How 'StudyTube' promotes toxic productivity and abuse
'StudyTube' is a YouTube community that makes videos about education and studying. But its focus on unwavering productivity, perfect morning routines, and elite universities can have a negative impact on creators and viewers.
When YouTuber Elena Handtrack received more than 40 abusive messages from a single person during one of her live videos, she felt helpless and almost thought she would quit.
“I only started doing YouTube in 2018, when I got into Cambridge,” she explains, “I never really expected the channel to grow, and it didn’t grow much until early this year.”
For her, YouTube started as a personal project, “just for fun”, to document her life as a law student at the University of Cambridge. Her channel now counts more than 82,400 subscribers from around the world, and her profile on Instagram is followed by over 15,500 people.
Like most StudyTubers, Handtrack shares insights of her experience as a student at one of the best universities in the world – including revision tips, daily routines, and vlogs – hoping to inspire and motivate her subscribers to achieve top results.
The appeal with videos centered around education and improving academic performance is that these are stressful times almost everyone has to go through – and with the current job market, the need to do well has quickly become a universal experience.
During lockdown, with closed libraries and most of her subscribers stuck at home, Handtrack decided to do live study sessions on her channel: “I know a lot of people rely on going to the library, to get a little bit of peer pressure – but in a good way. Suddenly, I was stuck at home and I needed my library environment, so I decided to recreate it, giving people a virtual study-buddy.”
These real-time videos are livestreamed on her channel twice a day, so that anyone can join the virtual study sessions and benefit from that “peer pressure”, revising along with Handtrack and other fellow students on the other side of the screen.
These kinds of videos, produced by creators all over the world, get millions of views. “When you're studying by yourself, you can feel alone. These videos help to reduce loneliness by getting the sensation of studying with other people,” a Korean YouTuber, known as The Man Sitting Next to Me, told Business Insider.
Since these creators focus their content on learning, productivity, and motivation, it’s easy to imagine this YouTube niche as a safe space – but, unfortunately, that’s not always the case. But just like, every other space on the internet, even StudyTube can turn abusive and toxic.
Some of the messages Handtrack received during a live study session in November 2020 were links to pornographic content, as well as sexual comments.
“I don’t see how that’s related to my content,” she says, “If I’m sitting at my desk, and I’m studying in silence, no one should sexualize me for that. I don’t want to hear that from a stranger on the internet: I just want to study law in peace.”
Rosie Crawford, a forensic archaeology and anthropology student at the University of Cranfield who also runs a StudyTube channel, received similar comments when one of her videos hit 10,000 views in a week.
“Some of the comments were quite derogative,” she explains, “telling me that I was ‘a stupid cow’ or that I should ‘record myself sleeping’ – that was really disturbing.”
Crawford created her channel to share her experience at the University of Oxford, where she studied an undergraduate degree in archeology and anthropology. “Keeping it real and just being myself made my channel work,” she says, “I never expected it to take off, I never intended to be a StudyTuber, I was just sharing my experience.”
Other YouTubers in this community, including British creator Ruby Granger, whose channel has 543,000 subscribers, have received strong criticism for portraying a toxic ideal of productivity, which often seems impossible to achieve.
“There’s a very fine line between being motivational and being harmful,” says Crawford, “I tried to make videos to fit in the 12-hour study day stereotype, but I never managed to do it. And I felt that was why I wasn’t getting any views.”
Toxic productivity manifests as an obsession with self-improvement and, in this particular case, academic results. Popular videos on StudyTube are often filmed during one single day, showing how many hours the creator spent at their desk, studying – the longer, the better – fueling the idea that being productive all the time is the only real way to succeed in an academic environment.
But being productive in every situation is simply impossible, an unachievable goal that can be detrimental to our mental health.
According to Elena Handtrack, it’s a matter of realizing that feeling is toxic, and getting rid of what is causing it: “Some of us get up and study for 10 hours, that’s how we work. It’s absolutely okay if that’s not the life of the people who watch our content – and you shouldn’t feel guilty for not having that life.”
The community’s focus on private education and social privilege has also been criticized for perpetrating another dangerous stereotype: that only white, privately educated people can get into prestigious universities.
“I think focusing on private education is a bit misleading,” says Handtrack, “I’m privately educated, I went to boarding school and I’m now at Cambridge, but I did it all on scholarships – I have a single mum who could not afford to send me to any of these places. I think you need to look a bit behind the curtain because private education has become increasingly more accessible.”
Crawford, on the other hand, attended a state school in Manchester, and the main aim of her channel is to encourage people from different backgrounds to apply to top universities: “I wanted to give back – getting into Oxford, I felt I owed everyone the privilege that I now had.”
As more and more Black and Asian creators are pursuing careers on YouTube, Crawford points out how the community is indeed becoming very welcoming and inclusive: “The best thing about StudyTube is that more and more people are joining constantly, and all from different backgrounds, and that’s what’s exciting about it – there will always be someone that you can relate to.”