Social media has changed our modern world – including our perception of celebrities and our way of interacting with them. Apps like Instagram and TikTok allow us to catch glimpses of the private lives of our favourite celebrities and influencers. We know what car they drive, where they spend their vacation or how they decorate their home. Many share even more personal information with their audiences, such as details about their dating life or their mental health struggles. By engaging with someone virtually, we can learn a lot about another person, creating an illusion of intimacy and identification. We may even perceive them as a friend – but there’s a catch: oftentimes, the other person doesn‘t even know that we exist. These one-sided relationships formed when we, as media recipients, repeatedly interact with media personas, are called parasocial relationships.
Photo: Becca Tapert, Unsplash
While social media presents plenty of new opportunities for bonding with strangers (e.g. commenting, following, liking, or direct messaging), the phenomenon is not new and most certainly not limited to influencers and celebrities. Donald Horton and Richard Wohl, who coined the term in 1956, focused their research on mass media and audiences’ perception of talk show hosts. Some scientists argue that we can build parasocial relationships with our peers, friends or fictional characters as well. You might be able to relate to this, for example, if you think back to your favourite TV show as a teenager and your relationship with the characters of the show.
It probably won’t surprise you that parasocial relationships used to be viewed as pathological. It was assumed that they were an expression of loneliness, fear of commitment to a real relationship, or mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety. However, most studies today don’t support these claims.
Conversely, a large body of evidence shows that parasocial relationships are, in fact, very common and completely normal. They might even positively influence our well-being by giving us a sense of belonging, increasing self-confidence or letting us experience feelings of affection and gratitude towards another person. Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, this kind of relationship may have helped us satisfy our universal need for human connection. Nonetheless, it’s still important to note that parasocial relationships can’t replace reciprocal relationships with people in real life. Here are a few things to keep in mind if you want your virtual interactions to add to your social life, not take away from it.
There is nothing wrong with occasionally enjoying reality TV or using social media. That being said, media overconsumption can be harmful to our mental health. Our innate drive to compare ourselves to others, especially getting sucked into the glamorous world of the rich and famous online, can lead to discontent with our own seemingly dull and uneventful lives, feelings of inferiority, negative self-perception and body dissatisfaction.
When we spend time online, it’s important to remember that what we see rarely reflects reality: Many social media personas, and likely even some of your peers, use artificial lighting and pose or flex to look perfect in pictures. Many images on your Instagram feed are heavily edited and sometimes altered by face filters. Remember that social media is a highlight reel of beautiful travel photos and smiling selfies, not an accurate representation of what someone’s life actually looks like.
In addition, influencers, celebrities, brands and many entrepreneurs usually have a whole team of assistants behind them to manage their social media accounts. I have two virtual assistants, one for my online counselling business and one for my other business, the Location Independent Therapists (LIT) Community, who support me with the creation of content, which is often planned and scheduled weeks in advance. Like most business owners, I don’t do it all on my own!
While your favourite podcast host or celebrity may be an important part of your life, to them, you’re just one out of many, maybe even one out of hundreds of thousands of fans. While they may appreciate your support, you’re still a stranger to them. Respect their privacy and remember that they’re not obligated to respond to your direct messages or meet up with you. It’s okay to have an idol to look up to but don’t let your admiration turn into an unhealthy obsession.
Use parasocial relationships as a stepping stone
The greatest thing about social media is that it allows us to meet people from all over the globe. It’s a wonderful tool to connect with like-minded people who share the same interests and build a community. You can use parasocial relationships as a stepping stone for forming real-life relationships by joining fan clubs or other online communities of people who enjoy the same tv shows, music, podcasts and pastime activities as you do.
And social media can also be used to make professional connections and grow your network. In fact, several members of the Location Independent Therapists have told me that they followed the LIT Community or me online for several years before they took the leap and joined our network of remote-working mental health professionals.
Nurture your real-life relationships
As mentioned above, parasocial relationships should be an addition to your social life. They can’t replace the bonds you build with people in real life. Spending quality time with a loved one is good for the soul, so remember to check in with your friends and family regularly.
If you find yourself escaping to social media frequently, it might be helpful to identify the underlying cause of this behaviour. Are you maybe dissatisfied with your relationships? Do you feel like there’s a lack of meaningful connections in your life? If you’re constantly experiencing feelings of loneliness and isolation, you might benefit from talking to a counsellor or therapist who can help you work through them.
What are your thoughts on parasocial relationships? Do you follow many celebrities on social media, or do you prefer to interact with people you know in real life only?
Photo: Becca Tapert, Unsplash