videos, and support videos for those working to overcome drug addiction. According to Niu, YouTube is the second most popular social media platform, with 73% of adults reporting they’ve visited the website. Unlike other platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, YouTube fosters parasocial relationships — one-sided intimate connections.
“It’s a different type of connection and you don’t really use it as a communication tool, but rather as an online place to find social and emotional connections to your favorite video creators,” Niu explains. “You want to follow those types of accounts to stay connected.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, YouTube began calling on creators to make videos to entertain and comfort socially distanced viewers. The campaign, which used the hashtags #StayHome #WithMe, attracted a wide variety of artists and creators, leading to a 600% increase in viewership, according to Niu.
“That caught our attention. It was a new phenomenon,” he recalls. “Traditionally, when you’re feeling lonely at home, you call your mom or your friends. But with YouTube, you can also connect to people who use their skills to help you stay mentally healthy. They’re making interesting content on YouTube, and by watching them, you have a sense of connection to the video creators.”
Niu’s research is grounded on Robert S. Weiss’s loneliness theory, which identified six social needs that, if unmet, contribute to feelings of loneliness. Those needs include attachment, social integration, nurturance, reassurance of worth, sense of reliable alliance, and guidance in stressful situations. Niu and his team analyzed 1,488 #StayHome #WithMe videos to examine video-sharing as a pathway to social support.
Their findings suggest that skill and knowledge-sharing, entertaining arts, homelife activities, live chatting, and gameplay were the most popular video styles. By sharing this content, YouTubers were able to provide friend-like, mentor-like, and family-like interactions, with gameplay providing the highest viewer engagement.
“We found that the #StayHome #WithMe videos are not like posts on other social media — video creators didn’t mention much COVID-19 information, which may help reduce the stressful feelings caused by the pandemic. YouTubers are trying to act like more of a friend figure to the viewer through a shared interest,” Niu says. “While they’re doing it, they are ‘facing’ the viewers and making them feel like they have somebody with them. This has the benefit of moderating loneliness.”
Videos in which the creator acted like a parent or sibling figure had a higher “like” rate, according to Niu. Based on their findings, Niu and his team can now make recommendations to hosting platforms like YouTube about how to best educate creators on the techniques that lead to increased attachment with viewers.
The research team, which included Ava Bartolome ’22, Cat Mai ’22, and Nguyen B. Ha ’21, published a paper on their study. Niu and Bartolome presented their research virtually last spring at the CHI 2021 conference.
Another video genre that has gained popularity in recent years is ASMR, which uses multi-sensorial stimuli to create a relaxing experience for the viewer. Niu and a team of students explored how creators in this community leveraged these stimuli to both calm their viewers and create parasocial relationships with them.
After studying 88 YouTube ASMR videos, they found that the genre fosters a sense of social connection and even physical intimacy. According to Niu, these results shed light on new ways to leverage ASMR to develop technologies that deliver relaxing and engaging experiences.
Bartolome, who, with Niu, co-authored papers on both the ASMR and #StayHome #WithMe studies, explains that each project followed a similar process of establishing a premise, gathering data, and crowdsourcing “to affirm the characterizations we make” from the data.
Through this work, Niu is also aiming to fill a knowledge gap related to drug addiction. By analyzing 166 videos, he and his team found that YouTubers use videos to discuss the risks, causes, and solutions of drug addiction by sharing personal experiences and professional recommendations.
Student researchers in this study included Mai, Katherine G. McKim ’21, and Danielle Hess ’24, who co-authored a paper on their findings with Niu.
Eventually, Niu hopes to use this research to help create affordable and accessible virtual resources for those working to overcome addiction.