Alisha Marie didn’t know she was going to take a break from YouTube until she broke down in tears in a Sweetgreen restaurant in LA.
Marie, who uses her middle name as her professional surname, told INSIDER this was just three days before she uploaded a video called “This Isn’t Goodbye…” to her eight million subscribers.
In the video, she tearfully explained to her viewers that she wasn’t proud of the content she was making anymore, and she needed some time out.
“I’ve decided that I need to take a break from this channel,” she said in the video. “Creatively, I’m just not in it like I used to be, and I used to be so proud of every single video that I’d upload, and now looking at everything I’m uploading… I’m burnt out.”
What defines a YouTuber has mutated and grown in many different directions since the first video was uploaded in 2005. Although there are still video clips of mundanities, these are scattered among billions of hours of makeup tutorials, Mukbangs, unboxing videos, and commentary from the abundance of active YouTube creators, which could total over 500 million.
At the very top of the YouTube hierarchy are the “influencers” like Marie — the people millions of subscribers load up YouTube’s homepage to watch. They can often appear to have it all: an enviable job, creative control, money, and adoring fans. But with the good comes the bad, and over the past couple of years, more and more creators have taken breaks after falling out of love with their channel. Some have disappeared from the site altogether.
The Internet never sleeps, and YouTube stars often don’t either
“Burnout occurs when the reward for whatever we do is not equal or more than the effort we have to put in,” Kati Morton, a psychologist, YouTuber, and author of “Are U Ok?: A Guide to Caring For Your Mental Health” told INSIDER. “It’s kind of like a state of physical and mental exhaustion caused by your professional life — so just feeling overwhelmed.”
Having an online career such as YouTube means you get to see your reward all the time — be it the ability to reach others, the comments you get, or the views you rack up. But that also means you are immediately aware if you aren’t succeeding.
“Adding in the fact that the internet never sleeps, so often we don’t really either,” Morton said. “Working around the clock, we’re not taking care of ourselves, no matter how much the reward. It can never add up to the amount of effort that we’re putting in.”
When Marie was in Sweetgreen, in the midst of an anxiety attack, she was trying to tell her sister she wanted some time off.
“I was telling her, and I couldn’t even get the words out of my mouth,” she told INSIDER. “I wanted to say ‘I think I need to take a break,’ but I couldn’t, I physically couldn’t.”
She realised that if that was her body’s response to thinking she needed to take a break, she clearly needed to.
Marie’s story isn’t unique. Burnout is a problem that has publicly affected dozens, if not hundreds, of YouTubers. At least 10 prominent YouTubers have taken breaks in the past year, but the actual rate of creators who mentally burn out is likely to be much higher.
“I’m literally just waiting for me to hit my breaking point.”
In August 2017, Laina Morris, known for comedy skits and the “Overly Attached Girlfriend” meme, uploaded a video, then didn’t return for a year.
Last May, 20-year-old Elle Mills said in a video called “Burnt Out At 19″: “My anxiety and depression keeps getting worse and worse. I’m literally just waiting for me to hit my breaking point.”
Lilly Singh announced a break in November with her video “I’ll see you soon…” She promised her fanbase of 14 million that she would be “happier and healthier” when she returned.
“[YouTube] kind of is a machine and it makes creators believe that we have to pump out content consistently even at the cost of our health and our life and our mental happiness,” she said. “I’m not making any rules. This might be a one week break, this might be a one month break — I have no idea.”
Even YouTube’s biggest star is at risk
Felix Kjellberg, better known as PewDiePie, is YouTube’s biggest star with a subscriber count of over 80 million, despite competition from Indian music record label T-Series. But in 2016, he went through a period of feeling too drained to maintain his jam-packed work schedule.
“As a online content creator your presence needs to be constantly moving forward and since your job depends on it, it can be hard to hit the breaks,” Kjellberg told INSIDER. “When you’re blessed with many opportunities it’s hard to say no and you can easily find yourself with too many obligations to keep up.”
“When you’re blessed with many opportunities it’s hard to say no and you can easily find yourself with too many obligations to keep up.”
