Podcast: Dr. Sanjay Gupta talks with YouTuber Hank Green about living (and working) online

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I’m on the Internet to help people learn and get curious and do well in school and understand more of the knowable things of their universe and know more about the unknowable things. And that that’s beautiful and it’s fun. And like, I get so much joy from that.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


You might recognize that voice. Maybe you’ve heard one of his lectures on YouTube or seen one of his educational TikTok videos.

So we evolved to have blood production inside of our bones. The darkest place evolution could find.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Hank Green. He’s an author, a science communicator, and a vlogger. He got his start on YouTube back in 2007. Think about that. That was before the term content creator was even a thing. So he has seen the digital evolution play out in real time.

You know, I remember sort of it kind of happened for me back in like 2012, 2013 when the stuff that I started to see getting made on YouTube was a lot of sort of cruel pranks or like manipulative guys trying to get-

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


He was one of the first people to get famous from YouTube. He was making vlogs with his brother, who’s a writer, John Green, and he was also doing something that I can really relate to, trying to educate people. Along the way, Hank got quite a following. A million and a half followers on Twitter, 7 million on Tik Tok and tens of millions on YouTube channels with his brother, some of which are shown in schools throughout the country. But part of the reason I wanted to speak to Hank today is because he’s also a dad. And we share some of the same concerns.

Is my son worse off because his dad is an Internet guy and he’s going to be on the Internet the whole time. All the time and like. And there’s no way I can be like, you can’t use social media. He’s going to be like, what do you do?

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


So far in the season, I’ve been asking professors and doctors and experts some pretty tough questions about screen time and social media. But now I wanted to hear from someone who makes the content that we see when we are scrolling.

It’s hard to feel good about the Internet as a whole. Where back in 2007 it was very easy to feel good about the internet as a whole.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


So how does someone whose whole job is to be online walk that line?

I think now we’re all kind of comfortable with the idea that the Internet is good and bad and that it’s a tool and you can build a house with a hammer or you can, you know, hit somebody in the head with it.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Today, my conversation with Hank Green, a content creator and a fellow dad, about what life is like on the other side of the screen. I’m Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent. And this is Chasing Life.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


I got to tell you, you know, this season has been pretty heavy so far. It’s been very personal. I’ve had conversations with my three teenage daughters that have been so illuminating and so wonderful and at times frightening, to be honest. They live another life, their digital life, which I simply don’t know as much about. And I think we often fear what we don’t understand imagining and anticipating all the potential dangers of social media and screen time. But, you know, I realize something else as well, something that frankly surprised me a bit. And that is despite the worry and the concern, I do realize that our phones and the Internet, it can be a sincere source of joy and connection and learning for so many people. And that’s part of the reason I was so excited to talk to Hank. He’s someone that kids like, my daughters look up to.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


I got to say, I’ve really been looking forward to this one, Hank. I really appreciate your time.

Thank you so much. I don’t know why or whether you know who I am, but that’s cool.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


I do. And I think that the the idea of teaching people science in particular, just as a scientist myself, I think is super important. And I also have three teenagers and their videos have actually been shown in their classrooms. So when I told them that I was interviewing you, they I think they also knew you. So you’re cross-generational, which is pretty cool.

That’s always that’s usually my path. And people are like my children said, I should talk to you.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Right. That’s good. That’s good. Yeah. Do you have you have children?

I have one six year old boy.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Six year old. So pretty young still. But do you have a thought on when you would let your child have a device and when they might be on social media?

Yeah, I think that those things are really important to distinguish that, you know, screen a screen can be anything. But social media specifically is a tool that we don’t understand yet. And it changes very fast. And we we don’t we don’t know the impact that it has had on society yet so far. Like the research is still very difficult to do and it’s slow. So I, I, I’m going to I think I’m going to struggle with it because like already my son, my six year old son will look at me and say, Dad, stop looking at your phone. And I’m like, Oh my God, like, yeah, you’re right. You know, he loves a YouTube video. Like he’ll watch. I’m very, I love YouTube. And so my son watches YouTube, but I watch what he watches on YouTube because I also know how the YouTube algorithm works and it sort of starts to creep away from the more educational stuff that I’d like him to be watching.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Yeah, And I have to say, these are tough conversations. I think as parents, I’ve gone through this, Hank and I have 17, 15 and 13. And my 17 year old the other day said to me, I probably wouldn’t let my kids be on social media as early as I was. Which was, God, it’s a little bit of a punch in the gut to hear because I thought I was, you know, being a good parent-

