Words: Kate Bailey Tonkin (she/her)
‘Hi, friends,’ beams the man on the screen. It’s 6 A.M. The world outside is asleep, but my sixty-something mother is awake in the next room, eyes glued to her laptop. She’s watching a livestream again: this time, V from BTS. Mum has developed something of a fascination with Korean boy bands. Her WhatsApp messages reveal this devotion: a steady stream of news and photos, from their dogs to their breakfast smoothies.
What she’s experiencing is a parasocial relationship: a one-sided, imaginary bond, typically established with a celebrity or public figure. She’s not alone in this; parasocial relationships are on the rise in today’s digital era.
Over the past few decades, our connections with public figures have changed. Long gone are the days of my mother’s youth, when the latest celeb news was only accessible in gossip rags. The creators we care about are literally a tap away. A steady drip-feed of TikToks, Tweets, and Instagram posts fill us in on every minutiae of their lives. It’s become fashionable – and depending on the size of your following, even profitable – to overshare online. As a result, there are things we know about our favourite stars that we don’t even know about our friends.
A key example is Madeline Argy, thrown into TikTok fame by quirky clips capturing her thoughts and feelings. Camera held close to her face, there’s drama and urgency interwoven with her stories; you could almost mistake her for a best friend spilling her deepest secrets to you over FaceTime. A glance at her profile reveals intimate details: mental health struggles, awkward first sexual encounters, even the age she started growing pubic hair. It’s easy to forget this is her job. In between her storytimes, you’ll find promotions for the latest Google phone and paid trips to the Hugo Boss show in Milan. Madeline Argy is not our best friend – although perhaps you’d be forgiven for thinking she was.
After all, parasocial interactions form the foundations of influencer culture. Celebrities are conscious of the currency of emotional connection; for £450 you, too, can receive a personalised ‘happy birthday’ video from Lindsay Lohan. The further we delve into this superficial world of virtual relationships, the more our real-life connections might suffer. As an angsty teenager myself, the isolation I often felt was only compounded by spending time online. Ultimately, fantasising that the lead singer of Foster the People was my bestie did very little to soothe my feelings of solitude; in fact, it actively made them worse.
A 2021 study found that having a propensity to form parasocial relationships was closely related to having an avoidant attachment style. In other words, people who avoided closeness in real life were more likely than others to form these bonds. Parasocial connections can, however, still be powerful. Research on the impact of parasocial ‘breakups’ – the term for when we stop consuming a favoured celebrity’s content – has found these can lead to sadness and grief, similar to those of a real-life breakup.
Does this mean that parasocial relationships are bad for us? Discussions of these virtual bonds might conjure up images of desperate fans seeking a semblance of connection with figures who don’t even know they exist. New research by Ipsos shows that more than one in three Britons feel lonely, including almost six in ten of us aged 18-24. People certainly feel isolated, particularly post-pandemic. However, there’s no evidence that those with strong feelings towards a particular public figure are any lonelier than the rest of us. Parasocial relationships also exist on a spectrum, from those who harbour intense emotions towards a celebrity to those who merely gossip about influencers. Most of us fall into the latter camp, which seems harmless.
Could parasocial relationships even be an antidote to the “loneliness epidemic?” Since the Internet’s explosion, it’s easier than ever to join international groups, such as those surrounding musicians or actors. These fanbases are often parasocial; a shared fascination for a public figure provides common ground between otherwise strangers and offers a sense of belonging. There’s even research suggesting that parasocial relationships can build self-esteem, particularly in adolescents. It’s worth noting that girls are particularly criticised for socialising in this manner and are subjected to being “fangirls,” rooted in misogyny. However, could these communities actually help young women boost their self-worth in a culture that is essentially anti-women?
Ultimately, I’d argue that parasocial relationships are neither inherently good nor bad; they just are. They might, in fact, be a useful litmus test for examining our own mental state. If you’re overly absorbed in a fictional world, ask yourself why. As long as you’re supplementing your virtual relationships with real-world ones, they can be a force for good. I certainly know my mother’s life has been enriched by K-pop boys!