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Before the internet, “going viral” was not something positive much less something people actively sought out. “Going viral” has become a new age epidemic, with people doing whatever they can for their 60 seconds of fame. But what does “going viral” actually mean, and how does it affect our brains and our self-esteem? Today’s GKIS article will break down “going viral” and its effects. For help raising your child to be digitally smart, check out our GKIS Screen Safety Essentials Course. This course includes all GKIS parenting courses, agreements, and supplements, ensuring you are well-equipped to fight off digital injury and keep your child safe from harm.

What does it mean to “go viral”?

Going viral means sharing something via social media that spreads quickly to thousands, even millions of people. The term viral video was first used in 2009 to describe the video “David After Dentist.”[1]

One viral video or post can turn people into internet celebrities overnight and garner thousands of followers, resulting in brand deals and monetized content. Once a video goes viral, there is no limit to the number of people it will reach or even what platform they will see the video on. It is very common to see posts shared from one platform to the next, whether it be a TikTok on Twitter or a Tweet going viral on Instagram.

The number of views to be considered going viral also varies from platform to platform. One hundred thousand views on TikTok is pretty successful, whereas even a couple hundred thousand views on YouTube is a relatively low number.[2]

The number of likes is also an important factor. Many videos have a high number of views but a relatively low number of likes. These videos are not considered to be going viral because they are not well-received by the general public.[2] Engagement drives up the virality of the content through shares and comments that stimulate the algorithm to continue placing that content on people’s feeds.[2] Another important factor in going viral is the immediacy of response, meaning that the views, likes, and comments must be received within a few hours to days rather than over several months or years.[2]

How does “going viral” affect our brains?

When your video, post, or other content “goes viral,” you receive likes, comments, reposts, shares, and bookmarks. These response notifications prompt the reward systems in our brains.[3] Many fast notifications results in dopamine release. To keep that feel-good feeling going, we keep checking, acting in a way similar to gambling addictions.[3]

Algorithms also take advantage of a variable-reward system because they are programmed to recognize when to take advantage of our reward system and desire for dopamine.[3] This often results in a stockpile of notifications that get delayed until a good amount of time since the last check has passed or a large amount of engagement has accumulated.

For a personal insight into going viral, I interviewed a college student who had recently experienced the sensation of going viral. They said, “I recently had a video go viral on TikTok. It was a video of the Indie-Rock band Boygenius and one of their members, singer Phoebe Bridgers, singing a verse from their song ‘Cool About It.’ I had taken the video at a concert I had recently attended and decided to post it on TikTok since I was lucky enough to be pretty close to the stage. Over the next few days after I posted it, it got 118k views, 32k likes, and 500 comments, and was saved by more than 4000 people. Once it started picking up traction, I became obsessed with checking my notifications and seeing all the new comments. I would constantly look to see how many views I was at each hour. I even got a like from a TikTok creator who I really enjoy so that was very exciting for me.”

Although going viral is thrilling, notifications can be harmful when they are overly distracting.[4] To compensate for smartphone interruptions, studies have shown that people often work faster, resulting in more stress, frustration, time pressure, and effort.[4] Research has linked daily notifications and their interruptions to depression, anxiety, and even symptoms associated with ADHD.[5]

Our interview also revealed that the euphoria of going viral is short-lived and needs constant “re-upping.” Our subject elaborated, “Once the video started to die down though, I got annoyed by the notifications. They were distracting because they were so far and few in-between and nothing quite as exciting as the start. I got kinda sad that my viral moment was dying down. It made me want to post another video to see if it would get the same kind of attention.”

What does “going viral” do to our self-esteem?

Studies have shown that social media can be both detrimental to our self-esteem and boost it at the same time, but how does going viral change that?

