In my teens, I was obsessed with Dawson’s Creek. I related to Joey, played by actress Katie Holmes, on a visceral level, on a cellular level. After a while, it became Katie Holmes who I related to, who I rooted for and felt protective of. Especially during the Tom Cruise years. I was invested in her life. I feel pretty confident in saying that she was not as equally invested in my life. (More than pretty confident, actually.)
Likewise, about fifteen years ago, I interned at a record label in New York City. What it lacked in any kind of financial payment, it made up for in cool celebrity sightings. I had the chance to come face to face with a handful of artists and performers. I’m sure our brief meetings (read: accidental brush past in the hallway) meant more to me than it did to them. A real life run-in plus what I gathered from entertainment news made it easy to feel like I had a special connection with them. A completely one-sided connection, in which I rooted for their success and felt pained over their failures and heartaches.
There’s a name for this kind of one-way relationship with a celebrity: “parasocial relationship.” In the 1950s two sociologists coined the term after observing how media, including radio, television, and film, could “give [spectators] the illusion of face-to-face relationship with the performer.”
In an interview with the New York Times, Luke MacNeill, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of New Brunswick in Canada noted that most people have these types of relationships and they are largely driven by people’s “innate drive to connect with other people.”
The Rise Of Social Media
My kids check in daily with their favorite Fortnite-playing YouTuber. They tell me stories about his latest video with the same excitement as they use to tell me about their day. It’s the 2021 version of a parasocial relationship.
In the twenty-first century, developing a parasocial relationship with a celebrity is even easier. This is not only because the definition of celebrity has expanded to include social media influencers, YouTubers, streamers, and reality T.V. stars, but because social media has made it easier to interact with these celebrities — via comment on their post, for example — and they might just comment back.
The parasocial relationship is still one-sided, but it’s also somewhat interactive.
Benefits Of A Parasocial Relationship
Even though parasocial relationships are one-sided, they do benefit the spectator. One study found that parasocial relationships have a positive effect on folks with low self-esteem. Jaye Derrick, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Houston, highlighted this finding while discussing the study. He said, “We found that parasocial relationships help people with low self-esteem feel closer to their ideal selves.”
Also, parasocial relationships can encourage the spectator to change their behavior for the positive. Alex Kresovich, a doctoral student at the U.N.C. Hussman School of Journalism and Media, found that spectators with attachments to a celebrity are more likely to change their behavior based on that celebrity disclosing or drawing media attention to a health condition. One example of this is Katie Couric. Her on-air colonoscopy led to an increase in colon cancer screenings.
Parasocial relationships have other benefits, as well. They can provide a sense of belonging, provide motivation and inspiration, and provide advice and expertise (especially in the case of someone who looks to influencers who are experts in their field.)
Dangers of A Parasocial Relationship
Parasocial relationships can become problematic when taken too far. In the most extreme situation, a parasocial relationship becomes toxic when it crosses the line into stalking. A comment on Instagram is one thing. Tracking down their home address and leaving a letter in their mailbox is another.
Less extreme, but just as serious, is when the parasocial relationship begins to replace real life relationships. Riva Tukachinsky, an assistant professor of communication studies at Chapman University, noted that, “a person could be creating and rehearsing unrealistic scripts of how relationships are handled in real life.” (The good news is most folks aren’t involved in parasocial relationships to compensate for a deficiency in their own social lives.)
There’s also the other side of the health coin to consider. If influencers, reality T.V. stars, and celebrities can influence health behavior for the better, they can do the same for the worse—as in the case of celebrities who promote vaccine conspiracy theories or diet culture.
Overall, parasocial relationships are like most other things—problematic if taken to excess.
“What most people are trying to do is connect with other human beings,” noted Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, a nonprofit based in Newport Beach, California in an interview with PBS. Parasocial relationships are easy, no-risk, low-maintenance relationships we all engage in. And no doubt will engage in for much of our lives.
As long as celebrities and social media influencers exist, parasocial relationships probably will, too. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.