Too Close for Comfort
Whether we would like to admit it or not, social media and internet consumption have become a HUGE part of our lives today. It is impossible to imagine what our daily routines would look like without the internet. And if you’re like me, someone who spends way too much time online, you’ve probably heard the word “parasocial relationship” tossed around. It’s an incredibly controversial topic with some strong opinions on both sides. But what exactly are these relationships, and what makes them one of the most disputed topics on the internet in today’s world?
Parasocial relationships were first studied in the late 1950’s by two American psychologists, Donald Horton and R Richard Wohl, who studied the relationship between people and TV celebrities. It is defined as a one-sided relationship, in which a person can get attached to a media character (fictional or real), while the receptive party has no idea that such a person exists. That sounds really complicated right? Let’s look at it with a simple example.
Let’s say you’re a Formula 1 fan. Your favourite driver is Charles Leclerc. When he wins, you feel happy and excited for him. When he crashes out or retires from a race, you feel frustrated and disappointed with this result. You root for him and want him to succeed. But to him, you’re just another fan in a sea of other people just like you. He will probably never know who you are and is oblivious to how you feel about him. Not to mention you won’t ever know him personally. This is what the average parasocial relationship looks like.
(Mandatory Leclerc gif. Sorry, I just had to)
This sounds pretty harmless right? And for the most part, it is. We’ve come across so many relationships like this. We’ve all had phases where we’ve been obsessed with that one singer or that one actress that is just so relatable, or when we’ve sported jerseys and screamed our hearts out for our favourite team.. Some of us have also felt a sense of belonging in a fictional world that doesn’t even exist. All of these experiences and emotions are completely normal. These relationships are mostly healthy. They can help you find inspiration or reassurance when you need it and/or a community to feel included in when you feel lonely. However, these relationships can take a dark turn and become extremely problematic.
The problem with such relationships is when they become stand-ins for a person’s real-life relations. It’s not uncommon to see stalker fans or obsessive 'stans’ in online fandoms. These fans truly believe that the personalities they see on screen are their friends or partners, and become dangerously obsessed. With the advent of social media, it’s become very easy for stans to find personal information of the individuals they like and stalk them. What’s worse is a lot of these stans feel a sense of entitlement and do not recognize that what they’re doing is wrong. This can often impact their behaviour with the actual people in their lives, leading them to burn bridges and destroy relationships. This type of behaviour is also extremely harmful to the personalities they have an infatuation towards. It infringes their right to privacy and can result in harassment, abuse and bullying. This is seen in a lot of communities, from Kpop’s infamous “sasaeng fans” to the “simps'' of female Twitch Streamers.
An important thing to note is that social media and some industries thrive off these kinds of interactions. Instagram wants you to form a parasocial relationship with an influencer, so that they can show you more ads. Kpop companies want you to feel attached to their idols, so you buy more albums and merchandise. They do this deliberately at the expense of the public and the personalities in order to make profits. You can always say that social media is different from real life, but at a subconscious level, you will be affected by these interactions.
So what’s the bottom line here? It’s normal to feel like you know someone over a screen personally. It’s normal to go through phases where you love somebody’s work. But always remember that these relationships can never be replacements for your offline friends and family. And if you do feel like you’re becoming very attached to someone online, it might be time to go touch some grass :)