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What Is a Parasocial Relationship?

parasocial relationship
A parasocial relationship is a one-sided relationship that a media user engages in with a media persona

Have you once felt like you know a character or a celebrity from a show? A parasocial relationship is a one-sided relationship where the media user extends emotional energy, time, and interest with the persona who is unaware of the other’s existence. These relationships are more familiar with television stars, celebrities, and organizations such as sports clubs.

The media user can develop a parasocial relationship with social media influencers, celebrities, fictional characters, animated characters, and other media figures like podcasts, movies, tv shows, radio talk shows, or social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook TikTok, Youtube, or Twitter.

History of Parasocial Relationship

Parasocial relationships have been present since the invention of books and later television. The oldest form of this relationship was between the interaction of book readers and their authors. But with the invention of television, parasocial relationships were in the spotlight.

In the early stages of television, there were no social media influencers, no reality shows, or video games. The only way to form parasocial relationships was through watching movies or TV.

For example, individuals would watch the same actors for a long time, thus building an attachment and feeling like they know them personally.

Nowadays, relationships have shifted from TV actors to Youtubers, social media influencers, and other online personalities.

The difference between early parasocial relationships and today’s is that relationships are becoming more common and intense due to online entertainment.

Why People Engage in this Type of Relationships

Studies show that people engage in these relationships for social interaction and companionship, where they view the persona expressing gratitude, encouragement, and feelings of affection. In turn, the media user gives attention and loyalty to the online persona.

According to McCutcheon (2002), individuals engage in parasocial relationships to compensate for what they lack in their life, like poor psychological adjustment, lack of identity, and difficulty in forming intimate relationships. Having a relationship with a celebrity gives them the fulfillment they lack and adds a sense of excitement and purpose.

People engage in these relationships for belonging and connection. The need for these two is crucial in our aspects of living. It comes immediately after the necessities. Many young adults have their needs covered, but their sense of belonging is not fulfilled.

Another reason for parasocial relationships is the physical attraction of the persona. Other reasons for this relationship include anxiety, depression, lack of security at home, past trauma, and negative experiences in relationships with others.

People engage in parasocial relationships because it’s easier and more comfortable creating parasocial interaction than meeting new people, going out, and creating intimate relationships.

Stages Of Parasocial Relationship

Maltby and Giles (2006) identified three stages of parasocial relationships using the Celebrity Attitude Scale. They include:

  • Entertain – Social: Maltby and Giles state that many individuals engage in parasocial relationships at one point in their lives, mostly stage 1 — Entertainment – Social — where the persona or celebrity is viewed as a source of entertainment and for light gossip topics with friends. It’s the least intense stage of the parasocial relationship.

 

  • Intense – Personal: it’s a deeper stage of a parasocial relationship. The media user has an enormous relationship with the persona or celebrity at this level. For instance, the media user may view the celebrity as their soulmate and have great interest in the persona’s private life, like foods they eat, dress code, and their lifestyle in general. This level of parasocial relationship is mainly seen in teenagers who are keen on every detail of their favorite celebrity’s lifestyle.

 

  • Borderline Pathological: it’s the most intense stage of parasocial relationships. In this stage, the media user takes celebrity worship to the extreme. They spend large sums of money because of celebrities’ obsessive fantasies and engage in illegal activities like stalking.

Signs 

Do you have a parasocial relationship?

Below are the common signs of parasocial relationship:

  • Following your favorite streamer or celebrity all the time
  • Donating for their forums
  • Commenting on their channels whenever they post
  • Caring about their personal life and their achievements than your achievement
  • Feeling sad, hurt, and angry when someone insults your favorite celebrity
  • Neglecting your tasks and relationship for following your celebrity
  • Having no important connections in your life except the parasocial relationship
  • Following their lifestyle and making the same decisions as your celebrity

You may not have all these symptoms, but you’re likely to have a parasocial relationship if you have more than three of these.

If you notice you have a parasocial relationship, it’s better to observe how it impacts your life. If it’s the only way of connecting with others to replace personal relationships in your life, you may opt to reconsider it.

How To Have Healthy Parasocial Relationships Online

A parasocial relationship can be unhealthy and toxic, especially when the bond is strong. 

Spend time with others in real life- parasocial relationships are always one-sided, where the media user knows a lot of information about the influencer.

But, face-to-face conversations with people in real life help maintain healthy mutual friendships.

Real-life conversations are the pillars in creating genuine connections where you both know and understand each other instead of a one-sided online relationship.

Getting inspiration from influencers – watching celebrities with the same interests as yours can be a great role model for you.

These people can help show you what’s possible with dedication and perseverance through their success, beliefs, or hobbies.

Know that social media does not reflect reality- celebrities only share what they choose to show their audience. They won’t show you the drama, bad days, and depression they face in their personal lives. Their work is to show you their highlight reels.

There are behind-the-scenes works that fans don’t know about because, in reality, their lives could be the same as ours.

The Bottom Line

With the rise of influencer culture in social media, it’s normal for us to form parasocial relationships with who we see. But these relationships can be toxic and unhealthy, so there is the need to create healthy relationships both on the internet and in real life.

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Samuel Njoroge

AUTHOR: Samuel Njoroge

Samuel (he/him) is a freelance writer, blogger, copywriter, and marketer. And a career spanning three years and enjoys crafting error-free content that increases subscriptions and sales. Samuel excels in mental health, self-improvement, technology, and marketing topics.

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