In Defense of Parasocial Relationships

12 minute read

I’ve been juggling parasocial relationships for most of my life. As a newly online kid in the 1990s, I downloaded programs that helped me make fan art featuring my favorite bands: Dashboard Confessional, Something Corporate, and Blink-182. Now, a couple decades later, I refer to these artists by their first names (Chris, Andrew, Mark) to my friends and family and passionately defend them on internet forums. Thanks to TikTok and Instagram, I can tell you with authority what their kitchens look like, what their dogs are named, and what they put in their morning smoothies. Is it any wonder I feel like I know them?

Internet arbiters might call me unhinged or tell me to get a (better) hobby. But actually, experts say, parasocial relationships aren’t nearly as toxic as public perception makes them out to be. Decades of research suggest that they’re good for the majority of people who engage in them—and for the celebrities on the other side.

“I fell into studying fandom because I became a passionate fan of something myself,” says Lynn Zubernis, a clinical psychologist who loves the TV show Supernatural, which aired from 2005 to 2020. “And I was instantly like, ‘Oh my god, have I a.) lost my mind, or b.) discovered something wonderful?’” Her children assumed it was the former—but that didn’t align with her experiences, or with mine.

There’s a good chance that you—yes, even you—have had a parasocial experience. Ever yell at the football player on your TV who just fumbled the ball, even though you knew he couldn’t hear you? That’s an example of a parasocial interaction, which can progress into a parasocial relationship—typically defined as a one-sided social and emotional connection developed with fictional characters or celebrities. By some estimates, 51% of Americans have been in parasocial relationships, though only 16% will admit to it.

Parasocial relationships can help adolescents, in particular, form an identity and develop autonomy, according to one 2017 study. By imagining relationships and associating emotions with people at a distance, we have a “safe forum … to experiment with different ways of being,” the researchers concluded. Additional research has found that parasocial relationships can help people with low self-esteem feel more confident and become closer to their ideal self. Those with avoidant attachment styles—who are generally wary of closeness—often get attached to TV characters with desirable characteristics that they then try to embody, which can be an effective coping strategy. “We find people, characters, stories, whatever it is to emulate and to take attributes from and to sort of use as inspiration,” Zubernis says. “It’s a lifelong process—not just something that happens in adolescence.”

Feeling attached to a celebrity or character can also create a sense of comfort, or what Zubernis describes as a “secure base or safe haven.” That can help people persevere through the most difficult life challenges. She describes a suicidal woman she met who loved the TV show Supernatural. When the woman went to a fan convention and met one of the stars, he sensed that she was having a difficult time. “He made her promise that she would stay alive and come see him at the next convention,” Zubernis says. “She’s still doing great, and it’s 10 years later.”

2019 Comic-Con International - "Supernatural" Special Video Presentation And Q&A
Misha Collins, Jensen Ackles, Jared Padalecki, and Alexander Calvert at a Supernatural convention in 2019.Albert L. Ortega—Getty ImagesCastmembers

Parasocial relationships can expand social networks and offer a sense of companionship in plenty of other ways. That became especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many people—isolated at home and unable to spend time with friends and family—gravitated toward online communities, including fandoms. Parasocial bonds are launching pads into fulfilling online and in-person connections with fans who share similar interests, experts say. “There’s a sense of belongingness that comes from being part of a community,” Zubernis says, and these bonds can decrease loneliness. “People who don’t know about fandom often miss that aspect of it completely. They still have a certain image of, ‘Oh, a fan is a boy sitting in his mom’s basement watching Star Wars 33 times.’ But for most people, it’s a very communal activity, and it’s about relationships.” These connections often outlive a person’s affinity for a particular celebrity, experts add.

Gayle Stever has been studying fandoms—and, by natural extension, parasocial relationships—for decades. As part of her research, she’s embedded herself in a number of fan communities, including those associated with Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, Paul McCartney, Star Trek, Aidan Turner, and Josh Groban. She’s seen the benefits play out again and again: She met around a dozen people, for example, who lost their significant other through death or divorce and then decided they didn’t want another real-world relationship—but found connection through a parasocial relationship. “One woman told me that every time she was in a new relationship and it ended, it was hurting her kids. So she made the decision to invest in a parasocial relationship,” Stever recalls. The woman knew she wasn’t going to actually run off with the celebrity she admired, but she was having fun, and described it as an outlet for feelings she would have otherwise stifled.

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Another woman, who Stever met outside a Josh Groban concert, was in her mid-50s and had recently lost her husband to an aggressive form of cancer. She felt sure the romantic part of her life was over. But she eventually realized that she had a “little crush” on Groban. She didn’t entertain any notion that the two would actually be together, but she told Stever the experience helped her realize she was capable of having romantic feelings again.

“My experience has been that in the largest percentage of cases, the impact is positive,” Stever says. “It’s more healthy than unhealthy. People want to judge the behavior of others, but why do you need to castigate somebody’s fandom?”

Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness In Concert - Chicago, IL
Andrew McMahon performs at Riviera Theatre on March 2, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois.Ryan Bakerink—Getty Images

When I was in my mid-20s, I re-discovered a musician I had loved as a tween, Andrew McMahon. Two weeks after seeing him perform as an opening act—by chance, or as I prefer to call it, fate—I drove 12 hours to catch one of his solo shows. In the decade since, I’ve seen him perform more than 100 times, watched the documentary he made, read his memoir, and joined fan communities on every social-media platform. I bought a green T-shirt emblazoned with a bold declaration—“Andrew McMahon is a friend of mine”—and when I wore it, I felt like it was true.