Since then, Kjellberg said he’s learned to be more cautious when handing over his time and know his own limits better, adding with a laugh to INSIDER: “Speaking of which, this is all the time I got.”
There’s constant pressure to prove yourself
Morton said the main signs of burnout are feeling tired and worn out no matter how much sleep you get, being easily irritated, and feeling like you’re not successful.
Some creators also start to resent their fans when they ask for the latest upload, mistaking their curiosity and eagerness for new content for being bothersome and invasive. That may sound slightly contradictory for a career that depends on the spotlight.
“As creators, we feel like we have to constantly create to remain relevant because people will forget,” Morton said. “I know that other friends of mine who have taken breaks said they’re so terrified to come back because they know that it has to be better than it was before.”
Marie agreed that the biggest pressure she felt after taking her break was showing her fans that the time off was a positive thing, and she was “Alisha 2.0 now.”
“I just needed to prove that my break was worth it,” she said. “I felt like I needed to come back and people would think ‘wow your content is so much better.'”
But it’s only been in the past month that she feels like she’s out of that rut and finding her feet as a creator again.
“Anyone who is wanting to take a break, something I would want to stress to them, is once you come back, getting out of burnout is extremely hard,” she said. “It’s not going to happen overnight. And if you take a month off, it’s not like your channel is going to be totally revamped and now it’s amazing. It’s definitely a process.”
Creators have to be ready for what lies ahead
Chris Boutté has a channel called “The Rewired Soul” where he educates his audience about mental health. He takes examples from real YouTube situations and conflict and turns them into lessons for his viewers.
He told INSIDER that when it comes to YouTuber burnout, it’s often related to what he calls “value systems.” Essentially, from a young age a lot of us are taught that if we achieve or gain certain things we will be happy.
“If you could imagine looking for a treasure chest your entire life, and you finally find it and you open it up and there’s nothing in it,” said Boutté.
“What I often see is, when they get to that point, and it’s not what they thought, they put all this pressure on themselves — ‘maybe I need to make more videos, maybe I need to make better videos,’ because they keep trying to fill this happiness void.”
There’s also a problem with false expectations, he said, in that some creators want the recognition, the fame, and the money without any of the responsibility of becoming influential to viewers. In other words: “You can’t ask to be famous and then expect people not to talk about you.”
“You can’t ask to be famous and then expect people not to talk about you.”
One video can skyrocket a creator into fame without warning, and more often than not, they are not ready to deal with everything that comes along with that attention.
Youtube is still a relatively new media, compared to the traditional mediums of television and radio. And there is no class for how to deal with negative comments, trolls, and maintaining a subscriber count. But it’s up to the creators to make sure they know what’s coming, Boutté said.
“It’s not like someone was filming you from across the street and suddenly you’re famous,” he added. “For anybody who’s aspiring to be a YouTuber, if you’re not ready for negative comments, if you’re not ready to work hard… maybe you should figure something else out.”
YouTube’s approach to copyright is to blame for extra stress
Like any company that persists on the internet, YouTube’s strategy has changed over the years. It has gone from favouring viral, two-minute videos, to more lengthy content over the 10-minute mark. This has prompted some creators to go down the documentary or in-depth commentary route, rather than the shorter skits the site used to be known for.
But it’s not an exact science, and YouTube is constantly changing its algorithm to show certain channels and types of content in the trending bar, as well as demonetising videos for seemingly inconsistent reasons. There’s also an ongoing debate about its copyright policy, which many creators have said is mismanaged and deficient.
British YouTuber Angelika Oles, whose channel is currently exponentially growing, explained in a video how false copyright strikes can destroy careers. Usually three strikes means a channel is taken down, and there’s no guarantee you’ll get it back.
Commentary channels rely on using clips from other creators in their videos, as long as it falls under fair use, she said. But if a YouTuber doesn’t like the way they are being talked about in someone else’s video they sometimes submit a copyright claim to get their own back.
The problem is that YouTube takes no part in this dispute whatsoever.
