'You feel like you're drowning': Why YouTube content creators are burning out

When Ottawa's Elle Mills was growing up, there was one thing she wanted to be: A YouTuber.

With a strong personality and cheeky editing style, Mills and her videos soon gained a fan following. 

And today, Mills is a bona fide ​YouTube star; she'll be competing against some of the biggest names on the platform at the Streamy Awards on Monday.

Last year, Mills's "Coming Out" video went viral. After years of posting, her subscriber count exploded, climbing to 1.5 million. 

But as Mills's audience grew, so did her anxiety.

"Physically, I remember feeling always stressed. There was never a time I felt relaxed," she said. "I remember walking outside and thinking, 'What's the point?'"

In May, Mills shared a different kind of video. "Burnt Out at 19" showed her crying and cursing, frustrated her dream job had turned into a nightmare.

Physically, I remember feeling always stressed. There was never a time I felt relaxed. I remember walking outside and thinking, 'What's the point? - Elle Mills, YouTuber

Mills is just one of a growing number of YouTube stars going public about their anxieties. Alisha Marie, El Rubius and the Dolan Twins all have spoken out about burnout and taken breaks from posting.

In announcing her break earlier this year — in an update titled "This isn't Goodbye" — Marie said "mental health is so much more important than anything else." The Dolan Twins, meanwhile, talked about needing to take care of life beyond YouTube. 

Beyond burnout

Nicole McCance is a Toronto-based psychologist who has several YouTubers as clients. Watching Mills's video, she said what she saw was "more than just burnout — this is someone who is at the breaking point."

Several of her clients complain about the pressure of competing on a platform that never stops, she said.

"They told me that they tend to be obsessed about the negative and how to be better. So it's this constant pressure for perfectionism and this constant pressure to be better next time."

For many, stopping is not an option.

As a veteran who's been on YouTube for six years, Louis Cole refers to himself as one of the originals. He brands his channel FunForLouis, but says in the past couple years, the fun faded away — even in the most idyllic surroundings. 

With the constant travelling, shooting and editing, Cole said he'd get three hours of sleep most nights. 

"I remember sitting in Jamaica," Cole recalled, and the only thing he could think was: "Why are my views dropping?"

Algorithm anxiety

After hitting that wall, Cole is trying to slow down. But with celebrities like Will Smith now publishing their own content directly on the platform, he says the competition is increasing. 

"In this expanding YouTube world, you feel like you're drowning a little bit, because you need to keep making content."

Part of the reason Cole, Mills and so many others feel the need to keep producing content is the YouTube algorithm that recommends videos to viewers. Many creators believe the algorithm rewards those who post regularly. This leads to a situation where creators are stuck in a content creation cycle.

To help creators, YouTube has introduced a series of instructional videos, including tips on healthy eating, sleeping and even the importance of taking vacations.

But when the Ladylike collective took a break, they discovered the consequences. ​Chantel Houston said the group decided to go dark for a week, but then returned with a superhero-themed series they expected to perform strong.

Typically the group's videos receive about a million views in their first week, Houston said. But after the self-imposed break, their new videos were only getting between 200,000 and 300,000 views in that first week. 

"It definitely made a difference for us," she said.

Demonetization dilemmas

Another added layer of stress for creators is the spectre of demonetization. Many YouTubers depend on ad revenue generated by video plays. If a video violates YouTube's advertiser content guidelines, the company reserves the right to "demonetize" the video, turning off ads and, in effect, the creator's revenue stream for that upload.

Following the controversy over Logan Paul's "Suicide Forest" video, YouTube has tightened the rules around what it considers "not suitable." It's a wide-ranging and broad list, covering such areas as sexually suggestive content, controversial issues and sensitive events. 

With 400 hours of content uploaded to YouTube every minute, the platform uses a machine-learning algorithm to flag unsuitable videos. Creators can request to have demonetized videos manually reviewed, but they'll never get that money back.

Robert Krbavac/CBC

Some creators say the technology YouTube uses is problematic, making it too easy for users to abuse the system and report a video. Transgender YouTuber Stef Sanjati said many of her friends in the trans community regularly see their videos flagged as inappropriate by anti-trans viewers.

"Two years ago, I could upload a video about a trans issue, and I would have made a reasonable amount of money — enough to float my rent. Now I'm in a place where I make almost nothing from ad revenue."

YouTube's goal is keeping both brands and creators happy, said Rohit Dhawan, the platform's director of product management. He said YouTube is providing creators as much information as possible. 

"If there are brands that want a particular content for ads to appear on, we're providing tools to give them that option."

Next Steps

Dhawan also points out the other services YouTube has launched to take the pressure off posting: Live streams, Super Chat and paid membership programs are all meant to give creators other avenues to monetize connections with their community.

CBC

While Dhawan agrees there's a lot of stress in the creator community, he said there's no shortage of people looking to become the next Elle Mills. 

"We have many, many, many YouTube creators, and that number continues to increase, and their entire livelihood and attention and time is only on YouTube," he said.

Although she's had moments where she considered quitting, Mills said she's in a better place these days; she's posting less and sometimes even manages to put her phone down.

Like many YouTubers who spoke to CBC News, Mills said she would like to see the platform put mental health first. But she seems to accept the downsides of YouTube stardom.

Burnout happens to everyone, she said. "It comes with the job, unfortunately."