A new study published in Scientific Reports looked at parasocial relationships on YouTube and how they reduce prejudice towards mental health issues.

“Prejudice is a big issue among society and it’s been well established that contact between different groups of people is an effect way to help reduce that prejudice,” study author Shaaba Lotun told us. “We also know that parasocial relationships exist, which are one-sided connections people form with other beings around them that can’t necessarily interact back, such as fictional book characters, TV presenters, and more recently, the social media creators that people regularly watch on sites such as YouTube.”

Lotun told us the researchers wanted to develop the knowledge of whether this one-sided ‘contact’ could also help in reducing prejudice levels in people who watch creators on YouTube talk about their lives and stories.

“Over 500 hours of video footage is uploaded onto YouTube every single minute,” Lotun told us. “If some of this footage could help prosocial efforts among its viewers, that could have a significant impact.”

The field of parasocial relationship research is still quite new, so a lot of the hypotheses made in this study (and related studies) have been directionally open. After finding that people view their parasocial relationships as an effective way to regulate emotions, and following previous work on ‘parasocial contact theory’, the researchers hoped that they could find some form of prejudice reduction that would have a lasting effect.

“Prejudice can exist and manifest in many different ways however, and previous research suggests that our explicit or outward prejudice (how we treat people, and the conversations we have with others) is more easily changed than our implicit or inward prejudice (the true values we hold internally),” Lotun told us. “We thought we’d affect explicit prejudice levels more than implicit prejudice levels, which research has highglihted can be difficult to change.”

Being LGBT+, Lotun has seen many creators on YouTube share their personal journeys online, sometimes to huge audiences. Lotun has often wondered if there was use to this beyond entertainment and finding community.

“The reality is we can learn so much from the storytelling of other people, and technology provides a stage from us to hear the stories of people from every corner of the world,” Lotun told us. “That means connecting with an LGBT+ person, even if you’re from a very small conversative town. Or hearing the story of a person of colour even if your local community is predominantly white. I wanted to explore the potential benefits of this storytelling further.”

Three groups of participants watched different sets of videos. Some people watched a general ‘get to know you’ video of a creator, and then watched a separate video of them talking about their experience with borderline personality disorder. Another group just watched the BPD video, and another group didn’t watch the BPD video as a control. The research team measured participants’ prejudice levels before and after watching these videos, and once more after a couple of weeks.

“We found that participants who watched the BPD video experienced a reduction in explicit prejudice and intergroup anxiety, and there were signs that this reduction in prejudice remained even after a couple of weeks after the study,” Lotun told us. “Some of the participants had even gone on to undertake further actions that supported mental health initiatives, such as fundraising efforts and having positive conversations with their community to help raise awareness and understanding.”

The researchers were pleased to see prejudice and intergroup anxiety reduction as a result of watching the experiment video and hope the results encourage further research that explore whether parasocial relationships are an effective way to reduce prejudice.

“I think these results help to highlight the potential and the promise of parasocial relationships, and how they could help with storytelling and prosocial impact in a widescale way,” Lotun told us. “I like to think that creators choosing to share their experiences can do good, and these results support this. It’s also important to note that whilst we were looking at prosocial change through this media, it’s very possible that antisocial messages that may increase prejudice can unfortunately be communicated in the same way. It would be interesting to see more research comparing this too.”

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