Social media and pop culture are incredibly influential components of our current society. Being so easily connected to public figures can cause confusion on how well we really know them though. After all, a post on Instagram or a 5 minute interview on YouTube doesn’t show us a celebrity’s true personality or private life. The parasocial relationships we form with celebrities and influencers can be misleading and damaging to our real relationships.

The New York Times states: “The term [parasocial] was coined in the 1950s by two sociologists who observed that dominant mass media — at the time, TV and radio — created the illusion of a friendship between spectator and performer, and ‘the most remote and illustrious men are met as if they were in the circle of one’s peers.’”

According to Author Otegha Uwagba, “The term describes people forming intense – and crucially, one-sided – attachments to celebrities or public figures.” But in order to understand the intensity and potential danger that comes with parasocial relationships, we have to understand the psychology behind it first.

What causes parasocial relationships?

Social media plays a large role in developing parasocial relationships. According to The New York Times, “Social media allows interactions between celebrities and fans which supports parasocial behaviors more, as an individual may believe they have relationships with figures because they replied to their message or noticed their comment.”

During the pandemic, social media use increased significantly. Isolation and quarantine caused parasocial relationships to rise since people couldn’t be around others. Uwagba states, “For many of us, periodically trapped at home and unable to socialize, our favorite creators and media personalities have stepped into the breach left by our real-life friends.”

Dangers of parasocial relationships

Although parasocial relationships may seem like nothing more than fans adoring a role model, in some cases, they can become excessive and dangerous.

Individuals may use parasocial relationships as a way to ‘escape’ issues in their real life relationships. Psychologist Mark Travers states, “This type of temporary escape from the realities of one’s relationship is not going to fix underlying relationship issues and is likely to only make matters worse.”

Extreme parasocial relationships can cause a person to neglect their real life relationships. A 2019 study found that strong parasocial relationships can lead to unhappiness in romantic relationships. 

Being attached to a celebrity or public figure can cause people to be lazy and disinterested in their partner, leading to harm and challenges in the relationship.

Furthermore, being overly-invested in social media can cause a person to be dissatisfied with their own lives. It is an unfair comparison; the lives of celebrities are often not the same as how they present it on social media. In fact, a study from 2018 proves that social media comparison decreases quality of life and happiness.

Forbes states, “Many (celebrities) have PR teams in place to ensure only the best version of themselves is available to their fans. If we try to compare our real lives to how their lives are represented online, we are constantly playing a losing game.”

Parasocial relationships that reach an extreme level are not only harmful to an individual, but also to the public figure they’re adoring. 

“I think sometimes people with larger platforms or audiences have a level of protection,” said Harry Potter actress Evanna Lynch. She added, “When you have a smaller, more intimate audience, I think people do expect a reply, and they feel like you’re very close.”

Lynch shared an experience she had with an extreme fan online. “One guy – I’ll never forget – wrote me novel-length letters on Facebook every day, talking to me as if I was his best friend and telling me about his life.” She said, “Sometimes he’d be really friendly and sweet, and other days he’d be furious because I actually never replied.”

With such interest in public figures’ lives, followers can forget that they don’t actually know these people personally. This can cause rumors and false assumptions to spread which is unpleasant for public figures.

For instance, Michelle Andrews, who hosts the Shameless podcast alongside Zara McDonald shared, “Four years into doing the show, we still on occasion receive DMs that imply we’re not actually friends, or that we’re trying to deceive people and don’t actually like each other – that we secretly fight behind the scenes and aren’t as close as we appear on the show.”

Benefits of parasocial relationships

If not taken to a dangerous level, psychologists state that parasocial relationships may actually have benefits.

According to a study, parasocial relationships can “enhance feelings of connection and community, facilitate coping, foster personal development and identity exploration, and reduce prejudice (through parasocial contact).”

During lonely times, when in need of camaraderie and company, parasocial relationships can help. Whether you’re following an actor, singer, athlete or YouTuber, it’s important to maintain a healthy boundary between your personal and parasocial relationships and always remember that you’re seeing a manicured version of reality.