Musician Christian Buettner (TheFatRat) had one of his videos with over 47 million views claimed by another account called Ramjets. YouTube instantly transferred the ownership to the claimant, meaning the other account is currently earning around $3,000 a month from music that is provably not their own.
“I talked to YouTube to get the video back but they said they don’t mediate copyright disputes and I have to resolve the issue with the claimant,” wrote in a petition to fix the issue. “I reached out to Ramjets via email but got no response and YouTube refused to give out any other contact information.”
As conflicts go on, creators sometimes feel YouTube takes a step back, apparently unwilling — or unable — to effectively police its internet space.
As conflicts go on, creators sometimes feel YouTube takes a step back, apparently unwilling — or unable — to effectively police its internet space.
YouTube didn’t respond to questions about its copyright strike policy. But a spokesperson told INSIDER the platform wants creators to make videos in a “healthy, sustainable way.”
“To help with that, we’ve created videos and courses that address these issues head-on in the YouTube Creator Academy,” the Spokesperson said.
“We want to reassure creators that our systems do not take upload frequency or past video performance into account when recommending new videos to users and if they need a break that their audience will be on YouTube when they return. There is no pattern that leads to success on YouTube, but creating engaging content should always take priority over producing a certain volume of content.”
YouTubers and social media stars turn to brand deals to make the big bucks. But this is only a steady stream of income if you’re relevant enough at the time. However, while the platform may not penalise an account for posting less, the stress of maintaining a popular channel is significant enough without the added pressure of knowing YouTube doesn’t necessarily have your back if someone decides to go after your ad revenue.
Taking a break for too long could mean someone else snaps up your deals, which is just another reason for YouTubers not to take a break they may desperately need.
As Morton said: “Things are only popular for so long, and then it goes away, and people move on to something else.”
Being your own boss is a curse
As YouTube has evolved, so have its creators. With high-tech equipment and editing software being more readily available, creators can get stuck in a rut thinking their viewers will only be happy with perfection.
Boutté said more creators should realise that they’re so entertaining to watch that they could turn on their camera and just go to the supermarket and they would get the views.
Read more: The 7 most-hated YouTube videos of all time
But for some creators, being their own boss is a curse. This can either mean working and editing late into the night, every night, or never actually getting around to uploading at all.
Casey Neistat, for example, is known for his high production value videos by his nearly 11 million subscribers. He told INSIDER it’s a “constant, unrelenting pressure.”
“When labor-intensive videos are the communication medium it will invariably lead to burnout,” he said. “I have certainly felt it.”
Add in the problem that many creators have with relinquishing control, and you have a recipe for exhaustion.
“It’s extremely hard for a lot of creators, because [they] come from the ground up, they started when you didn’t even know you could make money,” Marie said. “They just stumbled into it and it was for fun. I think that makes it so hard to let go because it’s almost like our baby, you know.”
Neistat said it’s the connection with his subscribers that keeps him going when he feels burnt out. As his audience grew, he saw his content as more of a product of a bigger conversation.
“To succeed as a YouTuber, a relationship between the creator and audience has to be maintained,” he said. “I like to share big ideas with my videos then follow up on Twitter or in the comments… nothing more than that.”
The YouTuber-subscriber relationship is vital, but not sustainable
Boutté agrees that being connected is vital. When creators first start out, YouTube is more like social media. With just a few hundred of thousand subscribers, each video has a conversation underneath where people can share their opinions that creators can engage with.
But as you get more famous, keeping up with the comments isn’t viable, and it’s hard to separate the praise and the constructive criticism from the noise and abuse.
“I see when YouTubers get bigger the get disconnected from their audience,” Boutté said. “They’re doing what they think the audience wants, but they don’t know what the audience wants because they stopped talking to them a million subscribers ago.”
“They don’t know what the audience wants because they stopped talking to them a million subscribers ago.”
The creators aren’t exactly at fault here, because nobody can speak to their whole fanbase, and trolls can turn anyone off wanting to read their comments. But trying to maintain at least some level of interaction is the answer to staying mentally healthy, according to Boutté.
