Reacting to reality TV turned this therapist into an influencer, forcing him to make complex ethical choices

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Reacting to reality TV turned this therapist into an influencer, forcing him to make complex ethical choices
Dr Kirk Honda's YouTube channel has grown to over 300,000 subscribers since he began reacting to reality TV.Kirk Honda/YouTube
  • Dr Kirk Honda has been creating online content since he launched a psychology podcast in 2008.
  • In recent years, his YouTube videos analyzing reality TV led to exponential growth for his channel.
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In March 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, a Seattle-based therapist and professor did what around 30 million other households did — he watched Netflix's buzzy reality dating show "Love is Blind."

Dr Kirk Honda had been uploading episodes of his podcast "Psychology in Seattle" — where he discussed pop culture topics such as the psychology of John Lennon and Bill Cosby — to a YouTube channel for almost a decade, and had a modest following of around 30,000 subscribers.

Inspired by boredom, spare time, and requests from his listeners, he filmed his reaction to the first three "Love is Blind" episodes, analyzing contestants' reactions and discussing themes he sees as a marriage and family therapist.

Honda uploaded the video "thinking no one would watch it," he told Insider, but almost overnight his channel blew up.

According to the social-analytics tracker SocialBlade, Honda went from an average of around 16,000 weekly views to a peak of 1.6 million in mid-May when he uploaded eight "Love is Blind" videos. They became so popular that some cast members — who Honda does not want to name — began reaching out to him with responses to the hypotheses he shared about their on-air behavior, he said.

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"It was very fast and it was surreal and exhilarating," Honda told Insider of his sudden growth. But it was also "terrifying," he said, to suddenly have such a huge audience.

Still, Honda rode the wave of success, creating reaction videos to shows including "90 Day Fiance," "Married At First Sight," and "The Bachelor." In the past two years, he has grown his channel tenfold, hitting 300,000 subscribers in May.

It's allowed him to turn content creation into a lucrative career, but also presents challenges — psychology influencers can face controversy and have to strike a delicate balance between creating entertaining content while upholding ethical obligations.

Honda sets himself apart by presenting a narrative contrary to popular opinion

Honda — like many YouTubers — saw another spike in viewership by posting about the defamation case between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. He's uploaded dozens of videos about the trial, analyzing testimony from witnesses including Depp himself.

Unlike swathes of social media, Honda didn't take sides, but offered explanations for the alleged behavior some people criticized — mainly from Heard. "I'm really curious as to what is going on emotionally for her," he said, explaining why he analyzed Heard's reactions to key moments in the trial.

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It's reminiscent of his attitude towards Jessica Batten, the "Love Is Blind" contestant who was widely regarded as the villain of the first season, but with whom Honda empathized in his videos.

"I won't justify any kind of abusive behavior, but I'm not going to go along with the common discourse that she's evil horrible person who is lying 100% of the time," he said of Batten.

Offering a counter-intuitive take is a natural instinct, Honda told Insider. "I don't have to try to motivate myself to defend people like that because it angers me when this sort of bullying happens," he said, suggesting this may stem from his experience seeing "injustice" as a Japanese-American person growing up in 1970s Seattle, which he describes as "very white."

A post shared by Psychology In Seattle (@psychologyinseattle)

Honda told Insider he doesn't think this approach makes him any friends, saying he has received messages from people outraged that he defends those perceived as "wrong."

But comments under his videos suggest viewers do value his nuanced take, which can feel like a breath of fresh air amid the homogenous opinions often spread online.

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In October 2020, when social media was ablaze with rumors that Jada Pinkett-Smith had "cheated" on her husband Will Smith, Honda's video about the situation described their interactions as largely healthy and positive. It is currently his second most popular video ever, with 895,000 views.

There's a fine line between creating compelling psychology content and breaching ethical codes

Honda is not the first therapist to spot online interest in his expertise. Perhaps most famously, Kati Morton, a California-based marriage and family counselor, has built a following of over 1 million on YouTube, where she's been posting psychology videos for a decade.

In 2018, she faced backlash after participating in a docuseries produced by now-disgraced YouTube star Shane Dawson speculating about whether fellow influencer Jake Paul is a "sociopath" — an unofficial term for someone living with antisocial personality disorder. Other creators have also been embroiled in drama as followers accuse their psychology content of being misinformed.

In his 14 years online, Honda said he's encountered professionals in his field who believe there's no ethical way to be a practicing therapist and an online content creator, but he disagrees.

"Sometimes I will literally just ask clients, 'Do you listen to my podcast? Because I need to know so that I can account for anything you've heard,'" he said. That may be clients perceiving him as having broken privilege (he says he always obscures details of real-life cases) or hearing him share political views. Despite these risks, Honda believes his online presence can enhance viewers' experience in therapy.

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"There's a fair amount of education that can be helpful in therapy, but you don't have time, and clients have a lot of things on their minds and in their hearts that they want to tell me," he said, explaining his content can educate people on mental health, without them having to pay for the time.

"It's like another contact point with their therapist," he said.

There is a growing online appetite for psychology content

Even before his "Love is Blind" boom, Honda made enough money from Patreon, which allows users to donate money in exchange for exclusive content, to make content creation his full-time job. Now, followers can pay $50 for a personalized message from Honda via Cameo, and his TikTok account, which he said only exists because a loyal fan created his first videos for him, has racked up almost half a million likes since April.

@kirk.honda Stop Attacking Reality Stars #realitytv ♬ original sound - Dr. Kirk Honda

Between Honda and his wife Stacy, who helps manage his platform, he estimates they spend around 80 hours a week on his online content.

"I've been working my ass off for 14 years. With so many years of no one paying attention, but always trying and always pushing and always believing and always doing it in spite of everyone going, 'Why are you doing this?'" And I think, 'If we can reach enough people, they will find it useful for them,'" he said. "And I just believed that would happen."

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