Parasocial relationships are made up of one-sided interactions between a person and a media persona of their choosing, such as a musical artist or a professional athlete. These interactions typically consist of one side investing emotional energy while the other side has no idea the other person exists. In order to gain a better understanding of parasocial relationships, let’s get into some definitions.
“Para” means “alongside of” and “social” means “relating to or designed for activities in which people meet with each other for pleasure”. So while there is some danger in engaging in parasocial relationships, these relationships are perfectly fine as long as they are formed in addition to, or alongside of, healthy, real-life relationships.
Let’s also get into the definition of a “persona”. A persona is the aspect of someone’s character that is presented to or perceived by others. It is also defined as a role or character adopted by someone. So in a parasocial relationship, we are in engaging with an extension of someone we admire, not necessarily them as a person. Also, everyone has a different perception, so our connection to the media persona and even our idea of them falls in line with our personal reality, especially with the relationship being one-sided.
When engaging with our favorite media personas, we may express gratitude, encouragement and loyalty towards them. We can all think of a song, show, etc. that helped us through sad times, like a break-up or the loss of a loved one. It’s not uncommon to allow the connection we feel to that media to strengthen our connection to the media persona themselves. We also may also seek to embody qualities that the media persona presents, such as the way they dress or the things they appear to be passionate about. This plays into feelings that the media persona is helping us mold our own identities.
Despite parasocial interaction being widely believed to be indicative of mental illness, a study reviewed by Howard University Doctoral students revealed that this behavior actually increases social connections. Many are able to join or form on and offline communities based around their shared love of a particular media persona, which allows them to expand their social network of actual people. We are also able to strengthen bonds with real-life friends and family through our mutual connections to these media personas.
Parasocial relationships can also provide a sense of comfort and companionship. We know that we can always engage with these personas and that there is no way they can truly reject us, as the relationship is completely one-sided.
THE INTERNET AND THE DARK SIDE OF PARASOCIAL INTERACTIONS
The internet has provided around the clock access to media personas. As the number of social media platforms seems to grow by the day, media personas are becoming increasingly more candid on social media. Celebrities are sharing everything from their morning and night routines to their own experiences with their actual loved ones. There is also an abundance of online media personas to choose from these days, especially with the rise of social media influencers across platforms like Youtube and Instagram. Also, the rare chance that the persona may interact back, even in the slightest way, brings users a sense of excitement.
Like everything in life, parasocial interactions can reach extremes. For example, “stans” are considered to be a combination of the words “stalker” and “fan”. They are famously known for inhabiting online communities such as Beyonce’s “Beyhive” or Nicki Minaj’s army of “Barbz”. While most of their interactions are centered around uplifting the artists they “stan” ( Yes, “stan” is a noun and verb), the interactions can also become weirdly obsessive and take an unpleasant turn.
One example of this is “doxing”, which is the act of searching and publishing private and identifying information about a particular individual on the internet, typically with malicious intent. It is not uncommon for a member of a stan community to expose the employer, phone number or even the home address of someone who has a dissenting opinion about their cherished media persona.
Political views, purchasing decisions, beliefs about certain groups of people can also be affected by the media personas we fixate on. Regardless of how problematic their standpoints and behaviors might become, some stans are desperate to stay aligned with their favorite media personas, as they don’t want the parasocial relationship to come to an end.
The majority of people engage in parasocial interactions. These relationships are okay as long as we continue to form and sustain healthy relationships alongside of these interactions. It is also imperative that we don’t bring harm to others over their individual perceptions of our favorite media personas. We cannot lose ourselves in the name of engaging with people who are ultimately unaware of our existence.
Howard University Doctoral Students for FindAPsychologist.com: Nomi-Kaie Bennett, Amy Rossmeisl, Karisma Turner, Billy D. Holcombe, Robin Young, Tiffany Brown, and Heather Key