COVID Era Sees Uptick in Use of Parasocial Relationships to Self-Soothe

girl writing a letter to harry stylez

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

Key Takeaways

  • Though the word has trended so much it’s practically lost meaning, parasocial relationships are a fairly common form of one-sided social interaction in which a person projects something they need in their life onto a media persona
  • They have become a popular coping mechanism throughout the pandemic, and have even eased trauma.
  • These relationships can be complex, and require self-awareness in order to be navigated in a healthy way.

“Parasocial relationship” is, like many other terms with origins in the world of psychology, something that gets thrown around on TikTok and Twitter every few trend cycles. It shows up in infographics about what we do or don’t owe to each other on the internet, about mental illness, about the loneliness and alienation that capitalism brings us. 

But despite all that, many of us don’t even know what exactly a parasocial relationship is. 

As we’ve previously reported at Verywell Mind, “a parasocial relationship is a one-sided relationship that a media user engages in with a media persona.” That could be anything from an obsession with a funny Twitter comedian who you think could make a good friend, to a real belief that you’re engaging in a friendship or romantic partnership with, for example, a famous athlete. 

The idea of parasocial connections has been extended by media psychologist Gayle Stever to include more intense parasocial attachments. Based on the theory of attachment originated by John Bowlby, which describes the deep bonds formed between caregivers and children as well as between romantic partners, parasocial attachment happens when a media “persona becomes a source of comfort, felt security, and safe haven.” 

Though these concepts have been around since the 1950s,  recent studies have suggested that the role parasocial relationships and parasocial attachments play in many of our social worlds has grown in importance during the pandemic as our real-life social worlds have shrunk. As the outside world feels increasingly unsafe, fictional characters or controlled, one-sided online interactions can feel like a source of stability. 

Psychology of Parasocial Relationships

“I would describe a parasocial relationship as a relationship of the imagination,” says Emily Simonian, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with Thriveworks Counseling.

“I believe that people that engage in them are telling themselves stories about the person they’re in that parasocial relationship with. They get to make up everything about the relationship. They get to think that…that person might feel a certain way about them, if they met them.” That means these relationships are more controllable than real-world two-way relationships, and might help provide people with a facsimile of something they’re looking for but can’t find in their own personal interactions. 

Emily Simonian, LMFT

I believe that people that engage in them are telling themselves stories about the person they’re in that parasocial relationship with. They get to make up everything about the relationship.

— Emily Simonian, LMFT

Simonian said that for young people in particular, “[Parasocial relationships] could very well have magnified during the pandemic as a coping mechanism,” as many of us “lost our…sense of community, and certain abilities to be relational in real life.” 

Parasocial Relationships as a Coping Tool

Rax King is somebody who’s been on both ends of parasocial relationships. A writer and poet, King has written a chapbook entitled The People's Elbow about her parasocial relationship with the wrestler and actor Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, and why her idealized relationship with Johnson helped her cope with trauma

“Parasocial relationships are all about projection, one person projecting an entire personality onto another person and then becoming fixated on that personality for whatever reason,” King said. “I'm using these celebrity figures to work out my own issues and my own thoughts. And I think that I'm fairly aware of the role of projection. I don't think that's always the case for people who develop these parasocial relationships.”

King also notes that in our current era of micro-celebrity, nearly anybody with any level of fame online can become the person on the other end of a parasocial relationship–and that’s not often a comfortable experience.

After realizing that a woman who followed her Twitter was projecting a relationship onto her, King said, she “became more cautious” about how she engaged with others online. Because when she wasn’t able to live up to the version of herself this other person had created in her head, the woman reacted with hurt and anger. 

Rax King, Poet

I'm using these celebrity figures to work out my own issues and my own thoughts. And I think that I'm fairly aware of the role of projection.

— Rax King, Poet

“And, you know, as soon as I failed to live up to the role it was like, end of relationship, worship someone else.”

Victoria Wade, who creates content in the theme park and Disney communities on Twitter and TikTok, has a similar story of being on the receiving end of parasocial interactions. 

“On their end, it seemed like we were very good friends, but in reality, they knew very little about me and vice versa,” Wade said. While this was a painful experience for Wade – and one that she said made her question her own mental wellness and self-image – she understands that for many people, parasocial relationships are filling voids in their lives caused by pandemic isolation. 

“I feel like the pandemic made us very lonely, and that’s part of why there’s such an uptick in it,” Wade said. “It’s okay to understand that you might have an attachment–it’s a matter of setting boundaries, and making sure that you’re safe, and that person’s safe, and understanding that not everything is going to be two-sided.” 

How To Know If It's Gone Too Far

Simonian says that in her experience, parasocial relationships certainly aren’t always a bad thing. 

“I think that there can be benefits, because it does provide a sense of community and companionship depending on how far you take it,” she said. These relationships can also teach you what you need and aren’t getting in your real life.

“It can tell you what you feel like you need, at that time,” Simonian said. “Maybe you are not wanting to be disappointed by somebody, so there’s some issues of trust, control, not wanting to feel negative feelings. And somebody that is far enough away…is not going to disappoint you, or hurt you.” 

However, she said, there can be a dark side to these relationships when they start taking up space that should be filled by real and two-sided connection. 

“Individuals that are questioning whether or not their behaviors are dangerous or beneficial should look at if these relationships are replacing their real life relationships and interactions with other people,” she said. “I think that's when it becomes sort of emotionally and psychologically dangerous.”

In order to figure out if the attachment you feel to a celebrity, internet stranger, or fictional character has moved past the realm of what’s healthy, “you want to look at the frequency of your thoughts about that person,” Simonian said. “If it’s impairing your general function…or you’re feeling like you have to connect with them every day to get through the day…that’s where it could show that you’re relying on that false relationship too much.” 

What This Means For You

Parasocial relationships are a unique, one-sided connection that an individual forms with a media or fictional persona. There are many benefits to these relationships, but it's possible for them to go too far if the individual lacks self-awareness, or develops an obsession. Talk to a doctor or psychiatrist if you feel that obsessive thoughts about a media persona are getting in the way of living your own life.

1 Source
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  1. Jarzyna CL. Parasocial interaction, the COVID-19 quarantine, and digital age mediaHuman Arenas. 2021;4(3):413-429. doi:10.1007/s42087-020-00156-0