Throughout the pandemic, streamers have helped millions of people cope with the challenges of social distancing. They provided much-needed comfort and distraction, and some of us even found supportive communities on platforms like Twitch. For streamers, however, it’s not always that easy. Although they seem funny, happy people who are living their best lives getting paid to play video games, streamers can silently struggle with their own mental health problems that don’t show on screen.
Streaming is a multi-billion-pound industry that will keep on growing in the following years, but its effects on mental health are grossly underestimated and under-researched. To a certain extent, streaming might seem like the last field to investigate because it looks like the perfect job: you’re sitting in your room, playing video games, talking to your followers, creating authentic content, expressing yourself, and building a community around your hobby.
When the news dropped in July 2020 that popular Twitch streamer Byron Daniel Bernstein, better known for his online alias Reckful, had committed suicide, everyone was shocked. In the past, Reckful had brought up mental health and his struggles with anxiety and depression, but his fans were nevertheless taken back by his sudden passing, especially considering that the streamer talked about developing a new game that gave him a sense of purpose. Ever since, streamers like David Nash, Pokimane, and Asmongold opened up about their own struggles with mental health and how the industry affects their wellbeing, revealing that the on-screen persona isn’t always representative of their true feelings.
Why can streaming take a heavy toll on mental health?
The conversation on video games, streaming, and mental health shouldn’t start from the premise that video games are bad. In fact, research has proven the contrary; that, in moderation, video games can help with anxiety and depression and become a healthy coping mechanism. At the same time, streaming can help with mental health because it allows you to socialise in ways you may not be able to otherwise. It can be a creative outlet, helping you overcome social anxiety and even build a community. But when live streaming turns into a full-time job, streamers get celebrity status. Being in the spotlight, combined with the particularities of a high-stakes Internet job, can take a heavy toll on mental health:
- “Always On” expectations
Unlike YouTubers and influencers, who publish content and then that content keeps generating revenue, streamers need to broadcast in order to get viewers. The more you stream, the higher the chances of growing your channel and attracting sponsors. Taking a break could equal losing viewers. When famous then-Twitch streamer Ninja took a two-day break in 2019, he lost 40,000 subscribers. Audiences also expect consistency, which makes streamers spend as much as 12 hours per day in front of the camera. At that point, a relaxing hobby risks becoming a burden, leading to stress and burnout. No matter how great a job might seem, you still need a healthy work-life balance, and if you’re afraid to take a day off to run errands because your subscriber count will drop, you are putting yourself under dangerous levels of pressure.
- You constantly have to outdo yourself.
The early stages of streaming are usually the most pleasant ones, but the more the community grows (and perhaps becomes an important source of revenue), the more streamers find themselves chasing numbers. Streamers will start comparing themselves to other people, hyper-analysing their views and subscriber counts. Making content is no longer a matter of being yourself. Rather, it becomes a constant struggle to outdo yourself, capitalise on Internet trends and please the digital crowds, which leads to burnout. In a 2018 video, Twitch streamer Lirik confessed that streaming is like “going on stage every day and not knowing what to say anymore because you are out of material”. Streamers can feel trapped in the kind of content they create but put on a persona and continue to create it because that’s what makes audiences happy. Thus, a project started out of passion can become a chore.
- Dealing with bullies, trolls, and negativity
Being a public Internet figure comes with a lot of scrutiny, bullying, trolling, and negativity. For streamers, things are more difficult than for social media influencers because they see comments in real-time, as they are streaming. On the one hand, this way of communicating has its perks because it allows for more genuine interactions, but there’s absolutely no filter. The brain has a tendency to dwell on the negatives, and, in time, Internet comments can affect your self-esteem and body image. Just about every streamer has seen negative or even downright scary remarks appear on the screen as they were playing a game and went on despite them. This problem is most pervasive among female streamers, who get a concerning number of sexual comments.
- The pressure of parasocial relationships
Even though they’ve never personally met them, it’s quite common for viewers to turn to streamers for mental health support and picture them as friends after watching so many hours of their content. In psychology, these are called parasocial relationships, and while they may be key to growing online communities, they can also be detrimental to streamers’ mental health. For example, some viewers may put pressure on streamers, demanding that they know more about their personal lives or becoming aggressive when they take a break from streaming or don’t upload the content they like. As streaming communities grow, parasocial relationships inevitably develop, and things can degenerate into stalking and harassment.
- Sedentary and unhealthy lifestyle
Quite often, professional streamers have to spend 8+ hours sitting at their desks, looking at a computer screen. While video games and computers, in general, aren’t damaging to one’s health in moderation, a sedentary lifestyle increases the risk of stress, anxiety, and depression. We should also point out that many streamers don’t have time to eat a proper meal between streaming sessions and rely on energy drinks to keep them going (energy drink brands are one of the primary sponsors in streaming and esports). All of these combined can make mental health problems worse.
Streaming can be a dream job, but it can also cause unhealthy levels of stress and anxiety that are often dismissed. Like any career choice, it has its risks, and it’s important for streamers to prioritise self-care and reach a balance between on-screen time and personal life.