What Are Parasocial Relationships?

If you spend a lot of time online, you've probably noticed the rise of the term parasocial relationship. Although the term was coined by two psychologists in 1956, it has taken off in popularity since the internet became a part of nearly everyone's daily lives (via Dictionary.com). It soared to new pop culture heights in 2021, as reported by Vox, when comedian John Mulaney triggered the outrage of over-invested fans by going to rehab, getting divorced, and getting a former fan pregnant within a matter of months. Even though the term is now frequently thrown around on social media and in celebrity interviews, it's typically treated as common knowledge and not thoroughly explained.

Have you ever followed a celebrity, influencer, or YouTuber closely or bought merchandise you didn't want just so you could have a hand in supporting your favorite creator? Have you ever sent a private message or letter to a celebrity or influencer even though you don't know them personally? If so, you have likely participated in a parasocial relationship of your own. Here's what you need to know about how to identify a parasocial relationship and how to tell when one has become a problem.

What does a parasocial relationship look like?

According to Find a Psychiatrist, a parasocial relationship consists of one-way interactions and idolization from one party toward a public figure who isn't aware of their significance to that party or even that party's general existence. Before social media took over the world, this phenomenon would typically present as fans of celebrities sending letters, obsessively following articles or television appearances, and even showing up at their homes. Now that every celebrity and influencer can communicate and share their daily lives directly with their fanbase on social media, the lines are more blurred.

Basically, it is almost impossible to avoid taking part in parasocial relationships in the modern era. And that is not inherently bad. Feeling a connection to a celebrity or influencer you relate to can be inspiring and even healing to many (via Women's Health). It is only when a person's interest in a public figure becomes obsessive or starts to take the place of real relationships that a parasocial relationship may become problematic to one or both parties. 

When does a parasocial relationship become problematic?

When a person's interest in a celebrity or influencer becomes obsessive, there are many ways in which it can quickly take an unhealthy turn. Obsessive fans are more easily manipulated by creators who use their connections with their audiences to sell products or engage in inappropriate sexual relationships (via Vulture). Parasocial relationships can lead to overspending, using products that are poorly made or even dangerous, or even to romantic/sexual relationships where the idolized person holds all the power. The fan may also go to extreme measures to emulate their idol, including disordered eating, over-exercising, or plastic surgery.

In the most extreme cases, unchecked parasocial relationships can lead to criminal behavior that can spill over to the real physical world. While these cases are incredibly rare, some have ended in tragedy. For instance, in 1980, John Lennon was murdered by a Beatles superfan who felt personally betrayed by the singer's new solo career (via ABC News). 

If you feel like you may be susceptible to becoming obsessively invested in the lives of public figures, make a point of taking breaks from social media and spending time with real friends and loved ones on a regular basis. If you are an influencer who has received obsessive or threatening communications from a follower, don't be afraid to reach out to authorities if you feel unsafe.