By: Elise Dunaway
SALT LAKE CITY — Many people feel attachments to celebrities or fictional characters. They treat them as if they knew them in real life. This is known as a parasocial relationship. The term was first used in 1956 by Donald Horton and Richard Wohl in their paper “Mass Communication and Para-Social Interaction: Observations on Intimacy at a Distance.” It originally referred to television figures, but has since been expanded to include celebrities, fictional characters, athletes, and other media figures.
Originally thought to
mbe mostly formed only by lonely and isolated people, studies have since shown that everyone experiences parasocial relationships, regardless of how lonely they may be. In extreme cases, parasocial relationships can result in stalking or other problematic behavior, however most people treat them as they would a normal interpersonal relationship.
University of Utah freshman Lily Chidester thinks that parasocial relationships are more common today due to how prevalent social media is. Social media allows people to interact with others who have a parasocial relationship with the same figure, which then can help develop real friendships with those people.
“Networking among people with a common interest is greatly amplified by social media because it increases the fanbase of the thing in question, whether that’s a fictional character, like in a book or a TV show, or a celebrity, who’s a real person, but is just one person,” Chidester said. “They can’t interact with everyone that knows them.”
Social media also increases the access people have to celebrities. People have the chance to interact with public figures, which can increase the likelihood of forming a parasocial relationship.
“It seems that liking, sharing, and commenting on social media increases perceived intimacy between the person and the celebrity or character, increasing the person’s perception of their bond,” said Dr. Julia Moore, a Communication professor at the University of Utah.
Parasocial relationships offer many benefits to the person engaging in them. They provide a sense of companionship and can supplement real interactions with people. They also provide a sense of connection and community. People are able to bond with others who have a parasocial relationship with the same media figure. This gives them a group of people they can relate to.
Parasocial relationships are still relationships even though there is no reciprocation involved. People tend to get attached to celebrities they view as similar to themselves. These relationships can give people an emotional outlet. They can be themselves because there’s no expectation to meet a certain standard or act a certain way.
“The greater the intensity of the parasocial relationships, the more likely it is to have a significant impact on one’s life in terms of time spent, goals, and emotions or feelings of attachment,” Dr. Bert Uchino, the Department Chair of Psychology at the University of Utah, said.
A study done in 2017 looked at what kinds of public figures adolescents formed parasocial relationships with. It also looked at how they classified those relationships. Subjects were asked to name one celebrity they’re attached to and explain why. Their responses were then categorized into Actor, Singer/Musician, Athlete, Other, and Writer. The Other category included figures like talk show hosts and comedians. For girls and boys, actors were by far the most popular public figures to be attached to.
According to Dr. Uchino, access to actors and other public figures via social media can increase the likelihood of forming parasocial relationships.
“It gives them yet another platform to interact with fans and often involves disclosure of personal information, which we know deepens relationship development,” he said. “It is likely that celebrities know this and are trying to foster a more devoted fanbase.”
While celebrities can’t form relationships with each individual fan, their actions on social media can encourage the fans to do so with them. Appearing to be relatable can increase a sense of connection and devotion. This can also increase how many people are part of the fanbase.
Social media may not play as big of a role in the formation of parasocial relationships with fictional characters. As they aren’t real, the characters can’t make posts or interact with fans in any way, shape, or form. The development of a parasocial relationship would then have to come from the source material and original content generated by fans.
“I have these fictional characters that I have built relations with, and particularly Harry Potter is super interesting because it’s something that was from my childhood. I’ve read the series an insane amount and basically have it memorized. It’s a huge part of me and how I define myself,” Chidester said. “It’s taught me ways to better myself as a person and the characters have taught me things about myself that definitely still could have come about in relationships with people where it was reciprocated, where they’re not fictional characters in a book.”
College students can receive companionship and support from parasocial relationships. This can be very beneficial, especially when trying to balance school and having a social life.
“Parasocial relationships can be especially beneficial for college students with low self-esteem. Parasocial relationships with fictional characters or real celebrities can make people feel a sense of belonging,” Dr. Moore said. “So even though parasocial relationships are not ‘real’ in that the two people don’t actually know one another or interpersonally interact, these relationships have real effects on people, and many of these effects are positive.”