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(Un)real friends – parasocial relationships and mental health

In the mid-1950s, TV host Dave Garroway noticed something strange when he was walking around the town where he lived. After beginning his stint as presenter of NBC’s Today show, Garroway noticed that complete strangers would approach him in the street, greeting him warmly as though they knew him and asking after his wife. He was said to have found it a little unsettling that people would approach him and talk to him as if he were an old friend.

Garroway had pioneered a paradigm shift in presenting TV shows. His style was different to the formal radio and TV announcers during the immediate post-war era. Instead of addressing the home audience as though they were assembled for a lecture or beyond the footlights in a theatre, he talked into the camera as if he was addressing each individual directly. A pair of social psychologists called Horton and Wohl1 studied this phenomenon and named Garroway’s way of talking to his TV audience a ‘parasocial interaction,’ which they described as “a simulacrum of conversational give and take.” In short, it gave audience members the sense of talking with a friend.

Getting personal

Things in the media have changed significantly since the early days of Today. These days, Garraway’s approach of talking directly to camera is standard for everyone from daytime TV presenters to online streamers. But even where that isn’t the case, people develop parasocial relationships with people they don’t know directly all the time.

So, what is a parasocial relationship? It is the social and emotional connection we develop with people in the media that we don’t know personally. The characteristics of a parasocial relationship include feeling a connection and closeness to the person, and that relationship being one-sided. We feel as though we know the people we have parasocial relationships with, but they don’t know us.

Focus of attention

One of the things that gets parasocial relationships the attention that they’ve attracted seems to be the evolution of fan culture. Whether it’s ‘Beatlemania‘ in the 1960s to the emergence of waifuism, commentary on parasocial relationships has tended towards an analysis of extremes and implied a level of cringe. Many of the articles that have appeared online about parasocial relationships talk about the drawbacks from the perspective of uncomfortable or overwhelmed subjects of parasocial interactions from fans or followers, whilst much of the research has focused on them as pathological and those having them as being in need of treatment.

People who have parasocial relationships, particularly ones related to stereotypically ‘geeky’ fandoms or ones that are assumed to have majority female followings, are sometimes portrayed as being obsessive and odd. However, many of us will have recently seen the overwhelming outpouring of public grief and mourning culminating in a queue of many miles in length containing 250,000 people following the death of Queen Elizabeth II. What could motivate so many people to flood into the streets and grieve so openly? This is a clear example of a parasocial connection to a public figure the vast majority of the population had never known personally, but it is seen as socially acceptable – even expected – whereas for fans of TV shows or film franchises it is seen in a different light by wider society.

Parasocial benefits

Many articles about parasocial relationships present them as problematic. This overlooks the evidence that parasocial relationships can be really good for you. Academic research into the phenomenon in general2 and observations during the Covid pandemic in particular3 have shown that there are lots of upsides. Parasocial relationships can induce feelings of connection and community, protect against loneliness and isolation, and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. Watching a favourite show, film or YouTuber has similar benefits to attending a low-stress social engagement where you are surrounded by people whose company you enjoy, chatting amongst themselves.

Parasocial relationships can be especially important for people from gender, sexuality and relationship diversity (GSRD) groups. For queer people in general, and queer young people in unsupportive homes in particular, parasocial relationships with queer characters or celebrities can ease feelings of loneliness, give a sense of connectedness to wider communities and help manage the stresses of being in a minority group without immediate support. Knowing that you are not alone in the world can be an enormous source of support and comfort, as well as having the comfort of enjoying media that feels joyful and familiar.

Most importantly, for the majority of people, parasocial relationships are an enjoyable and harmless way of connecting with celebrities and characters that they find relatable. But as with everything in life,

Getting the balance right

We can see from the links and references above that there are two sides to the story of parasocial relationships, but what does it mean for people in practice? In reality, for most people, there’s not much to know other than parasocial relationships are a healthy expression of the social nature of human beings in response to a culture where we are surrounded by people talking at us and characters that are created to be relatable.

At the same time, there is some truth in the articles linked around how parasocial relationships can affect the person on the receiving end of powerful attachment from fans. There are also some things to bear in mind to protect yourself and make sure you’re staying safe, sane and consensual in your parasocial relationships with characters and performers.

1. If it’s getting a bit much, take a step back – relationships with celebrities or characters can be a lot like interpersonal relationships in that sometimes they can become intense, especially at the start. If you notice that you’re throwing huge amounts of time and energy into a parasocial relationship, it might be good to check in with IRL friends, either online or in person, to ground you in the present so you don’t get swept away.

2. Your parasocial paramour is only part of the picture – whether it’s a celebrity or a performer playing a character, the person you’re engaging with online is only part of the whole person. What you’ve learned about a character from canon or what you know of a celebrity from their socials sometimes doesn’t line up with the person you imagine them to be. This is particularly important to remember if the person you’re invested in ends up disappointing you in some way, as flawed human beings inevitably do sometimes. Remembering that you’re not seeing the whole person can be helpful to remember if it turns out that your fave is problematic, or if something happens to your favourite character in canon that is hard to bear.

3. Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries – social media can make famous people seem accessible and approachable, giving a mistaken illusion of intimacy. Tagging a celebrity into social media posts about them – good or bad – can seem like a harmless thing, but it can be overwhelming for the person on the receiving end. Tagging people into things they might not want to see, such as negative reviews or even explicit fanworks, is overstepping a line and can put people in uncomfortable positions. Pay attention to how someone is interacting with fans on social media and take cues from that. Would you interact with a co-worker in a face-to-face interaction the way you do with a favourite celebrity online? If not, you might want to take a step back.

4. Being safe – celebrities, like the rest of the population, can be good or bad people and everything in between. The adulation of fans can often place them in a position of power, and some people can use power to manipulate others. Sadly, plenty of stories exist about fans being exploited by celebrities, but it’s not always the famous people themselves who are using fame to access impressionable people. Fake accounts and people posing as celebrities online can also dupe unsuspecting fans. It is unwise to share any information or pictures online with anyone you don’t know well in person. If in doubt, don’t.

End credits

Parasocial relationships, like interpersonal relationships, can be fantastic and joyful. They can add to our lives and make us feel like we’re part of something. As with all good things, there can be dark sides. Checking in with yourself and maintaining your boundaries can help you stay safe and continue to enjoy the benefits without falling foul of the pitfalls.

1Horton, D., Wohl, R. R. 1956. Mass Communication and Para-Social Interaction: Observations on Intimacy at a Distance. Psychiatry, 19:3, 215-229.
2Hoffner, C. A., Bond, B. J. 2022. Parasocial relationships, social media, & well-being. Current Opinion in Psychology, 45:101306.
3Bond, B.J., 2022. Parasocial relationships as functional social alternatives during pandemic-induced social distancing. Psychology of Popular Media 11, 250–257.

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