A parasocial relationship involves an enduring, one-sided connection between a viewer and a public figure. The audience member imagines that they have a powerful, enduring bond with the media figure, who does not reciprocate the relationship and is unaware of the viewer.

The media persona is often a musician, celebrity, or fictional film or TV character. More recently, people have formed parasocial relationships with bloggers, podcasters, and social media influencers.

Read on to learn more about parasocial relationships and how they impact people.

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A fan is someone who admires or is interested in somebody or something, such as a film or sports team. A fan may show loyalty, enthusiasm, and devotion to a person and their work. A public figure may inspire a fan to create meaningful work or stand up for a cause. However, unlike someone in a parasocial relationship, a fan does not feel that they have a relationship with the media figure.

There are several benefits and drawbacks of parasocial relationships to consider regarding mental health.

Pros of parasocial relationships

Parasocial relationships may help people improve their relationships, personal development skills, and overall well-being. A real or imaginary connection to a talented, successful figure may help a person feel better about themselves.

Parasocial relationships have links to attachment styles and may allow people the chance to experience a feeling of interpersonal intimacy while avoiding rejection.

Research from 2021 found that people with avoidant attachment may be more likely to identify with TV characters who display positive, appealing characteristics such as autonomy and independence. They may try to embody these traits, which may be an effective coping strategy.

Parasocial relationships frequently occur in adolescence and may play a significant role in social development.

A 2017 study suggests parasocial relationships may help adolescents develop autonomy and form an identity. The researchers believe adolescents may use parasocial relationships to imagine the relationships they want, which could have associations with gender and developmental goals. The study also stated that boys were more likely to see celebrities as mentors, role models, or authority figures, while girls were more likely to imagine a friendship with media figures.

Parasocial relationships may also:

  • provide support, inspiration, and motivation
  • be a positive influence
  • enhance self-esteem
  • create a sense of connection and community
  • teach life lessons
  • help people overcome challenges
  • provide meaning
  • prevent criticism
  • offer companionship
  • reduce prejudice
  • provide purpose and fulfillment
  • encourage healthy behaviors
  • reduce health-related stigma

Cons of parasocial relationships

Parasocial relationships may interfere with a person’s real-life relationships or daily life, especially if they take the place of real-life interactions and relationships. They can contribute to anxiety, loneliness, and social isolation, especially if they involve social media.

Over time, the unilateral nature of parasocial relationships may become unfulfilling and serve as a distraction from an individual’s life.

Parasocial relationships may also:

In 1956, sociologists Donald Horton and Richard Wohl developed the term parasocial relationship to refer to a one-sided relationship between a viewer and a media figure. The media figure may be a fictional character or a person who is alive or deceased.

A parasocial relationship develops over time through multiple viewing or listening situations, such as watching a TV show or listening to a podcast. During these experiences, the media consumer imagines that they are interacting with the performer — a parasocial interaction.

Extending beyond the viewing experience, a person may think and talk about the media persona as though they were a close friend. They may feel that they know and understand the media figure personally even though the connection does not involve direct contact.

An individual may have a parasocial relationship with one or more of the following:

  • actor
  • TV or movie character
  • celebrity
  • gamer
  • avatar
  • athlete
  • musician
  • radio host
  • podcaster
  • newscaster
  • presenter
  • talk show host
  • historical figure
  • politician
  • social media influencer

Parasocial relationships are a healthy and typical part of media consumption. An imaginary connection to a media figure may help a person overcome challenges, master new skills, or develop healthy habits. Someone may also use the achievements or admired traits of a public figure as motivation for self-improvement.

However, parasocial relationships may be a cause for concern if they interfere with a person’s daily life or real-life relationships. They may influence someone to engage in unhealthy behaviors, such as aggression, impulse buying, or restrictive eating. In extreme cases, a parasocial relationship may lead to obsession and stalking.

People must be aware that the perceived sense of connection or closeness is an illusion. If an individual feels they are investing too much time, energy, or emotions into the relationship, it is a good idea to take a step back and reexamine the situation.

A parasocial relationship is a one-sided interaction between a public performer and a viewer. The viewer feels that they have a close connection to the figure, even though they do not communicate or meet in real life.

For some people, parasocial relationships may be a source of inspiration and motivation. The media figure may be a positive influence and encourage others to develop their talents and skills. However, parasocial relationships should not replace real-life social relationships and interactions.