What Are Parasocial Relationships? Why You’re *So* Obsessed With Your Favorite Celebrity Couple - Group Therapy LA
Schedule Your Free Consult

What Are Parasocial Relationships? Why You’re *So* Obsessed With Your Favorite Celebrity Couple

What Are Parasocial Relationships? Why You’re *So* Obsessed With Your Favorite Celebrity Couple
June 25, 2024

If you’re someone who spends ~a lot~ of time online—like, you begrudgingly know in your heart of hearts that you are chronically online—you’ve probably heard the term “parasocial relationship.” Heck, it’s more than possible that you’ve engaged in one or two yourself.

In the age of social media, all it takes is a simple “follow” to begin this virtual connection. And while a little bit of internet-infused fandom is relatively normal, it becomes a parasocial relationship “when a person develops an attachment to a celebrity [or] an online personality,” says Cara Gardenswartz, PhD, a clinical psychologist and founder of Group Therapy LA and Group Therapy NY.

Maybe you felt like you were vicariously living through Taylor Swift when she attended her first of Travis Kelce’s Chiefs games on September 23, or you find yourself rewatching Zendaya’s interviews where goes out of her way to bring up Tom Holland. But it’s a one-way street: While the non-famous person in a parasocial relationship feels deeply connected to this celeb, the celeb isn’t aware of the connection.

Ahead, learn about the types of parasocial relationships, how they form, and why these seemingly harmless connections can become unhealthy, according to therapists.

Types Of Parasocial Relationships

There are two common types of parasocial relationships: interactions and attachments. Here’s how to tell the difference between the two, according to experts.

Parasocial Interactions

Parasocial interactions are “when someone feels a sense of connection or intimacy with a [public] figure,” says Gardenswartz, and they can look different depending on the situation. You might be a huge fan of Serena Williams, for example, but you don’t just watch her whenever she plays tennis on TV. You always tune into her Instagram Lives (no matter what you’ve got going in IRL), and you may even respond aloud to what she’s saying as if you’re there with her in person, says Morgan Anderson, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist, attachment theory expert, relationship coach, and author of Love Magnet. But here’s the catch: While you genuinely feel connected to Serena as if she’s your best friend in these moments, it’s “an interaction where you’re having a deeper connection than is based in reality,” explains Anderson.

Another example is if your favorite influencer posts that she gave birth, and when you comment “Congratulations!” on the photo, they like the comment. This makes you feel like you have a growing closeness and maybe even a relationship with this person from this interaction—but it’s parasocial, Parks says.

It’s also possible to form this type of ‘ship with a fictional character, adds Shawntres Parks, PhD, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist and Women’s Health advisory board member based in West Covina, California. Say you’re watching a television show, like Gossip Girl, and you genuinely feel like you’re friends with Blair Waldorf. You get the sense that you two know each other intimately, even though she’s a fictional character.

Parasocial Attachments

This type of parasocial relationship takes the concept of interactions up a notch. “The individual feels a sense of dependence on the [figure] for emotional support or validation,” Gardenswartz says. “They really rely on this person.” The individual might also feel like there’s affection growing between them—even though that affection isn’t real and isn’t developing like it would in a typical real-life relationship where there’s a series of consistent personal interactions, adds Parks.

Someone engaging in a parasocial attachment with Jennifer Aniston, for instance, might frequent her Instagram profile in search of some sort of validation. When they click on her story that says “Have a great day, everyone!” they use that to determine what they’re going to do or how they might feel, Gardenswartz says.

Another example: If Khloe Kardashian posts about her partnership with an organization brand, someone with a parasocial attachment might feel like Khloe is speaking specifically to them and wants to help them get organized. While this person might feel like there’s an attachment growing with their favorite influencer, it’s not based on any substantive interactions.

How do parasocial relationships form?

As social creatures, humans need connection to survive, says Anderson. “If we don’t have connection in our everyday lives, our brain may start to find creative ways to make it happen,” she explains. That’s why those who are feeling isolated or disconnected from people in their everyday lives might be more susceptible to developing parasocial relationships. Because it’s normal for influencers and celebrities to share so much personal information online, it feels like there’s intimacy between these public figures and their followers. For someone who’s isolated, this connection may feel fulfilling, Parks adds.

Forming this kind of attachment can also come from a fear of putting yourself out there with real people, being vulnerable, and potentially facing rejection, Anderson adds. “This individual’s responding to an attachment need, whether it’s a need to be seen, be heard, be valued,” Parks says. For instance, this individual could have avoidant or anxious attachment, and this might feel like a “safe” way to fulfill that need of a secure attachment without fear or rejection from someone in real life.

A parasocial relationship also offers a form of escapism and stress relief. It “can provide a sense of companionship, a sense of entertainment, even a sense of inspiration,” Gardenswartz says. This type of connection can even help people cope with the negativity and distractions of real life, especially if someone is struggling with an IRL relationship, Anderson adds.

Plus, celebrities and public figures often show their relatable sides online, and that’s when it’s especially easy to get attached, Gardenswartz says. (Taylor Swift loves cats? So do I—I just know we’d be besties.) Plus, that attachment grows every time you’re exposed to that figure on social media, which tends to increase over time as these apps’ algorithms are highly repetitive and feed you more of the content you want to see.

Social Media’s Role In Parasocial Relationships

Before social media, you might’ve felt a connection with the news anchors while watching the Today Show, for instance, Gardenswartz says. It was easy to feel like the anchors were really speaking to you because they were in your home every day, but that feeling has since become magnified with the “I’m here with you all the time” effect of social media, she notes. If you have your phone, you have instant access to a celebrity’s recent thoughts, activity, and whatever else they want to share.