I’m going to be a better parent than you, dad.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta



Dr. Sanjay Gupta


But I guess the flip side of that is that she’s very aware of of what it’s done for her, done to her. You know, I mean, and she would she’d dial some of that back, which I think in some ways made me a little bit optimistic. Like, I feel like a lot of times the inclination and we see this in medicine all the time, is to assume the worst case scenario. We have to assume the worst, hope for the best, but assume the worst. And everything that we do in terms of our how we respond is, is that that worst case scenario. But that is not the case for most people. So how to find the balance there? And I don’t know the answer, and I don’t know that you know the answer, but I’m just curious how you think about it.

Yeah, I mean, I this might be a little bit can I can I really believe this about myself, But I feel like they’re like you can develop expertise in how to use a tool well. And so the question that that comes up in my mind is like, is my son worse off because his dad is a Internet guy and he’s going to be on the Internet the whole time, all the time? And like and there’s no way I could be like, you can’t use social media. He’s going to be like, What do you do all day, every day? So what I would like is, and what I would hope, is that as sort of more people who were who had social media as part of their lives when they were younger have children that we’re at least able to have these conversations better or or talk about like, you know, any any new thing that enters into a society is very easy to abuse until you sort of develop norms and taboos about how to use it more well. But I think also just like any other sort of thing that can feel really good without a lot of, it’s a little like candy, you know. Where you know it, it tastes feel good, but it doesn’t provide a lot of substance. And and so I my hope is that we can get to a place where where we know how to use it. You know, it’s okay to have some, but you’re going to have to have some real food to.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


You know, this idea of the metaphor of junk food versus real food. I think that really resonates with me. I think that’s an interesting way of framing this, because, yes, there is content like Hank’s, which is educational and scientific and well thought out, but there’s also a lot of junk. And therein lies the problem. You know, recently I was having a conversation about this with my youngest daughter, Soleil, and she had shown me this meme on Instagram. And it was funny. We laughed, but it also wasn’t true. And I asked her, I said, Soleil, you know, this isn’t true, right? And she kind of laughed and showed me her phone again. Yeah, it’s on Instagram. And I said, Right, right. But, you know, it’s not true. And what she said next is something that really kind of stopped me in my tracks. What she said is, Dad, to be honest, I really don’t think that anything that I see anymore online is true. Think about that. So much of what comes across her feed is garbage. So in essence, as a result, it all becomes garbage. It all becomes suspicious. It is all lumped together and suddenly you find yourself in a really kind of scary place where nothing, nothing at all can be trusted. Social media in a lot of the Internet is just a playground for them not to be taken seriously. And that drags everyone down. It drags everything down. Even for someone like Hank, who by all accounts makes good, credible, fact checked, vetted content.

We’re talking about like sense making at this point. Like there’s always been structures of credibility. You know, if you go to the beginning of newspapers, everyone knew that every newspaper had a perspective, like there was a communist newspaper and there was a Republican newspaper, and there was sort of business news like, we have that to some extent now, and we have to sort of learn the shape of the information landscape. And that when I was growing up in the eighties and nineties, that was very that was more much more clear. And now it is very not clear. And so one thing that I try to do very hard is to get stuff right with the content that I’m making and when I get stuff wrong, talk about the fact that I got it wrong and why. And, and and that’s almost too for a lot of people like more instructive to be like, oh, so like not only is everyone fallible, but also you can sort of walk down the path of how you, what you a what what assumption you made that led to your wrong content in some way. But I worry about it being so person focused because a person almost is like has to be less credible than a really good organization because a person can only do so much and a person you can’t scale them the same way and you can’t you can’t build in fact checking the same way as you as you can with like a strong, robust news organization. And so if we end up in a situation where we only believe individuals, I think that’s a worse world.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


This is obviously something that you’re quite good at. And I’m not I’m not saying this just to flatter you, but a lot of people do pay attention to you and your work is also shown in schools, you know, and people that these things out and they want to obviously educate their kids in a good way. But how do you you will admit when you’ve got something wrong, That’s one thing you said. How much time do you spend thinking about the institution of trust with your own content? You want to get it accurate, but just the idea of trust, everything from word choice to, I don’t know your background to your your presentation, how much do you think about that in this digital world?

