What Are Parasocial Relationships? Inside the Social Media-Fueled Phenomenon

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Have you ever felt so close to a celebrity (say, an influencer, an actress, or a world-famous musician) that you’d swear you two know each other? You’re not alone: As screens have grown to dominate our lives, especially during the age of COVID-19, these connections, known as parasocial relationships, have flourished.

No matter the form yours take—from a crush on someone who doesn’t know you to a profound “friendship” with a celebrity—parasocial relationships are completely normal and can actually be healthy, experts say. Here’s everything you need to know about parasocial relationships, according to psychologists.

What are parasocial relationships?

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A parasocial relationship is “an imaginary, one-sided relationship that an individual forms with a public figure whom they do not know personally,” explains Sally Theran, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychology at Wellesley College who researches parasocial interactions. They often resemble friendship or familial bonds.

Parasocial relationships can happen with basically anyone, but they’re especially common with public figures, like celebrities, musicians, athletes, influencers, writers, hosts, and directors, Theran says. They also don’t have to be real—characters from books, TV shows, and movies can occupy the same mental space.

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“Most of these relationships originate when someone is admired at a distance,” says Gayle Stever, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Empire State College/State University of New York who researches parasocial attachment. “Lack of reciprocity is a defining feature.” Most occur through media, but they may also form in other settings, like with a professor, pastor, or someone you see around campus, she notes.

They aren’t new, either: The term was coined by researchers Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl in 1956 in response to the rise of mass media, most notably TV, which was entering American homes in droves. Radio, television, and movies “give the illusion of face-to-face relationship with the performer,” they wrote.

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A parasocial interaction—another term created by Horton and Wohl—involves “conversational give and take” between a person and a public figure. In other words, per a 2016 paper, a parasocial interaction is a false sense that you’re part of a conversation you’re watching (say, on a reality show) or listening to (like on a podcast with multiple hosts).

Are parasocial relationships healthy?

These kinds of connections tend to be “quite healthy,” Stever says. “Parasocial relationships usually don’t replace other relationships,” she notes. “In fact, it could be argued that almost everyone does this.”

“They may serve some kind of purpose that other relationships don’t,” Theran explains. “You don’t have to worry that the person with whom you have a parasocial relationship with will be mean or unkind, or reject you.”

For example, in Theran’s research with her Wellesley colleagues Tracy Gleason and Emily Newberg, the trio found that adolescent girls were likely to form parasocial relationships with women who were older than them, like Jennifer Garner or Reese Witherspoon, becoming mother, big sister, or mentor figures. “It’s a great way for adolescents to connect to someone in a risk-free way and experiment with their identity,” she says.

And despite pop culture’s penchant for stories of parasocial relationships turning dangerous, the vast majority will never reach that point. “There are rare instances where someone loses touch with reality and creates an unhealthy connection that is obsessive, but this is more the exception than the rule,” Stever explains.

Why do people form parasocial relationships?

Parasocial bonds often help us fill gaps in our real-world relationships, Theran says; they’re a mostly risk-free way to feel more connected to the world. They can be developmental building blocks, too: “In our youth, they often take the form of ‘crushes’ or admiring someone as a role model,” Stever explains.

We’re wired to be social creatures; when our brains are at rest, they imagine making connections, Stever says, pointing to the book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect. With the rise of new forms of media constantly shoving personalities in our faces, it only makes sense that we try to connect with them like we’d relate to people in the real world.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only increased our capacity for parasocial relationships, according to a May 2021 study. As social distancing wore on, parasocial closeness increased, suggesting that our favorite media figures “became more meaningful” throughout the pandemic. “It may be that some people are drawn toward people whom they admire as a way to [help] loneliness,” Theran explains.

And many public figures—especially influencers—have figured out how to encourage parasocial relationships in the ways they communicate online. That’s why they’ll call themselves your “best friend,” look directly into the camera, and develop inside jokes: It feels almost like they know who you are, blurring the boundaries between social media and real life. To a certain extent, celebrity culture is built almost entirely upon forming these connections with as many people as possible.

“What’s fascinating to me is the way that social media gives people increased access to celebrities,” Theran says. “People may have a stronger sense of connection to that person, and feel like they know them even more because they see the celebrity in their own home. However, it’s important to remember that celebrities, and really any public figure, are just projecting what they want their audience to see.”

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