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Parasocial Relationships: Risks and Benefits

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on December 06, 2022

If you're in a one-sided relationship with a celebrity or someone else you don't know personally, you may be in a parasocial relationship (PSR). It can have risks for your health and well-being. But experts say it can have benefits too.

 

 

Are There Different Types of Parasocial Relationships?

Yes. They include:

Entertainment-social PSR is when you're entertained by a celebrity, you're a fan of theirs, and you talk about them with others.

Intense-personal PSR is also known as celebrity worship. With this PSR, you may believe you’re in a personal relationship with the celebrity, or that the celebrity is your soulmate.

Borderline-pathological PSR includes fantasies and compulsions you can't control. You might have delusions that your favorite celebrity would like you to show up at their home.

 

Are Parasocial Relationships Healthy?

They can have benefits for you and those around you, research shows. Those include::

Reducing prejudice. One study found that YouTube posts about struggles with bipolar disorder lowered anxiety and prejudice against mental illness among viewers. But they didn’t affect their implicit prejudice, which is when you aren’t aware of your prejudice.

Decreasing stigma. When a celebrity or influencer publicly shares their health issues (including mental health), it can reduce health-related stigma.

Boosting self-esteem. People with low self-esteem may feel more confident because of a PSR. Even though it’s one-sided, a PSR might help them feel closer to the person they want to be, some research found.

Encouraging healthy behavior. Sports figures, influencers, and celebrities can be positive role models if you're making healthy lifestyle changes, coping with illnesses, or going through alcohol or drug rehab the way they've done on social media.

Forging connections. When fans of a celebrity or influencer connect with each other, it can help them feel less isolated. This was especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, when PSRs were on the rise. They increased more when people spent less time in person with friends, or more time with real-life friends on video conferencing, according to one study. It found that the more time you spend with your real friends on social media, the less able you are to tell them apart from strangers you follow on social media.

While PSRs don't involve real relationships, studies show they can actually broaden your social network sometimes. That's because they can give you support you may not have at home. That was the case for sexual minorities studied during the COVID-19 lockdowns (who are more prone to depression).

Can Parasocial Relationships Harm Me?

Sometimes. They might:

Stop healthy behaviors. A parasocial breakup is when you end a PSR (like when a celebrity goes off the air or stops posting on social media). In a study on the TV show The Biggest Loser, viewersreported distress when the show ended. They may have been less likely to continue their own exercise and weight loss programs.

Impair your mental health. Self-comparisons can affect your mental health negatively, like wishing you had a celebrity's physique or money. When actor and comedian Robin Williams died by suicide, it helped lower public stigma about depression. But at the same time, people were less willing to get treatment for depression (which he dealt with) or reach out to others.

Lead to isolation. Some research shows that older adults in PSRs, who had poor relationships with their children, had more depressive symptoms.

Drive obsessions or stalking. In extreme cases, the borderline-pathological level of PSRs can cause you to isolate from reality. It could also lead to stalking a celebrity. This can be the case with severe cases of celebrity worship syndrome, where a PSR is consuming.

Cause eating disorders. Some research shows you may be more prone to eating disorders the longer you spend on social media. Gender, social, and cultural aspects could be part of the link.

Lead to media addiction. PSRs can drive media addiction and dependency, which can impact many areas of your health.

Cause relationship issues. PSRs may help create conflict, dissatisfaction, and other problems in your real-life relationships, studies show.

Be linked to cognitive issues. One study found those who spend a lot of time involved in celebrity worship tend to score lower on cognitive tests.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Simply Neuroscience: “Getting Real With Parasocial Relationships.”

American Psychological Association: “APA Dictionary of Psychology.”

The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease: “A Clinical Interpretation of Attitudes and Behaviors Associated with Celebrity Worship.”

American Psychological Association: “Implicit Prejudice,” “Psychoticism.”

Scientific Reports: “Parasocial Relationships on YouTube Reduce Prejudice Towards Mental Health Issues.”

Current Opinion in Psychology: “Parasocial Relationships, Social Media, & Well-Being,” “Social Comparison on Social Networking Sites.”

Health Communication: “Mental Health-Related Outcomes of Robin Williams’ Death: The Role of Parasocial Relations and Media Exposure in Stigma, Help-Seeking, and Outreach,” “Older Adults’ Parasocial Relationships with Favorite Television Characters and Depressive Symptoms.”

Systematic Reviews: “Celebrities’ Impact on Health-Related Knowledge, Attitudes, Behaviors, and Status Outcomes: Protocol for a Systematic Review, Meta-Analysis, and Meta-Regression Analysis.”

Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences: “Impact of Celebrity Disclosure on Mental Health-Related Stigma.”

University at Buffalo: “Study Finds If Your Self Esteem Is Low, a Faux Relationship Can Give You a Boost.”

Journal of Social Psychology: “"Leave Britney Alone!: Parasocial Relationships and Empathy.”

University of San Diego: “Professor Bradley Bond’s New Research Sheds Light on How the COVID-19 Pandemic Might Have Impacted our Parasocial Relationships Online.”

Journal of Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Mental Health: “Parasocial Interactions, Intolerance to Uncertainty and Mental Health Rehabilitation During Pandemics.”

Nova Southeastern University: “The Psychology Behind Parasocial Relationships.”

Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity: “Parasocial Relationships and Depression Among LGBQ Emerging Adults Living With Their Parents During COVID-19: The Potential for Online Support.”

Communication and Sport: “A Longitudinal Study on the Effects of Parasocial Relationships and Breakups With Characters of a Health-Related TV Show on Self-Efficacy and Exercise Behavior: The Case of The Biggest Loser.”

Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience: “'I’m Your Number One Fan' – A Clinical Look at Celebrity Worship.”

Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace Cyberpsychology: “Social Media and Eating Disorder Psychopathology: A Systematic Review.”

Arena of Crisis: “Parasocial Interaction, the COVID-19 Quarantine, and Digital Age Media.”

Frontiers in Public Health: “The Relationship of Social Media Addiction With Internet Use and Perceived Health: The Moderating Effects of Regular Exercise Intervention.”

BMC Psychology: “Celebrity Worship and cognitive Skills revisited: Applying Cattell’s Two-Factor Theory of Intelligence in a Cross-Sectional Study.”

 

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