Social media usage can add stress to daily life and encourage people to constantly evaluate and compare themselves to others.[6] When someone goes viral, they open themselves up to being judged by thousands of people, some of whom can be cruel, feeling emboldened by the veil of anonymity. While many would agree that the likes and views one receives on a viral post boosts their self-esteem and makes one feel good about themselves, it also allows for internet trolls to make their way into the comment section to bait others into an argument or provoke an emotional reaction.[7]

One-in-five internet users that have been victims of harassment online reported that it happened in the comment section of a website.[8] Reading negative comments can lessen confidence, reduce self-esteem, and depending on the severity, can even provoke suicidal thoughts.[9]

Our GKIS interviewee unfortunately also had experience with the negative side of going viral. They reported, “Before my video went super viral, I had posted another video that didn’t get as many views but still got a couple thousand views, a few hundred likes, and a good amount of comments. The video was clips of my girlfriend and me in celebration of our second anniversary. For the most part, the comments were really nice, with people calling us cute and being supportive. But after a little while of it being up, it got to the wrong side of TikTok. As a queer couple, we’re used to people being rude or staring at us, but to get negative comments just hurt more for some reason. This was a few months ago, but I still think about the comments from time to time. It honestly made me want to delete the whole video even though it was just a few comments out of a bunch of nice ones.”

How Parents Can Help

  • Understand that what you and your child post has the potential to go viral, even if you don’t want it to.
  • Set the privacy settings on posts to control who gets to see the content you share.
  • Prevent a digital injury to your child’s self-esteem before it occurs with our GKIS Screen Safety Toolkit for parents of kids of all ages.
  • To help facilitate difficult conversations about online content and who should see it, try out our free GKIS Connected Family Screen Agreement.

Like what you read? Check out our GKIS articles “Showcasing Child Talent Online Leads to Exploitation and Scams” and “Influencers Hurt Child Self Esteem by Overusing Filters”.

Thanks to CSUCI intern, Katherine Carroll for researching “going viral” and its effect on the brain and self-esteem.

I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetKidsInternetSafe.

Onward to More Awesome Parenting,

Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty

Works Cited

[1] Wonderopolis. (2022). What Does It Mean To Go Viral? Wonderopolis. https://www.wonderopolis.org/wonder/what-does-it-mean-to-go-viral

[2] Pigeon Studio. (2022). How many views is viral? What makes a video viral? Pigeon Studio. https://studiopigeon.com/blog/how-many-views-is-viral-what-makes-a-video-viral/

[3] Haynes, T. (2018). Dopamine, Smartphones & You: A battle for your time. Science in the News. https://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2018/dopamine-smartphones-battle-time/

[4] Pandey, N (2022). Constant Distraction And Stress, App Notifications Affect Minds Negatively: Study. NDTV. https://www.ndtv.com/world-news/constant-distraction-and-stress-app-notifications-affect-minds-negatively-study-3595177#:~:text=According%20to%20a%20study%2C%20these,shown%20to%20damage%20task%20performance.

[5] Glick, M. (2022). Phone Notifications Are Messing With Your Brain. Discover. https://www.discovermagazine.com/technology/phone-notifications-are-messing-with-your-brain

[6] Bergman, M. (2023). Social Media’s Effects on Self-Esteem. Social Media Victims Law Center. https://socialmediavictims.org/mental-health/self-esteem/

[7] Australian Government. (2022). Trolling. eSafety Commissioner. https://www.esafety.gov.au/young-people/trolling#:~:text=Something%20has%20happened-,What%20is%20trolling%3F,believe%2C%20just%20to%20cause%20drama.

[7] Australian Government. (2022). Trolling. eSafety Commissioner. https://www.esafety.gov.au/young-people/trolling#:~:text=Something%20has%20happened-,What%20is%20trolling%3F,believe%2C%20just%20to%20cause%20drama

[8] Aleksandra. (2016). How reading online comments affects us. Social Media Psychology. https://socialmediapsychology.eu/2016/10/05/onlineandsocialmediacomments/

[9] Cuncic, A. (2022). Mental Health Effects of Reading Negative Comments Online. VeryWellMind. https://www.verywellmind.com/mental-health-effects-of-reading-negative-comments-online-5090287#:~:text=If%20you%20end%20up%20reading,and%20after%20reading%20comments%20online

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