At the core, a lot of our anxieties and fears are selfish, he said, and one of the biggest problems with YouTubers is they are too conscious of what they are getting out of the creator-subscriber relationship.
“They’re thinking about what they’re going to get,” he said. “Am I going to get views? Am I going to get subscribers? Am I going to get money? Am I going to get that car I don’t need? Am I going to get that house I don’t need?”
Many of us can probably sympathise with spending time at work doing projects we don’t really want to do, then getting twice as miserable when it doesn’t pay off.
“I’ve had YouTubers reach out to me saying ‘I’m not happy with my content,’ and I say ‘You’re being selfish, that’s why,” said Boutté. “I think if more YouTubers started asking what they could give, not so many people would be burnt out, to be honest with you.”
In the time since we spoke, The Rewired Soul has doubled in size to over 80,000 subscribers, and Boutté currently spends two to three hours a day replying to comments.
“Because that’s what YouTube started off as, right? Us connecting,” he said. “But it’s turned into this thing where you’re a celebrity and you don’t reply to anybody.”
Ultimately, the distance can be a catalyst in the psychological disconnect between a creator and their channel, because they lose the ability to satisfy their fanbase. And, as mentioned, many creators cite not being proud of their content anymore as being the reason for their break. It’s a vicious cycle.
First world problems
For every supportive comment welcoming a creator back after time off, there are the ones who call them out for having “first world problems” and can’t find the sympathy for people living an enviable life like a YouTuber. But this just perpetuates the cycle of them never feeling entitled to time off. The more creators feel they have to relentlessly work, the more likely they are to burn out and vanish from YouTube.
Subscribers can be demanding, but overall, Marie sees them — all eight million — as a family. When she was on her break, she found people a lot more supportive than she thought they would be.
“We’re strangers and we’ve never met, but most creators can totally tell you they feel like a family with their viewers,” she said.
“Most creators can totally tell you they feel like a family with their viewers.”
“During my break, people came up to me for a photo, and before they left they said ‘I just want to say I’m proud of you for taking a break, we all support you,’ and honestly that touched me more than anything.”
To fans, YouTube videos are the TV show, and the creators the characters. But there are no seasons, and the “characters” have feelings, make mistakes, and need time to themselves just like anyone else.
It would benefit everyone — the creators and the viewers alike — to remember there are real people on either side of the screen.
“I think when you share a lot about yourself, if there aren’t healthy boundaries, I feel people don’t contemplate that long enough because the pressure to create is there,” Morton said. “And so I think if we share too much and we regret it, that can lead to burnout too, and a lot of other issues.”
That being said, some YouTubers buck the trend. Shane Dawson, who has nearly 20 million subscribers, is currently on a YouTube hiatus after filming an eight part docuseries about Jake Paul — the controversial creator who has been criticised for aggressively marketing his merch to his young subscribers, revealing Post Malone’s address, and being generally disruptive in his neighbourhood.
Dawson has kept his crown as the “king of YouTube,” even though he has been absent for three months. Other channels such as iDubbbzTV and Nerd City can also upload infrequently and get millions of views when they do.
“I think keep doing whatever you love and your audience will find you,” Marie said. “Now I want an audience to like what I upload. And if that means I have less views but a million people are genuinely interested in what I’m uploading instead of more who don’t care about me, that’s what I’d rather do.”
YouTube can change lives — but it can ruin them, too
When the balance is right, there’s no argument that getting big on YouTube changes lives.
“It’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” Marie said. “I’ve just learned a lot about myself and made connections with people I would never have met.”
Once, she spoke to a fan who said her videos had helped her through chemotherapy, and knowing she could touch people’s lives in that way is what makes the hard work worth it.
But it’s vital for any YouTube creator to know when the effort is overtaking the reward. If and when it happens, taking a step back is the only thing that can save both their channel and their mental health.
“It’s not worth it to slave your life over something that could disappear in two seconds,” said Marie.
“A lot of YouTubers, we would do anything for our channel. It’s great that there’s so much passion, and we all love it so much, but at the same time, you need to focus on yourself.”