[ARTS OPINION] Parasocial relationships: connecting with celebrities is actually healthy


Clara McKoy

TRANSCENDING REALITY. Parasocial relationships form when an individual is illusioned to believe they know someone deeply who may not even know they exist. “Why is having fantasy interaction with either a celebrity or a fictional character strange at all? It’s actually the most normal thing for people to do,” Professor of psychology Gayle Stever said.

Clara McKoy, RubicOnline

Forming intimate emotional connections with a favorite movie or TV show character isn’t as weird as it sounds. And it’s healthy.
Parasocial relationships are one-sided psychological encounters between an individual and a persona who they are illusioned to believe they truly know. The formation of parasocial relationships is increasingly possible due to the access and prevalence of social media in many individuals’ lives.
The term, originating in 1956 by researchers Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl, surfaced as TV usage across the country rose exponentially as a part of Americans’ lives. It refers to non reciprocated and one sided relationships between an individual and someone they do not know on a personal level. They often occur with public figures such as celebrities, influencers, and actors due to their abundant time in the spotlight and the illusion that fans actually know them. But, parasocial relationships can also form between an individual and someone who does not exist in the real world: movie, TV, or book characters can fill the same placeholder as real people do in parasocial relationships.
Professor of psychology at Empire State College, Gayle Stever, Ph.D., argued that parasocial relationships are far more normal than they are often portrayed as. He explained that most people do form them, and—although they can never replace real relationships—they don’t usually reach any level of harm.
A 2017 study found that adolescents’ engagement with public figures is especially intense. They tend to face the most significant impacts of parasocial relationships, in part due to their stage of social development. Not only can these parasocial relationships mimic similar foundational steps of normal friendship, but they can also positively influence aspects of an individual’s identity. Adolescents often migrate towards personas that they perceive as mentor figures, or look up to in some way. This healthy admiration ultimately allows them to benefit from inspiration of the identity they admire.
Another study even found that individuals with low self-esteem can benefit from parasocial relationships due to the protection against rejection. Because the nature of parasocial relationships is non-reciprocal, the initiator of the connection doesn’t face any sort of the rejection that is possible in real-life relationships.

Parasocial relationships are far more normal than they are often portrayed as.”

While some argue that the harmful possibilities of parasocial relationships should be more closely examined, cases of destructive obsession taking over are the exception, not the rule. Beyond obsessiveness, another concern is that consumers can develop entitlement to celebrity’s lives; believing their favorite public figures owe them attention, personal details, or content. While parasocial relationships can certainly diverge into these circumstances in extreme cases, the large majority do not. Consciously accepting that a public figure or character is not a friend, but allowing space to think otherwise, is perfectly normal and healthy.
Parasocial relationships should never be weighed more highly than real-life ones, but that does not disregard the fact that they can be extremely valuable. At the end of the day, they are completely natural attachments to make to someone, especially considering the role of online public figures amid the current digital age.

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