The tiny clock under your laptop screen reads 1:00 AM. Moving your eyes away, you focus on the YouTube video you’re watching: a content creator talking about how they love their fans. A sunshine-like warmth comes in waves, creating a sense of comfort because it felt like they were talking to you directly. Despite that, you can’t help but remind yourself that this person has no idea you exist.
The term “parasocial relationships” was coined in 1956 by psychologists Donald Horton and Richard Whorl. By their definition, parasocial relationships explain the relationship between a viewer and the person behind the screen. The difference between these relationships and regular ones lies in the lack of reciprocation between both sides. The interactions are one-sided between the fan and the celebrity or character. The viewer really only has a persona to cling onto.
Basically, you can attach yourself to a celebrity or a fictional character, but they don’t know of your existence. The question is, though, why do we attach ourselves to celebrities and fictional characters? Why do we feel a sense of comfort with them?
Why Do We Cling Onto Parasocial Relationships?
It may be a bit weird to see people attach themselves so easily to those behind the screen, but it’s actually more normal than you think. Humans are made to make social connections and relate to people. If we see a person or a character we relate to heavily, we naturally want to connect with them.
These relationships can give us a strong sense of belonging and help us feel understood. We can also connect with other people who share similar admirations to our favorite characters or celebrities. Normalizing the relationship even more.
Psychology writer Cynthia Vinney explains that just because we respond to celebrities and characters this way, it doesn’t mean “that [we] believe the interaction is real. Despite [our] knowledge that the interaction is an illusion, however, [our] perception will cause [us] to react to the situation as if it were real.”
This can be said about fictional characters as well. When your favorite character in a show dies, you will most likely experience strong emotions and cry.
It’s funny, though, that we have told ourselves for so long that everything on social media is faked and only shows the good highlights of someone’s life and personality. Despite that, we still find ourselves attaching to the version of that celebrity we see online.
Sometimes, celebrities could be portraying a different version of themselves and secretly be bad people. An example is K-pop group Day6’s former member, Jae Park. Who recently called out for a multitude of bad things after being known as one of the sweetest idols for years. Fans who truly connected to him were heartbroken, absolutely ruining the parasocial relationships he had with them.
Not to worry, though, because parasocial relationships are normal and can be healthy in the right situations. It’s okay to turn to your idols or favorite characters whenever you need a distraction from your current situation… but it’s important to be careful. It is possible to get overly attached to parasocial relationships.
Are Parasocial Relationships Unhealthy?
There are times when these one-sided relationships get a bit rocky. Two of the biggest issues that can arise from these relationships are obsession and putting real-life people up on a pedestal.
If you follow an influencer too much to the point where you’re discarding your real-life relationships, that’s where problems arise. It’s okay to idolize these celebrities and learn about them, but you shouldn’t be using it as a replacement for actual relationships.
Parasocial relationships may cause people to idolize celebrities, setting up high standards for them. Realistically, these celebrities are people just like you. Whenever you find out that your favorite celebrity has done something problematic, you’ll feel betrayed and demand an apology immediately. The thing is, though, you’ve only been in a parasocial relationship with that person – they’re very likely to be problematic and flawed. You haven’t seen that side of them because it’s not something they’d portray to the internet. Funny enough, their hidden side is their truest form. Despite how much someone may show their life online, you will never know them on a personal level the way you think you do.
There are also moments where some fans may think they’re entitled to know every little detail about their idol – that, as well, is detrimental to both the celebrity and the fan. Some people blame influencers for promoting these parasocial relationships by being overly friendly and interacting with fans. Whether or not it is the celebrity’s fault for this, people who develop these relationships need to try to understand that who they’re idolizing are real people.
So… Now What?
Parasocial relationships will always be around, but it’s important to remind ourselves of a few things. We need to remember that we cannot put celebrities on a pedestal above humans and understand that they are people — just like everyone else is. We also need to make sure we don’t replace current, two-sided relationships with one-sided ones. Our real interactions in person are more important than a celebrity you follow online.