What are parasocial relationships? Inside the Social Media-Powered Phenomenon

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Have you ever felt so close to a celebrity (eg, a world-famous influencer, actress, or musician) that you’d swear you knew each other? You’re not alone: ​​As screens have grown to dominate our lives, especially in the age of COVID-19, these connections, known as parasocial relationships, have flourished.

Whatever form yours takes — from a crush on someone who doesn’t know you to a deep “friendship” with a celebrity — parasocial relationships are completely normal and can actually be healthy, experts say. Here’s everything you need to know about parasocial relationships, according to psychologists.

What are parasocial relationships?

A parasocial relationship is “an imaginary and unilateral relationship that an individual establishes with a public figure that he does not know personally”, explains Sally Theran, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychology at Wellesley College, who studies parasocial interactions. They often look like friendship or family ties.

Parasocial relationships can happen with virtually anyone, but they’re especially common with public figures, like celebrities, musicians, athletes, influencers, writers, hosts and directors, Theran says. They don’t have to be real, either – characters from books, TV shows, and movies can occupy the same mental space.

“Most of these relationships are born when someone is admired from a distance,” explains Gayle Stever, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Empire State College/State University of New York who studies parasocial attachment. “The lack of reciprocity is a defining characteristic.” Most happen through the media, but they can also form in other settings, like with a professor, pastor or someone you see on campus, she notes.

They are not new either: the term was invented by researchers Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl in 1956 in response to the rise of mass media, especially television, which were entering American homes en masse. Radio, TV and movies “give the illusion of a face-to-face relationship with the performer”, they wrote.

A parasocial interaction – another term coined by Horton and Wohl – involves a “conversational exchange” between a person and a public figure. In other words, by a paper 2016, a parasocial interaction is a false sense that you are part of a conversation you are watching (eg, in a reality show) or listening to (eg, in a podcast with multiple hosts).

Are parasocial relationships healthy?

These types of relationships tend to be “pretty healthy,” says Stever. “Parasocial relationships usually don’t replace other relationships,” she notes. “In fact, you could say that almost everyone does that.”

“They can serve a kind of purpose that other relationships don’t,” Theran says. “You don’t have to worry that the person you have a parasocial relationship with will be mean or mean, or reject you.”

For example, at Theran to research along with fellow Wellesleys Tracy Gleason and Emily Newberg, the trio discovered that teenage girls were likely to form parasocial relationships with women older than them, such as Jennifer Garner or Reese Witherspoon, becoming mothers, big sisters, or mentors. “It’s a great way for teens to connect with someone risk-free and experience their identity,” she says.

And despite pop culture leaning for stories of parasocial relationships that have become dangerous, the vast majority will never reach that point. “There are rare instances where someone loses touch with reality and creates an unhealthy connection that is obsessive, but that’s more the exception than the rule,” says Stever.

Why do people form parasocial relationships?

Parasocial ties often help us fill in the gaps in our real-world relationships, Theran says; it’s an almost risk-free way to feel more connected to the world. They can also be elements of development: “In our youth, they often take the form of ‘crushes’ or admiration for someone as a role model,” says Stever.

We are wired to be social creatures; when our brains are at rest, they imagine making connections, Stever says pointing to the book Social: why our brains are wired to connect. With the rise of new forms of media constantly pushing personalities into our faces, it only makes sense that we try to connect with them like we would with people in the real world.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only increased our ability to have parasocial relationships, according to a May 2021 study. As social distancing continued, parasocial closeness increased, suggesting that our favorite media personalities “became more meaningful” throughout the pandemic. “Some people may be drawn to people they admire as a way of [help] loneliness,” says Theran.

And many public figures, especially influencers, have figured out how to encourage parasocial relationships in the way they communicate online. That’s why they’ll call themselves your ‘best friend’, stare straight into the camera and develop inside jokes: it’s almost like they know who you are, blurring the lines between social media and life. real. To some degree, celebrity culture relies almost entirely on making those connections with as many people as possible.

“What fascinates me is how social media allows people to have increased access to celebrities,” says Theran. “People may have a stronger sense of connection to that person and feel like they know them even more because they see the celebrity in their own home. However, it’s important to remember that celebrities, and really any public figure, only project what they want their audience to see.

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