Dangers of Parasocial Relationships



Viewers’ relationships with social media icons and content creators have evolved greatly over the years, even to the point of parasocial relationships (photo courtesy of Pixabay, photo credits to Firmbee).

Parasocial relationships, or the perceived relationships we have with celebrities, have perpetuated all of our lives in one way or another; over time, it has become even more prominent with the growth of social media.

Oxford Reference defines parasocial interaction as “a kind of psychological relationship experienced by members of an audience in their mediated encounters with certain performers in the mass media”. Viewers develop a one-sided relationship with a celebrity from exposure to their appearance, personal details, humor, and personality like they would know that of a close friend. Through consuming the content they create, a viewer invests emotional energy and attachment to a media figure, and through this believe they “know” the celebrity.

The term was first coined in 1956 by Donald Horton and Richard Wohl, when they described it as “intimacy from a distance”. In their study Mass Communication and Para-Social Interaction,  they explain that for most people, parasocial interactions usually complement their current social interactions. Some individuals, however, exhibit extreme parasociality, even to the point where they substitute parasocial interactions for real-world social interactions. 

“Since 1956 when [parasocial relationships were] first talked about, we’ve gotten so many new technologies… that really change how we are entertained and how we engage with content,” said Arienne Ferchaud, an assistant professor in the School of Communication at Florida State University.

While this has been a concept since the beginning of celebrities, it has greatly grown since the development of social media. YouTube is the most prominent platform to perpetuate this concept. When a creator is consistently uploading content, parasocial relationships are commonly formed through the creator’s desire to interact with their fanbase.  

“[On YouTube,] the audience actually has an active role in the content that is created. It sort of blurs the line between creator and viewer [in a way] that hasn’t been possible before,” said Ferchaud.

Throughout their videos, many YouTubers act as though they are talking directly to their watchers. This often comes in the form of addressing the viewer directly as “you” or “you guys”, giving a sense of interaction to the individual. They are more likely to share stories or details from their personal lives in a casual manner, which further gives a sense of connection to the audience.  In fact, in a study conducted by Google in 2017, it was found that 70% of teenage YouTube subscribers say they relate to YouTube creators more than traditional celebrities, and 40% of millennial YouTube subscribers say their favorite creators understand them better than their friends.

“There’s something so much more relatable about YouTubers than celebrities. They really seem like regular people who just wanted to pick up a camera. You see a lot more about their personal life than regular celebrities too,” said sophomore Katherine Palmer. 

Viewers with this sense of friendship towards YouTubers also maintain higher expectations and more strong emotional reactions when controversies occur. Fans will either passionately defend or be devastated by a content creator’s mistakes. Controversies are greatly fueled by these high emotional reactions that only happen because of this one-sided, perceived relationship with a creator.

“I was such a big fan of CallMeCarson before the whole controversy happened. It really had an effect on me…my mood was ruined for [several] days, just because of this one YouTuber,” said freshman Jake Tillman.

The line separating healthy interactions with content and harmful parasocial relationships can be a difficult one to define. While there is no harm in enjoying videos by your favorite creators, it should not develop to a point where it defines part of your life. Enjoy the people who create content, but understand the barrier between you.