If you're looking for a safe and supportive online environment, the YouTube comment section seems like the last place you should be hanging out. Yet Dartmouth researchers found that people with severe mental illnesses were doing just that, with—get this—positive results.
When it works best, the internet fosters communities freed from the restraints of geography, meeting times, and fear of being stigmatized. The Dartmouth study, published in PLOS One, reports that, "individuals with depression reported using online support groups to elicit support and empathy from others, express themselves, and serve as a form of community building," and found similar, self-reported positive results for individuals living with HIV and AIDS.
"By sharing illness experiences with others online and through social media, there is potential for improved health and psychosocial outcomes, including benefits such as learning from others, feeling supported, and forming relationships," the study states.
The researchers wanted to observe how people with severe mental illnesses interact with their peers YouTube, where many people post videos about their feelings and experiences. So they looked at 3,044 comments posted to "19 videos uploaded by individuals who self-identified as having schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, or bipolar disorder." The team discovered that, contrary to its reputation as a shitheap of personal attacks and derision, YouTube was a source of peer support.
From the study:
We found peer support across four themes: minimizing a sense of isolation and providing hope; finding support through peer exchange and reciprocity; sharing strategies for coping with day-to-day challenges of severe mental illness; and learning from shared experiences of medication use and seeking mental health care. These broad themes are consistent with accepted notions of peer support in severe mental illness as a voluntary process aimed at inclusion and mutual advancement through shared experience and developing a sense of community.
The powers at Google have had trouble figuring out just what to do with YouTube and its notorious comment section. For eight months, YouTube commenters were forced to use their full names via a Google+ account. This may have been nice for tracking user engagement, but, just as Politico and TechCrunch discovered after using Facebook's less-than-anonymous profiles for comment sections, it doesn't seem to improve the quality of the discourse.
Did you know? T.S. Eliot visited the future, watched you read YouTube comments, then went back to 1922 and wrote "The Waste Land."
— Don't Read Comments (@AvoidComments) September 27, 2014
On the other hand, this study indicates that, despite lack of anonymity on YouTube comments and the potential for being stigmatized due to mental illness, people were still willing to engage and support each other.
Would more anonymity open the door for more people to find support online? Would it allow for more trolling? One thing that anonymity allows is for the totally unqualified to give advice, but that's true of almost anywhere on the internet. So why are some users finding support in YouTube? The authors state that the community growth appears organics, and that they "observed a sense of reward emerging from their interactions, mutual learning, and offered peer support."
The reward of participating in the community outweighed any anonymity concerns, the researchers argue. "Of importance is our finding that peer support is happening naturally among individuals with highly stigmatized psychiatric illnesses within an unmonitored and public online platform," they write. "The lack of anonymity and associated risks of being identified as an individual with SMI seemed to be overlooked by commenters and video authors."
It sort of seems like, for good or for bad, people are going to be themselves on the internet. As there are assholes in real life, there are assholes in comment sections. But there's more to life—including YouTube comments—than that.