So how does McMahon feel about all that? When I asked him via Zoom recently, he was exceedingly gracious. “At the core of it, there’s this shared experience,” he says. “I appreciate that there are people who are willing to share and be vulnerable with me in the same way that I am in my songs. It furthers my perception of what this relationship is, which is not a one-way thing.” When he goes on stage, he says, he’s not a television screen. “I feel more connected when I feel like I see them, and they see me,” and his interactions with fans often double as a vibe check: Did they enjoy the show? Was there something more he could have done that would have made the experience better?

That fan-artist relationship was strengthened back in 2005, when McMahon was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. He started to choke up when describing how many fans reached out, making him feel a genuine sense of love. “It was like, wow, there were people willing me back to life,” he says. Now, after a decades-long career, he recognizes many of the faces he sees in the crowds at his shows—and waiting to meet him afterwards. He’s been on the other side and met celebrities he idolizes, like Billy Joel, and that firsthand experience helps him relate to his own fans. “It makes me want to make a positive experience for people who meet me,” he says. “People who have been doing this with me for years, we have very normal conversations and interactions now because we’ve broken that barrier down over time. I’ve made friends and lifelong connections with people.”

Many celebrities similarly appreciate—and even encourage—fans’ parasocial bonds. It makes sense: Loyal, invested fans fuel careers and, certainly, bank accounts. But there’s also a deeper motive. When Zubernis collaborated with Supernatural actors on the book Family Don’t End with Blood: Cast and Fans on How Supernatural Has Changed Lives, she was surprised at their emphasis on emotional benefits. “They talked about feeling this unusual sense of support that allowed them to take chances and do things they wouldn’t have otherwise done,” she says. One actor was emboldened to start performing as a singer. Another cast member told her that his fans helped him overcome anxiety and suicidal ideations. “Knowing he had the support of a community,” says Zubernis, “that would accept him even when he was struggling with depression was part of what literally saved his life.”

Of course, there’s always a line. When I asked McMahon what his was, he first provided the diplomatic response: Because he’s available to fans on social media, they sometimes treat him like customer service, inquiring about ticket problems or why he didn’t book a show in their city. After digging deeper, he raised the fact that he’s had people reach out to him while in life-threatening crisis. “It’s hard to figure out how to deal with that,” he says. “Those are the scariest things because I think there’s a level of personal responsibility. I don’t say that as a way to discourage somebody, but that’s the moment where it flips into a situation where it’s above my pay grade.”

Some fans display more loudly egregious behavior, including harassing anyone they perceive to have offended their favorite star. Celebrities are often reticent to discuss parasocial relationships for fear of alienating their fanbase, but occasionally, the situation gets noxious enough for them to speak out. Taylor Swift recently instructed fans not to cyberbully her ex John Mayer: “I see so many beautiful interactions happen … I would love for that kindness and that gentleness to extend on to our internet activities,” she said in late June. And Selena Gomez and Hailey Bieber have both pleaded with fans to stop sending death threats and making mean comments purportedly intended to defend each star from the other. Stever notes that, often, people engaging in this behavior are too young to know better, have a mental illness, or are caught up in stan culture, which she considers a separate (and extreme) entity from typical parasocial behavior.

Taylor Swift Fans Take Over Nashville As Pop Star's Tour Comes To Town
Fans wait in line outside of Nissan Stadium ahead of a Taylor Swift performance in Nashville, Ten., in May.Seth Herald—Getty Images

In 2002, psychologist Lynn McCutcheon co-developed the Celebrity Attitude Scale to measure the extent to which someone is enamored with their favorite star. It suggests that there are three levels of celebrity worship: The first, entertainment-social, describes the “vast majority” of people, says McCutcheon, who’s the editor of the North American Journal of Psychology. These are fans who appreciate their favorite celebrity’s skills and like sharing that interest with others. The next level, intense-personal, occurs when people start to internalize the values of their favorite celebrity, and genuinely consider them their soulmate. (“Fortunately, this is a fairly small minority of people,” he notes.) The final level, borderline-pathological, refers to people who would do anything for their favorite celebrity, including illegal activities. About 3% to 5% of people with parasocial relationships meet the criteria for this category of celebrity worship, which is associated with poor mental health.

People who have intense-personal and borderline-pathological attachments tend to have certain traits in common, McCutcheon says: impulsivity, trouble with intimate relationships, and high levels of anxiety and neurosis, to name a few. Scores on the Celebrity Attitude Scale typically rise during the preteen, teen, and early adulthood years, and then remain stable or decline slightly throughout adulthood.

About a year or so ago, scores on the Celebrity Attitude Scale began increasing slightly overall, McCutcheon says, which means a growing number of people have unhealthy attachments. It’s unclear why, but he speculates that “it’s fueled to a certain extent by the greater accessibility of celebrities to their fans.”

Still, bad behavior is the exception, he says. Yet the public continues to conflate news-making outliers with the perfectly healthy and even beneficial parasocial relationships most people have. “I have found that when people talk about fans and celebrity stuff, their common sense goes out the window,” Stever says. “The whole ‘fandom is crazy’ trope is not understanding what fandom really is, because probably eight out of 10 people have never been a fan on that level. In any relationship, social or parasocial, there’s a potential for good and there’s a potential for bad.” Overwhelmingly, she says, we’d do well to focus on the good.

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