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Unwinding online: the rise of ASMR

Person laying on a sofa with feet in the air

Parents are faced with umpteen stresses every day – both digital and analogue.

Keeping up with what your children are doing, understanding the latest risks to their wellbeing, and managing work and life-admin can feel like a constant pressure.

We talk about ‘detoxing’ and ‘taking a break’ when we want to escape the stress digital tech can bring. But the internet itself also offers new ways of unwinding. One of the most peculiar – and popular with young people – is ASMR.

This newish phenomenon – dubbed “the biggest YouTube trend you've never heard of” by Google – has seen the third biggest increase in YouTube searches since 2008, behind only ‘Minecraft’ and ‘Fortnite’. But where does ASMR come from and what exactly is it?

Where does ASMR come from?

ASMR isn’t teen speak – people use an acronym because the full phrase is so confusing. It stands for ‘autonomous sensory meridian response’ – a phrase coined by Jennifer Allen in 2010 to describe the warm, soothing feeling she got when she watched certain videos about space.

Allen joined a small community of like-minded people who discussed the phenomenon in online forums. Within several years, ASMR had become a thriving sub-genre on YouTube with hundreds of new videos uploaded each day, all designed to cause that feeling. Beyond space, these videos explored a range of subject matter and scenarios. They soon spread to other services like Reddit and Spotify.

What is ASMR?

ASMR is often described as a series of tingles that start in the scalp and spread down the neck and spine.

The sensation – like pins and needles, but pleasant – can occur naturally in response to ‘trigger’ sounds. If you feel calm when you hear rain on a rooftop or when someone speaks to you quietly, you could be experiencing ASMR.

There’s no reliable data about how many of us experience ASMR. Some people are only affected by specific triggers. Some aren’t affected by any of them. Others even find certain of these sounds annoying or frustrating. No one is quite sure why.

Is ASMR popular?

Since 2010, ASMR has gone from a niche topic to a global trend, with celebrity and corporate backing.

In a viral video series, the fashion magazine W has commissioned the world’s biggest stars – from Cardi B to Jake Gyllenhaal – to make their own ASMR clips. Global brands like IKEA, Pepsi, and KFC are incorporating ASMR into their advertising. The Grammy-nominated hip-hop artist 21 Savage even made an ASMR rap song (the lyrics are explicit, so listener discretion is advised.)

There’s no specific data on the numbers of children and young people who access ASMR videos, but a 2019 report for Ofcom found a significant number of four to 16-year-olds were captivated by content that they searched for by typing in ‘satisfying’ or ‘oddly satisfying’ – including videos of people handling slime, cutting soap, and other ASMR content.

YouTube is now the most popular platform for children and young people to watch video content. It’s difficult to say exactly how popular ASMR is among children and young people, but there’s no doubt that many are encountering – if not actively consuming – the videos online.

What happens in ASMR videos?

ASMR YouTubers – or ‘ASMRtists’ – aim to relax their viewers by making a series of sounds on camera. Some of these focus on speech – especially whispering, and/or repeating certain words – but not all.

The most watched ASMR video on YouTube currently boasts 81.5 million views and explores more than 50 non-verbal triggers across three hours, including brushing microphones, tapping on the surface of an umbrella, and clipping tweezers. The YouTuber ASMRMagic links the different triggers in the description, so viewers can navigate to the parts of the video that work for them – but it’s also common for ASMR fans to let videos run while they fall asleep.

Other videos follow a role-play (RP) formula where the YouTuber pretends to look after the viewer in scenarios like medical check-ups, haircuts and spa treatments. The sounds are often accompanied by hypnotic hand movements and the illusion of close contact.

ASMRtists sometimes incorporate other trends in order to reach a broader, more mainstream audience. SAS-ASMR is arguably the biggest ASMRtist with 8.2 million subscribers. Her videos combine ‘mukbang’ – a South Korean craze involving eating food on camera – with ASMR. Make-up tutorials and ‘get ready with me’ videos are common, too – and teen popstar Billie Eilish commissioned the YouTuber Gibi ASMR to make a tribute to her bestselling debut album.

Does ASMR have any benefits?

We’ve all read how screens can disrupt teens’ sleep cycles – but if you visit the comments section on one of Gibi’s videos, you’ll find dozens of viewers admitting that they dozed off, or thanking her for helping them beat their insomnia.

ASMR fans claim the feeling they get from the videos helps them unwind and deal with anxiety – and a recent study by researchers at the University of Sheffield and Manchester Metropolitan University discovered that watching ASMR videos significantly reduces heart rates among those who experience the phenomenon.

Test subjects also reported more positive emotions, like excitement and calmness; and fewer negative ones, like stress and sadness. They also reported increased feelings of social connection.

Is there anything to worry about?

The quiet speaking and close contact that are common in ASMR videos can come across as intimate or sensual – which can be problematic for young viewers.

Arguably, meditation apps like Headspace, audiobooks, and podcasts simulate closeness in similar ways to ASMR. But some ASMR role-play videos are deliberately designed to mimic dates, relationships, or flirtatious encounters. Some ASMRtists are women in their twenties – and several ‘girlfriend’ and ‘waking up next to you’ ASMR videos have exceeded a million views.

Many of these are suggestive and provocative while being subtle enough to avoid YouTube’s age gate. Creators might wear revealing clothing or use innuendo but avoid nudity or overt sexual references. In 2018, the Chinese government banned ASMR videos to protect minors from what they saw as inappropriate content.

A handful of ASMRtists also make explicit videos on different platforms. These are usually requested by and sold to individual adults and may get illegally uploaded to porn websites or video-sharing services that have fewer regulations than YouTube. Likewise, some adult content creators have started incorporating ASMR into porn.

However, the vast majority of people use ASMR to relax. In a 2015 study by Swansea University, 5% of respondents said they used ASMR for sexual stimulation, compared to 98% to relax, 82% to help them sleep, and 70% to deal with stress.

What should I do if my child watches ASMR?

If your child watches ASMR there are some simple ways to make sure they stay safe and that they aren’t exposed to anything inappropriate:

  • Find out why they’re seeking out the videos. Maybe they like the tingling feeling but they could be worried about something or struggling to sleep. You probably know your child better than anyone – if there’s a problem, you may be able to help.
  • Share how you look after yourself when you’re stressed or overwhelmed. You may not realise it, but you probably use technology to relax yourself – whether you meditate with the Headspace app, collapse in front of Netflix after a hard week at work, or listen to calm music while you’re having a bath. (There’s actually a special version of Headspace for children.)
  • Ask them what ASMRtists they like to watch and check out their videos. You may like them too. Many ASMR videos encourage viewers to think positively, practise mindfulness or meditation, and learn breathing exercises. Others are less openly therapeutic, but create imaginative scenes and characters that viewers can return to.
  • If they’re under 13, sign them up for YouTube Kids, a family-friendly version of the platform where you can customise their experience, curate what they see, set timers, and block specific videos or channels. You can find out more about YouTube Kids in this parent guide.

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