I mean, I think about I think about it all the time. It’s one of the things I worry about it and on a lot for a lot of different good reasons. You know, I worry about it for my own. I think a lot of people would be pretty devastated if, like, I didn’t live up to the, uh, the sort of, you know, what I, what I’ve been trying to portray publicly as, you know, the parts of me that are me. The thing I like to say about making content on the Internet is that, like all of me that you see is me. You just don’t see all of me. And I worry a lot about, you know, I’ve seen people both in just mistakes and in like really intentional ways to do things that have really destroyed a lot of their credibility. And they’re not just destroying their own thing, they’re destroying something else that is bigger and it’s inside of other people. And that’s the thing that I want to be most careful with.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Hank interacts online a lot more than I do, and that can take a toll even for a professional like him. When we come back, avoiding that urge to get into it for your own good.

I’ve gotten better over the years at realizing that you can’t really argue with a professional arguer without becoming a professional arguer. And that’s not what I do for a living.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


And now back to Chasing Life and my conversation with Hank Green.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


You know, Hank started posting videos at a time before YouTube stars were much of a thing. Keep in mind, this was 2007, and because of this, he’s got a pretty unique perspective as someone who kind of struck gold and gained Internet fame, a following that so many young people nowadays really aspire to. After spending so much of his career online, Hank decided to write about these experiences. Sort of. Hank published two books that touch on Internet fame and the digital world. They are called An Absolutely Remarkable Thing and A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor. I love the titles of both of them. And again, while these books are fiction, Hank says he was definitively drawing inspiration from his real life.

I mean, I was working through it. It’s such a it’s a weird job and not a lot of people have had it. And I was 27 when I uploaded my first YouTube video. So I was married an adult. I, you know, had a pretty stable set of situations. That is not the truth for most people. Like most of the people who were like my colleagues in that era where we’re like 18, 19, 20, maybe even younger than that. And it was a lot easier for them to make worse decisions. And because, you know, for all the reasons and and I kind of wanted to walk through like just sort of let let a character make some mistakes for me that so that I wouldn’t make. And also explore just sort of a lot of how I how I see the Internet now, how I think it’s going to be in the future and how good it is at turning absolutely anything into a fight.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


How much time do you spend online? Obviously, you’re spending time online to to make your content. But just as a user of these various platforms, how would you characterize your use.

Um, the parts where it would be tricky to call it work, I could probably make the case just to justify to myself. It’s probably on the order of 2 to 3 hours per day. The weird thing is that like what is online? Everything is online to some extent. And so like Netflix is online that I’m not counting that. But in terms of like using Twitter and TikTok and YouTube. Consuming content, doing social media, social stuff, it’s hours per day, probably two or 3 hours per day.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Have you ever thought that it’s too much? Have you ever wanted to cut back? And if so, how? How did you do it?

I feel like it’s a thing that you have to get good at. The times when it’s been destructive for me are when I have been using it like it’s. I’m almost looking for reasons to be upset. And I’m. I’m like, I’ve, I’ve stumbled across a piece of the Internet or like I sort of set of the content creators who are saying things specifically what bugs me probably the most of all things is when they’re taking some like nugget of scientific truth and then usually biological and then applying that to a social system or to politics in a way that is really appealing. But really it’s sort of backtracking to the perspective that they wanted to have. So just like grabbing some sciencey thing and telling a, like doing unscientific things with it where I’m like, I want to- just, I’m so mad. You can’t just say things! You know? And but of course you can just say things, and like I can get tied up in in being sort of angry that the world is not the way that I wish it were. And, and my wife kind of can quickly identify when I’m in that space. She’s like, there’s something that you’re mad about that has nothing to do with what you do. You also have to recognize that like the present, like you can’t fix everything. And so, like you have to focus on what you do and what you’re good at and what you actually like instead of, you know, it’s it’s harder to be a good dad and a good partner and a good leader at my businesses. If I’m sort of caught up in some thing that, you know, I think that the Internet is somewhat designed to to catch us in conflict because that is really good at keeping us on the platforms, which is ultimately what the platforms are designed to do and what their algorithms are designed to do.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Your your wife sounds very wise. Obviously. I am curious like these these videos or content that you’re consuming that do rile you up in the way that you described. How does it get to you? Is it is it part of your feed? Is it being fed to you by one of these algorithms you’re describing?

