A new study suggests YouTube is not good for the brain. 

According to research by the Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention (AISRAP), frequent YouTube users have higher levels of loneliness, anxiety, and depression. 

Lead author of the study, Dr Luke Balcombe, and Emeritus Professor Diego De Leo from Griffith University’s School of Applied Psychology and AISRAP found that those most negatively affected were individuals under 29 years of age or who watched content about other people’s lives regularly.

The study examined the positive and negative effects of YouTube on mental health.

 The development of parasocial relationships between content creators and followers was identified as a potential cause for concern, however, some neutral or positive instances of creators developing closer relationships with their followers also occurred. 

Dr Balcombe noted that these online “relationships” can fill a gap for people who have social anxiety, but it can exacerbate their issues when they don’t engage in face-to-face interactions, which are especially important in developmental years.

To combat loneliness and promote positive mental health, Dr Balcombe recommends that individuals limit their time on YouTube and seek out other forms of social interaction. 

The study classed over two hours per day of YouTube consumption as high frequency use and over five hours a day as saturated use. 

Dr Balcombe noted that parents often struggle to monitor their children’s use of the platform for educational or other purposes.

The study also highlighted the need for more to be done to prevent suicide-related content from being recommended to users based on algorithms for suggested viewing. 

While people ideally shouldn’t be able to search for these topics and be exposed to methods, the YouTube algorithm can push recommendations or suggestions based on previous searches, which can send users further down a disturbing “rabbit hole”.

Dr Balcombe notes that with vulnerable children and adolescents who engage in high frequency use, there could be value in monitoring and intervention through artificial intelligence. 

He proposes a concept for an independent-of-YouTube algorithmic recommendation system that will steer users toward verified positive mental health content or promotions.

“Digital mental health interventions could be a very promising solution to support increasing unmet mental health needs,” Dr Balcombe says.

The study highlights the gap for verified mental health or suicide tools based on a mix of AI-based machine learning, risk modelling and suitably qualified human decisions. 

With over 10,000 mental health apps currently available, it can be overwhelming to know which ones to recommend from a practitioner point of view.

The full study is accessible here.