The Danger of Parasocial Relationships

Though there is nothing inherently wrong with them, parasocial relationships can greatly affect both celebrities and their viewers.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

From musicians and actors to content creators, there are many different cultural icons who play a role in people’s daily lives. It is normal to look up to and be inspired by entertainers and influencers, but when you begin to view a celebrity as your friend, conflict arises and leads to the development of a parasocial relationship.

Parasocial relationships are not a new phenomenon. The concept was first established in 1956 when scientists Donald Horton and Richard Wohl officially coined the term. They explained that these relationships develop because performers often simulate a real-life relationship with their audience members. For instance, if a person listens to many interviews with their favorite performer and tries to watch as much content about them as possible, it causes them to treat the performer as a replacement for other social interactions, which often results in obsessive dependence. Meanwhile, the performer has no connection with their individual audience members and thus cannot return such affection.

The digital age has made it easier for parasocial relationships to form. For example, content creators can interact with fans around the world through social media. They can respond to comments on Instagram and Twitter and post photographs and glimpses into their daily lives. Streamers can broadcast live content directly to their audience members through Twitch and YouTube. In other words, viewers can directly communicate with their favorite streamers in real time, creating a new form of more realistic interactions. Often, streamers seem more genuine than other content creators, as their true personalities are on display through livestreams as opposed to celebrities who brand themselves. Livestreamers are also more likely to talk about their personal lives by sharing stories and information in an effort to connect with and entertain their audience. Of course, doing so also simulates the conversations that people have in real life, encouraging the development of a parasocial relationship.

The past year of quarantine has further developed the prevalence of parasocial relationships. In this period of isolation, it has become increasingly difficult to maintain relationships with real-life friends, especially since people can no longer see their school or work friends as frequently. These old friends can quickly be replaced by celebrities since the content they create is produced regularly and repeatedly.

On one hand, parasocial relationships are not inherently bad. Even if a creator is not the actual friend of a viewer, he or she can still offer advice, inspiration, and comfort in difficult times. Creators can help younger viewers develop a better sense of identity by learning positive behaviors that their favorite content creator exhibits. These relationships can also be beneficial to the creators since better audience retention and a more loyal fanbase are financially lucrative.

On the other hand, parasocial relationships can become dangerous for both the celebrity and fan involved. While there is nothing wrong with enjoying the content of a creator, the issue arises when fans become obsessive, which threatens the personal safety of a celebrity. For instance, Taylor Swift faced quite a few stalkers throughout her time in the spotlight. One stalker, a man named Eric Swarbrick, repeatedly sent letters to her former record label in an effort to contact the pop star. He threatened to physically harm both himself and Swift if his letters continued to go unnoticed. Though the man was imprisoned in late 2020, Swift has also revealed in interviews that he and other stalkers have negatively impacted her. She now carries around heavy-duty bandages and gauze, fearing that she or a loved one may be injured with a knife or a gun.

Of course, most people involved in a parasocial relationship will not reach this level of illegal and disturbing behavior. However, many fan bases of real-life people have developed subsections known as “stans.” Though the current definition means being a “superfan” of a certain entertainer, this word originally had a darker denotation. It originated from a song called “Stan” by Eminem as a portmanteau of “stalker” and “fan,” and its lyrics describe a creepy stalker of Eminem who sends threatening, obsessive messages to him.

While most modern-day stans do not fit this old description, their behavior may often cause them to be stigmatized as such. Fans of K-pop are some of the most prolific and recognizable stans on the internet. Throughout the past few years, K-pop stans have become known throughout Twitter as an irritating and often dangerous community. They frequently attack those they deem “antis” or people who dislike their favorite singer or band and sometimes flood them with death threats or dox them, during which the personal information of those being attacked is released to the internet. This behavior is clearly dangerous for many reasons, especially if a person’s life is being threatened over the opinions they express online.

Recently, many content creators have felt the need to make a distinction between parasocial relationships and real friendships. For instance, a Twitch streamer known as Ludwig posted a YouTube video titled “I Am Not Your Friend” in December 2020. In the video, he requests that his viewers see him only as entertainment and not as an actual replacement for a friend. He explains that he will never know a majority of his fanbase and as such cannot form a relationship with them. Ludwig also mentioned that his online personality is just a persona and may not always be his true self.

Despite the connotation, parasocial relationships are not necessarily a bad thing. Nevertheless, it is important to realize that the people one watches online cannot replace the people one meets in real life. Audience members must remember to respect the boundaries of their favorite celebrities and content creators.