Part of my like, the fun part of my job is that people will ask me questions. And so one that I saw just this week, it came to me because several people on TikTok had seen this video, which got millions of viewers, and it was talking about some things in a scientific frame. And a bunch of people had tagged me and they said, Hank Green, is this true? And I mean, it was not. Like you’re just trying to take something that sounds, sciencey to lend credibility to your argument. But I, you know, like, I get in, I get into that and I like it gets my blood pressure going. But I’ve gotten better over the years at realizing that. One of the things. I realized this, that you can’t really argue with a professional arguer without becoming a professional arguer. And that’s not what I do for a living. I don’t argue with people for a living. I’m not on the Internet to yell at people. I’m on the Internet to help people learn and get curious and do well in school and and understand more of the knowable things of their universe and know more about the unknowable things. And that that’s beautiful and it’s fun. And like, I get so much joy from that. And I also think that it does more good than getting in a fight. You know.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


It’s easy to fire people up, you know, to appeal to their their amygdala. You know, they’re emotional centers of the brain. And that will get a lot of provocation and probably a lot of views. Do you do you resist the urge to go that way to to to just provoke? Because that would probably, you know, maybe get even more people fired up and sharing your videos.

Yeah, I’m lucky to be in a situation where I don’t have my goal right now isn’t to get more attention or even money or whatever it is. But what is pretty clear from research is that shouting at people and talking about how wrong they are and consequently how bad they are and like creating, you know, a set setting up the dichotomy of the battle of the conflict, is not good for your cause. Like it does not convince people of things. It pushes people to sides. That’s all it does.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


They’re riling up people who are already on their side, but maybe alienating others.

Yeah, alienating the others and and like riling up the people on the other side. They’re becoming fuel for the for their opponents by being this way.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


I mean, people when they come up to you in real life IRL, it’s probably very complimentary and thankful and grateful for, you know things that you’ve taught them and taught their kids. And I imagine that it’s the same way online in terms of the comments section and stuff like that. Do you read comments and do you feel like the response that you get in the digital world mirrors what you get in the real world?

Yeah. Yeah. For the, for the most part. And like there are comments that are cruel to me sometimes and there are people who disagree with things that I’ve done in the past and in one way or another, because, you know, I am not shy about my feelings on some controversial topics here and there. And the and so I’m like, you know, I’m kind of fine with that? It it’s taken I think it’s taken time to get there and to understand the extent to which I am some, I’m kind of not a person to some people? They don’t see me. They see me as a sort of a shell that contains a brand or a I don’t I don’t know. And and also I have gotten comfortable with the both the idea and the reality that I have more power than those people. And so they feel like they can throw a punch and I won’t feel it. And and also, if I throw a punch at that, they will feel like I just like stepped on them with a transformer robot foot like the that that you know you kind of when you when you’re on the Internet and you have a you have a following and you have. You have, you know, status for lack of a better term. You kind of have to understand that you wield a lot more power than you feel like you wield. And I watch people all the time, and I, it really bugs me to be like, I’m not going to censor myself just because I have an army of angry people who will attack anyone I attack, and that we will come into their lives and make themselves absolutely miserable to the point where they have to delete their Internet history. I’m not going to censor myself just because of that. And I’m like, Well, it’s not really censoring yourself to not to to, like, recognize that you have more power than you once had.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta



And, but that’s you know, that’s the whole separate conversation.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


But that’s really good self awareness, though. I mean, to recognize that you’d be punching down, so to speak, and with a pretty heavy blow if you decided to engage in that way. Whereas the flipside is that people may not recognize that they can leave a mark on you, you know, just because you are-

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


A guy-

They have no idea. And people have been you know, John and I, my brother, have made this content together. And we have been through times where there’s been pretty large groups of people who, you know, just kind of for fun, don’t like us. And they have they think it’s just fun and that we are having a good time, too. And we aren’t. But like, we can’t say anything. We just have to, like, live through it. You know, it’s it’s a bad part of a good thing.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


You seem to feel like it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


But you did think it was going to get better. I mean, it seemed like you did anyways. Is that how you still. Is that what you still think?

