Take a moment and imagine this: you’ve just found a new streamer to watch on Twitch. They seem really nice and funny, and you enjoy watching them play. You get to know some people in chat, and the streamer even responds to your comments a few times. After a couple of days, you start to learn their schedule; watching them becomes part of your routine.

At the same time, you’re having some issues in your life. Maybe you can’t see any of your friends and family because of the pandemic. Maybe you’re going through a rough breakup, or maybe you’re fighting with someone. Maybe you’re just lonely. All of a sudden, the streamer you’ve been watching starts to feel less like a distant personality and more like a personal friend, someone you could ask for advice or confide in.

This is the point where you need to stop.

Though it may be tempting to think of streamers as confidantes or even pseudo-therapists, it’s not healthy for anyone involved. Trust me: streamers are not a captive audience to whom you can vent all of your problems, no matter how welcoming and understanding they are. Streamers have two jobs: play a game and run their stream. Neither of these involve bearing the brunt of someone else’s emotional labor.

Twitch’s communication features help to facilitate connections between streamers and viewers; it’s literally what Twitch was designed for. Now more than ever, when many of us are isolated from friends and family because of the pandemic, being able to speak to someone and see their reaction can be emotionally intoxicating. It provides a sense of companionship and friendship. I understand it – I really do. I’ve become a frequent chatter in a couple of streams, and I’ve even become Instagram mutuals with one really kind streamer.

There’s a point at which this kind of behavior goes too far, though. Unfortunately, treating streamers as therapists is not an uncommon phenomenon. Many successful Twitch users get into streaming and enjoy it because they have good camera presence, are personable and charismatic, and/or are funny, which makes it easy to feel like you’re friends with them – or even something more. Ask anyone you know who streams to a reasonably-sized audience and you’ll hear tales of chatters who frequently complain about their lives and only talk about their own problems. This isn’t fun for anyone – the streamer is distracted from their game and running the stream, other chatters have to hear about someone else’s problems, and the person who’s complaining isn’t truly getting the help they need.

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It’s worth noting as well that this disproportionally affects female and femme-identifying streamers. For some reason, many lonely hearts think it’s okay to treat the woman on the screen as their personal adviser or confidante. Through no fault of their own, these poor streamers are bombarded with other people’s problems simply because they wanted to play a few games and form a community. That’s a fate no gamer should have to deal with, particularly when you consider the myriad of other issues that women and female-identifying players face online.

Being treated like a therapist while on stream is something that’s actually happened to me. Last spring, soon after lockdown went into effect, I decided to try streaming in the extra time I had at home. One of my first followers was someone I’d met in the chat of another stream – let’s call them Moon.

Moon was always very kind and frequently took the time to drop by my stream to say hello while I was live. They were often my only viewer. They weren’t too interested in the games I was playing, but they were friendly enough that they wanted to make sure my chat wasn’t entirely empty. One evening, as I was streaming Mario Kart and chatting with one or two other folks, Moon joined the chat. They seemed distraught, and I asked what was wrong. I soon found out that Moon had apparently had a fight with their best friend, and the best friend wasn’t speaking to Moon anymore. It seemed to be the immediate aftermath – Moon’s words were very disjointed and they seemed incredibly upset, to the point where they were implying that life wasn’t worth living if their best friend wasn’t talking to them.

Immediately, the rest of my chat died. I was trying to balance making sure Moon was okay and running my stream at the same time. Nothing says “I care” like interrupting your advice to a struggling friend to say, “Hey, cool_cat_24, thanks for the follow!” My attention was split and I wasn’t playing as well, and eventually I ended up stopping for the night. Nothing I was saying to Moon seemed to be making a difference, and I was worried about their condition. I sent them a Discord message asking if they were okay. They were still upset, and their language was becoming more extreme. I told them I’d check in with them in the morning. Moon seemed unsatisfied.

I woke up the following morning and sent a message asking how they were feeling. I didn’t hear anything back, which gave me a lot of anxiety – what if something awful had happened? At about four in the afternoon, I got a single message: “She’s talking to me again :)”

Now it was my turn to feel unfulfilled. I had emotional whiplash from being pulled in a zillion different directions by Moon and my stream, and this unsatisfying conclusion – I messaged back to say I was glad and that I knew it would turn out okay, to which Moon never responded – wasn’t making things any better. I don’t hold any ill will towards Moon, as I know how awful it is to fight with a friend, but that doesn’t make their actions okay. I barely knew Moon beyond the streamer we both watched. I wasn’t even to 50 followers when this happened, yet it still happened to me. Imagine what popular streamers with thousands of followers deal with every day.

My point bears repeating: don’t treat streamers like your emotional punching bag. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be friends with them – many of them are awesome, kind people who really do care about the health and well-being of their community. However, these folks have their own lives to deal with, and there’s a line between being friendly and oversharing. If you’re at a point in your life where you need serious support, Twitch is not the place to seek it out. Don’t take the easy way out and dump your burdens on a streamer – find someone who’s trained to help.

Note: If you or someone you know has a mental health illness or has concerns about their mental health, here is a list of important contacts: 

For Immediate Help

Call 911 if you or someone you know is in immediate danger or go to the nearest emergency room.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255); En Español 1-888-628-9454
The Lifeline is a free, confidential crisis hotline that is available to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The Lifeline connects callers to the nearest crisis center in the Lifeline national network. These centers provide crisis counseling and mental health referrals. People who are deaf, hard of hearing, or have hearing loss can contact the Lifeline via TTY at 1-800-799-4889.

Crisis Text Line
Text “HELLO” to 741741
The Crisis Text hotline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week throughout the U.S. The Crisis Text Line serves anyone, in any type of crisis, connecting them with a crisis counselor who can provide support and information.

Veterans Crisis Line
Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and press 1 or text to 838255
The Veterans Crisis Line is a free, confidential resource that connects veterans 24 hours a day, seven days a week with a trained responder. The service is available to all veterans, even if they are not registered with the VA or enrolled in VA healthcare. People who are deaf, hard of hearing, or have hearing loss can call 1-800-799-4889.

For more resources, visit the National Institute of Mental Health.