With social media, “we have such a view into people’s everyday lives” that was never accessible before, Anderson says. Therefore, it’s much easier to form a parasocial interaction or attachment now because online communication platforms, like Instagram and TikTok, create a false sense of connection between a media figure and their followers.

Plus, these days, digital media is the biggest way to reach a mass audience, whether it’s social media, podcasts, or radio. These forms of media are maintained by creators consistently making content and individuals subscribing to or following them. If a creator doesn’t have an audience, there’s no market for them to keep creating content. Consequently, “there are relationships that are naturally built in those media channels where in order to sustain it, we need people to buy into it,” Parks says.

People not only need to buy into the idea that an influencer actually uses the brand they’re partnering with, but in order for them to continue wanting to consume this content, they also need to connect with someone’s voice or look, or the feeling they receive from interacting with their content. From there, it’s a cycle: The individual consuming the content gets positive feelings from the content and craves more of it, and the content creator has to put out more content to keep connecting with their followers, Parks explains.

Are parasocial relationships healthy?

It depends on the level of intensity of said parasocial relationship, but all of them have pros and cons.

Potential Pros

  • Education: “There’s so much educational content we can get from online sources or from people we don’t actually know,” Anderson says. An example of this could be influencers who share mental health tips on how they like to increase their self-care, or even personal trainers who post health and fitness tips, she adds.
  • Coping: Engaging in parasocial relationships can certainly be a form of escapism from real life and a way to cope with loneliness, Anderson says. “For some people who feel socially isolated or marginalized, a little bit of escapism or stress relief might not be that bad,” Gardenswartz says. However, too much of it can be negative.

Potential Cons

  • Misinformation: Spoiler alert—not everything you see on the internet is true. There’s a lot of false information posted by celebrities and influencers, and it can make someone feel depressed or anxious, Parks says. An example: Over-consuming political content that leans into extremism in either direction might impact the way you interact with people IRL who have more moderate perspectives, she explains.
  • Comparison: If you follow lots of influencers who cover beauty and fitness content, they can make you feel bad about yourself. Lots of influencers seemingly have “perfect” skin or bodies, and by regularly seeing these images, you might begin comparing yourself to them and becoming critical, Parks says.
  • Mental health issues: People with parasocial relationships may be more likely to become depressed and feel lonely. “If you’re having parasocial interactions or attachments, that’s simply not going to get you the kind of connection you need to prevent against mental health disorders,” Anderson says. That’s because these relationships can’t provide the same personal fulfillment that an IRL relationship can. It’s also not a healthy way to cope with any preexisting mental health issues, and you could be using your time in a more beneficial way, like seeing a therapist.
  • Obsession: There are levels to having parasocial relationships, and if they get to a point where they take you away from your real life connections, that’s when it can become an obsession and is unhealthy, Anderson says. Like, maybe you cancel your standing monthly lunch date with a friend because Taylor Swift is doing an Instagram Live. “It actually can lead to a sense of loneliness or dissatisfaction with real relationships,” Gardenswartz adds. And there’s a real possibility that parasocial attachments can replace your real-life ones.

How To Avoid Parasocial Relationships

If you want to steer clear of these kinds of ‘ships, there are a few expert-approved strategies to try.

  • Test your reality. Anderson recommends trying Reality Testing, a cognitive behavioral intervention. On a piece of paper, write down the facts of this scenario, like: “I commented on Taylor Swift’s TikTok today. It got 1,000 likes, but Taylor herself did not like it.” Then, be honest with yourself about those facts to determine if it’s a real relationship. In this case, the context clues are telling you that Taylor Swift most likely does not know you exist.
  • Consider your ROEI. This is your return on energy investment, according to Anderson, and it can help you gauge if a parasocial relationship is worth the effort you’re putting into it. If you spent two hours Instagram-stalking your favorite influencer, ask yourself what you’re *actually* getting out of all that time spent investing in this relationship. Maybe you ended up buying $300 worth of kitchen supplies they recommended, but you subconsciously know you’ll never use them.
  • Notice how you feel. Overall, when you’re engaging with someone’s content, take stock of your emotions. “What do you notice in your body about the feelings that come up?” Parks asks. If the feelings are positive, continue nurturing it, but if the feelings are negative, think critically: Is it the individual that’s making you upset? How about the topic?

If you’ve realized your parasocial relationships probably aren’t a good way to use your time after these exercises, break the pattern. Start implementing alternate behaviors in place of investing your energy into these kinds of relationships, Anderson says. So, whenever you’re tempted to visit that influencer’s profile, pick up a hobby, go on a walk, phone a (real-life) friend, take a bath, or journal.

And from now on, spend more time meeting people IRL and nourishing your existing connections. “Ultimately, no matter how much intimacy you think you have with someone on social media, you are not building a reciprocal, two-way, real connection,” Anderson says.

It’s also a good idea to limit your time on social media—Gardenswartz recommends spending a max of 40 minutes a day on social media apps. And if you want to go the extra mile, be “conscious of the level of power and control we have to block, unsubscribe, not watch,” Parks says. If you want to experiment with blocking or muting someone’s account, try it for 30 days and monitor how you’re feeling. Your feelings for that time period will also help determine if it’s really adding to your life in a positive or negative way.

Remember, social media isn’t real—it’s just an app on your phone. “It’s really easy to forget that you have the power to not engage in these things because they’re so ever-present,” Parks says. So, the next time you get an urge to Instagram stalk a celeb, go outside and touch some grass.

Source: Women’s Health