Yeah, absolutely. I don’t know how it gets better. I think that it’s going to be I think it’s going to require a lot of individual people having a lot of good, thoughtful thoughts and a lot of good conversations and a lot of time and experience with this. I think a lot about the printing press. We suddenly had the ability for people who disagreed with the church, for the Catholic Church to take it on and say, like, I think that you’re doing it wrong and we’re going to share that information. We’re going to be better at it than you, and we’re going to be more nimble than you. And it has so many parallels to that that sets of conflicts that we have now. And it was a messy, messy time. It was it was very bad. And lots of people died. And it was it was a book like nobody thinks we shouldn’t have books. We figured out how to have books and have them not be societally destructive. We figured out how to move through that time where it was probably for the best that we would like that Like we didn’t we shouldn’t have lived in a world where the church had that much power. We needed to move into a world where there was more individual agency. And I think we’re having that now. And that’s not a conversation about young people and screentime. That’s a conversation that every single one of us in the society we exist in right now.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


You write these books, and I’m curious because I feel like just reading these books and listening to you, it’s an opportunity for you to get these thoughts out through these these novels, fictional scenarios. Do you have an idea or did you go through the thinking of what a healthy, idealized version of social media could look like?

I do think about that. The thing that I’m working on now, which I don’t know if it will ever come out, is is about what I think the Internet could be like if we were thoughtful and careful about it. But it is very different from what we have now. And I think that that so like it’s you never feel like you’re in history when you’re. But we always are. You know, you never feel like you’re a part like. That this moment that we’re in right now is going to be part of a much larger story than most of these things that we’re talking about in 2023 are going to be entirely forgotten. But but we are. And we’re at the beginning of this revolution in communications. You know, I know people who’ve run big social media companies and and they do think about the societal implications of what they do and they consider society and the world one of the one of their stakeholders, along with their employees and their advertisers and their investors and whatever. But like, mostly the thing that we’re we’re fine with is like, okay, you’ve got this technology, use it how you can and make as much money as you can, because that’s how that makes sense. We haven’t really thought about how to do it in a way that’s really pro-social. We haven’t thought about how to sort of make the tool best for a human and best for human outcomes, because that’s really complicated and it’s kind of scary to say like, Oh, I’m going to use the social media platform is gonna make me happier. It’s like, Woo hoo hoo. That seems like they shouldn’t be able to push those buttons, but they can. So what? What is that future look like? And and is it dystopian or is it utopian or is it a little bit of both? Because that’s sort of what the future always is.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


The future. A little dystopian, a little utopian, all of it at the same time. It’s a really kind of beautiful way to look at it, an authentic way to look at it. It’s true. We never know which way things are going to unfold. You will be surprised, if the impact of these technologies will get better? Will they get worse over time? Maybe it’s going to be both. All that we can really try and do is understand them, these tools, at the time we are using them. We can develop an expertise in how to use them well, like Hank said, and at the same time we can sharpen our awareness of how they can be detrimental to us. Hank mentioned that even for him, someone with years now of experience, the pressures of being online can take a toll. And he’s probably got thicker skin than most. And frankly, that troubled me because Hank is Hank. But I worry about regular people. I worry about young people. This is something I’m hearing about even from my own kids.

How people see you, I guess with social media, you want to put out like a good picture of yourself, make it seem like. Like your life is so perfect. Even though not everyone’s lives is perfect.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Coming up next week, a conversation with my daughter Sky. About the pressures of being a teenage girl online. This is a conversation I will never forget. Plus, I’m going to sit down with the child psychologist about the impact this pressure can have on young people.

So we’re all just in this like, feedback loop of looking at perfect pictures and perfect photos, even though we know that’s not reality. So we’re just comparing our worst days. Our worst moments are worse angles to other people’s best. And of course, you’re going to not feel great when you do that.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Thanks for listening.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Chasing Life is a production of CNN Audio. Our podcast is produced by Grace Walker, Xavier Lopez, Eryn Mathewson, and David Rind. Our senior producer is Haley Thomas. Andrea Kane is our medical writer and Tommy Bazarian is our engineer. Dan Dzula is our technical director. The executive producer of CNN Audio is Steve Lickteig. And a special thanks to Ben Tinker, Amanda Sealy and Nadia Kounang of CNN Health and Katie Hinman.