Parasocial “Realities” are Hurting Society
Feeling a longing to be accepted and to belong somewhere is not rare. With the prevalence of social media, many people are turning to influencers and fictional characters to fulfill that social connection. With that comes the rise of parasocial relationships, a one-sided emotional connection felt only by the media consumer . Parasocial relationships can offer mental health benefits, such as feeling connected to others . However, it has significant drawbacks, like depression and poor self-esteem .
The need for social connection and community drives a parasocial relationship. Parasocial relationships do differ significantly from parasocial interactions. Parasocial interactions tend to be short-lived, in-the-moment observations from consuming media. In contrast, parasocial relationships protrude into one's daily life despite long-concluded interactions . Social connection is "the sense of closeness and belongingness [with] a person" . With the increase of people feeling loneliness due to the pandemic , the allure of using celebrities or characters to foster a sense of companionship and community has spiked. Besides these benefits to mental health, parasocial relationships can promote healthier lifestyles and the "adoption of healthy attitudes and behaviors modeled or promoted by the media figure" , which furthers viewers' overall mental well-being.
On the other hand, if a media influencer models unhealthy behavior, viewers adopting that behavior would harm their mental and possibly physical health. Negative messages regarding materialism or ideal body images  diminish viewers’ self-esteem, making them susceptible to developing eating disorders, unhealthy spending habits, and more. Additionally, fostering a pseudo-friendship or even romantic relationship gives viewers unrealistic and delusional expectations of how their influencer should behave. "When fans become attached to internet personalities or celebrities online, they begin to make assumptions about their lives and opinions" . Fans create an idealized version of their influencer, which only exists within their mind. When the influencer inevitably does not maintain those unrealistic standards, the fan's mental health drastically suffers  as if a real-life loved one betrayed them, which can result in depression. According to Sabella who has overcome a parasocial relationship, it can be soul-crushing for a fan when they are faced with the harsh reality that the celebrity they’ve come to love isn’t real, but “a culmination of everything [they] and [their] team want me to believe and know” . Due to Affective Bonding Theory, "Because these emotional reactions feel real, the brain determines that they are real — even if they’re in response to a fictional or unattainable character" . The line between fiction and reality ceases to exist.
Although the relationship between a fan and an influencer preoccupies the fan's mind constantly, this does not mean those in parasocial relationships cannot maintain real-life reciprocal relationships. For those with attachment anxiety, an elevated need for belonging may develop due to fears of losing current relationships. In this case, parasocial connections add to their sense of community rather than substituting it .
Celebrities and influencers are aware of parasocial relationships and often exploit them for increased popularity and sales. "For example, in the K-Pop industry, many celebrities are forbidden from dating [to] be seen as 'accessible' to fans" . Promoting a one-sided relationship where fans "feel pressured to support the celebrity they obsess over for anything[, and] everything they do"  is a clever way to ensure that fans will buy and promote products the influencer sponsors and uses. Additionally, the chance to meet and interact with a celebrity at a concert or gathering encourages parasocial relationships while gaining monetary benefits from the expense of these interactions. Although one-sided, influencers are also affected as they struggle to maintain boundaries with their fans . One example is Doja Cat’s canceled concert in Paraguay, where angry fans waited outside her hotel in inclement weather . Their one-sided connection to Doja Cat caused them to believe that they deserved her time. Unable to satisfy her fan’s unrealistically high expectations, Doja Cat announced that she was quitting music. Although she hasn’t followed through, the severity of her declaration gives us insight into how the stresses of parasocial relationships with celebrities can cause extreme judgments.
Overall, although parasocial relationships do have merit in fulfilling a sense of belonging, they do have drastically negative consequences on mental health. Despite the apparent positive benefits, it is essential to note that developing emotional dependency in a relationship, whether it be with a peer or through a screen, is dangerous in itself. Emotional dependency is when “an individual needs another person to stay happy and cannot take full responsibility for their feelings. One might…feel powerless to nurture these emotions themselves” . Letting someone else hold authority over another’s emotions leaves them open for irreversible harm, even if they briefly gain some emotional benefits. Failure of influencers to meet expectations can increase depression and anxiety and lead to poor self-esteem in fans. Despite this, not all parasocial relationships cause harm, and they don't always need to be actively avoided . If someone has underlying mental health issues such as attachment anxiety, where they feel like it's best to prevent parasocial relationships, limiting social media consumption can limit the potential for a dependency to develop. Since they mirror real-life relationships, where quality time together is needed to form a bond, in some aspects, decreasing the amount of time participating with influencers can have a similar effect. It is essential to recognize if one is losing ownership of their emotions and to seek out help.
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