If you’ve been on just about any social media platform lately, you’ve probably heard the world’s newest favorite phrase floating around, “parasocial relationship”. Whether you’ve heard the term in context with John Mulaney and Olivia Munn’s divisive relationship or TikTok’s infamous “couch guy”, it’s become everyone’s favorite term to lean on (and criticize) in recent weeks. Although much of the world has made a joke of the term, naming it as an excuse for our inexplicable fascination with the relationships of those we don’t even know—the phenomenon is very much real, and it’s been around for decades.
So why the sudden focus on parasocial relationships, today? While the term isn’t exactly new, coined in 1956 by social scientists Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl, our current way of living and communicating with each other via social platforms has given way to its popularity—and inherent severity. The access that we have to others around the world, from celebrities to your ex’s new girlfriend, provides real-time insight into the lives of those we don’t actually know (and likely won’t ever meet), encouraging unhealthy attachments and even reliance on relationships that are solely one-sided.
While Google can offer a brief definition for parasocial relationships, the term is far better dissected and explained by behavioral scientist, Dr. Bethany Cook, PsyD, MT-BC. STYLECASTER sat down to chat about the intricacies and complications that come with our immediate—and, oftentimes, unfiltered—access to millions of others via social media. And although the initial idea can be frightening, we’re happy to inform you that it’s not all bad news when it comes to parasocial relationships.
What Is A Parasocial Relationship?
Dr. Cook defines a parasocial relationship as “a one-sided psychological relationship experienced by somebody who begins to feel an emotional, intimate connection to someone they’ve never met.” While we’ve heard the term referenced most frequently when it comes to celebrities, these connections can flourish between an individual and anyone they don’t have physical and reciprocated emotional access to.
Dr. Cook continues, a parasocial relationship “includes intimacy and friendships, you feel support from this person—it’s everything you have from a two-sided relationship but there’s nothing actively coming back from the other person.” This idea is what makes platforms like TikTok so conducive to developing parasocial connections. The creators on the app, who thrive off of sharing their unfiltered personalities, create an unrivaled feeling of tangibility between users.
How Has Social Media Impacted These Relationships?
With that, TikTok isn’t the only social platform that’s led to an increase in these types of relationships. The access into others’ lives that’s been happening since the dawn of Facebook has given way to a new era of parasocial interaction. Dr. Cook says, “social media allows the untouchable to become touchable. You can go to concerts, speaking events, you can see them all of the time.”
Celebrities are no longer just seen on television screens (Note: Which is the reason the term was coined in the first place) or on posters tacked to your wall, they’re at your fingertips every second of every day. And while everyone has the option to set their own limits, there’s no arguing that the more accessible a celebrity is willing to be—the better their career does in most cases, *cough* Lizzo. It’s human nature to feed into a more personal connection, from both sides of the screen.
They often will form parasocial relationships because it’s safer. There’s not a fear of rejection.
Why Do We Form Parasocial Relationships?
Aside from how we form parasocial relationships and why they’ve become so much more prevalent over the past decade, there’s a reason behind our inherent nature to develop these connections. Dr. Cook goes on, “They often will form parasocial relationships because it’s safer. There’s not a fear of rejection.” Describing the ease and comfort that comes with having a one-sided relationship, one that can only be severed on your own accord. Especially for adolescents and young teens who are searching for their identity, the ability to evade the possibility of bullying and criticism is appealing.
However, parasocial relationships aren’t unique to those with developing minds, they provide a crutch for anyone who’s looking to “fill a void”, Dr. Cook says. Like with anything, the reliance on these types of connections comes from something we’re searching for in our own day-to-day life, more often than not being encouragement and satisfaction that our real-life interactions aren’t supplying.
Are Parasocial Relationships All Bad?
While you can tune into shows like Netflix’s “Clickbait” or MTV’s “Catfish”, and watch the dramatization of parasocial relationships with real-life consequences, Dr. Cook reminds us that they aren’t all bad. She tells us to ask ourselves, “What is this person bringing to your life?”. As long as these perceived bonds are still set in reality, without taking a toll on your IRL relationships, there’s a lot of good that can come from them, too. The access that we have to others on the internet and around the world allows many of us to tap into connections we would never find in our own small towns—and in a world that is so large and filled with so many personalities, there’s a lot of good that can come from feeling seen.