By Samah Syed
The extent of parasocial relationships is one that might be hard to decipher simply due to its unbeknownst presence in countless people's lives. Especially in teenagers, infact, it's so unbeknownst that they’re right under our noses.
What is a parasocial relationship? At its simplest, it's a one sided relationship experienced by audience members, where viewers tend to see influencers or celebrities as their friend. It’s almost certain that the majority of people have experienced a parasocial relationship at least once in their life. It’s interesting to see the degree of parasocial relationships has changed in recent times after the prominent emergence of, can you guess? Social media. Research shows the type of parasocial relationships created between social media influencers and their audience is vastly different to ones with celebrities. Social media has allowed influencers to have real time interaction with their audience, this is especially prominent on platforms such as twitter, instagram or even twitch. This kind of interaction between influencer and viewer deems the influencer more “relatable”. It’s these sorts of repetitive exchanges which lead followers to develop a long lasting attachment and even dependency on these social media idols.
Media psychologists say that two factors affect the strength of parasocial relationships in adolescents, alikeness and attractiveness, essentially how relatable they are and how attractive they might come across combined with entertainment value. But the question is, are parasocial relationships healthy?
As expected there isn’t a fine line between whether or not parasocial relationships are good or bad for teenagers. The nature of which they are formed can have both benefits and drawbacks. As expected, the most common outcomes seen are aggression, behavior causing problems with real-life relationships, media addiction and dependency. As parasocial relationships are long term, teens who develop attachment to their idols could essentially be an explanation as to what causes these behavioral changes, since teens tend to get emotionally invested in these individuals forming a one-sided closeness with them. Think about it, have you ever subconsciously thought about an influencer or content creator outside of their content or related them to something in your life as you might with a memory with a friend? For many, this dependency is usually a result of the teen using the influencer to fill something that may be missing in their own life, whether it's an insecurity or a social acceptance issue. It’s common for these types of interactions to have such effects, where individuals may think they have certain privileges in an influencer's life, leading to these unfavourable emotions to begin being exhibited as the relationship grows while simultaneously remaining one-sided and media being the only way of reaching influencers.
Conversely, parasocial relationships can also have positive psychological effects on teens and are seen as a common part of adolescence. In certain cases of anxiety, loneliness or social rejection, parasocial relationships can provide psychological benefits. It’s most common to people who fear social rejection or have faced it, along with those who have low self esteem. It’s been uncovered that parasocial relationships cater to these underlying issues in a way where individuals feel comfortable or unjudged, so it's not ironic to see many people throw around the word “comfort” while describing their favourite influencer. And although parasocial relationships may make teens susceptible to antisocial behaviour it can also provide them contentment by drawing them into a sense of belonging, aiding people who may face chronic ostracism (suffering from exclusion from a group or society). We could even go further to say that this could be why similar groups of people tend to be attracted to a type or an individual influencer's content.
It’s important to assess whether these relationships are worth keeping around. Ask yourself, do this person's values line up with your own and what are your own goals? Are they a role model or comfort or something else? What positive effects do they have on you? Thus, whether or not parasocial relationships can be harmful or not is up to the latter, or maybe just falls in between.
Article from Red Median, (https://www.redmedian.org/blog) a platform helping teens deal with and understand issues related to social media!