This is a continuation from yesterday’s post (Part I).
With COVID came massive lockdowns and school closures. The inability to see friends and family, paired with the global isolation that billions faced meant that the interactions of old were no longer possible. Thus, most people turned to online communities, YouTube livestreams, and podcasts as a substitute for a proper, in-person relationship. This new approach to relationships is rightfully named parasocial relationships.
Parasocial relationships are relationships in which the interactions are unidirectional and unrequited, meaning that people cannot directly interact with those who they are viewing/listening to. Although many engagements can be considered parasocial, it is only recently with the ubiquitous nature of social media have parasocial relationships been considered more extensively (taken from Jarzyna, C. L.):
The terms parasocial interaction (PSI) and parasocial relationship (PSR) both refer to the unreciprocated connections that people feel with fictional or media personalities (Horton and Wohl 1956). It is reciprocity, rather than the type of personality with whom the relationship is formed, that is the crucial element determining whether a relationship is real or parasocial. Thus, an individual may develop a PSR with various types of personalities. While individuals living in the 1800s likely developed PSRs with protagonists in books, those in the late 1900s did so with television characters. Now social media has allowed for PSRs with reality TV celebrities, Instagram influencers, and the like. While the type of character differs across books, television, or social media, these relationships share that the target generally does not perceive a personal connection to the audience member. There is little or no return of communication or feelings, sometimes because the target is fictional, and at other times because the target has no awareness of the person engaging in PSI.
For some, parasocial relationships and interactions may provided an immediate benefit. They may offer a safe avenue for introverts and those with anxiety to engage in social interactions in a less burdensome way. However, the unidirectional nature of parasocial relationships can lead to negative consequences:
Regardless, PSI clearly results in either good or bad effects in some scenarios. In looking first to the ill effects of parasocial relationships, they include aggression, the behavior causing problems with real-life relationships, and media addiction and dependency. For instance, those who have PSRs with celebrities sometimes progress to celebrity worship. While some degree of celebrity worship is normal, especially in adolescents, the behavior frequently develops to an unhealthy degree, involving obsessions, compulsions, and elements of addiction (McCutcheon et al. 2002; McCutcheon et al. 2003). Parasocial relationships have been implicated in media addiction and dependency separate from celebrity worship as well (Grant et al. 1991).
Para-Social Media Relationships
For those who suffer from social anxiety and loneliness parasocial relationships may lead to heavily dependent behavior in which people may become addicted to social media sites such as YouTube.
One international survey conducted by Bérail et. al.reached out to young people via Reddit and Facebook and asked them to fill out questionnaires about their anxiety and YouTube use. The results of these studies suggest that those with higher social anxiety and greater parasocial relationships with YouTubers are likely to exhibit higher levels of YouTube addiction.
Although a survey with all the limitations of a social science study, the questionnaire at least highlights real concerns with respect to parasocial relationships and social media use as a compensation for real-world interactions.
The Celebrity Exemplar
In short, parasocial relationships may create an avenue for obsessive behaviors to arise with respect to those we view who may not be aware of our existence. This has been a prominent issue as it relates to celebrities, such that people who idolize celebrities may externalize many of their emotions and examine their lives from the perspective of celebrities. In fact, it’s the externalization, as if to use others as models for ourselves, that can be detrimental to our own livelihoods. Such externalization may lead us to try to mimic the behaviors and actions of these celebrities- buy what they buy, look how they look, and behave the way they behave.
Right now the defamation lawsuit between actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard are ongoing. Unlike the Kyle Rittenhouse trial, the atmosphere with respect to this court case is much different. Many more emotions are involved in this case, to the point that many viewers of these livestreams have made proclamations demanding that Depp win his lawsuit even without considering the actual rules of law and evidentiary standards. For many Depp fans they may be engaging in parasocial dynamics so intense that the mere outcome may affect their own health and well-being. These people may use Depp as a juxtaposition for their own lives, who’s wealth and fame are what many would yearn to have and thus use celebrities like Depp as a model to vicariously live their lives through.
And this type of parasocialization has seeped into the world of COVID. There is evidence to suggest that parasocial relationships play a role in COVID perception. Take a celebrity or social media influencer who becomes stricken with COVID and reports it to their hundreds and thousands of followers. These followers may actually believe that their risk of contracting COVID may be higher under such circumstances, and thus may be more fearful of becoming ill and engage in more masking and social distancing.
Tom Hanks was one of the first celebrities to become infected with COVID in early March 2020, and there’s some evidence to suggest that his infection played a role in the downstream policies of lockdowns and “flattening the curve” as it likely shaped the public perception of COVID.
To test whether people’s perceptions of COVID were more likely to be affected by a celebrity or by an everyday person, researcher Cohen, E. L.created a questionnaire and presented a scenario to participants in which either Tom Hanks or an ordinary person contracted COVID. Based upon this information participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire that measured perceived susceptibility, severity, and anxiety in regards to COVID. They were also asked whether this would change their sanitary and preventative behaviors.
Shockingly, the results of this questionnaire suggested that people’s perceptions of COVID were more affected by reports of Tom Hanks’ COVID diagnosis compared to an ordinary person, with the researcher stating:
The two involvement variables, parasocial attachment and wishful identification with Hanks, were positively correlated with all three indicators of risk perception as well as intentions to engage in behaviors to prevent the spread of the virus. Those more involved with Hanks were probably more influenced by his exemplar.
However, the more interesting story that emerges from this research is that even when involvement variables were held constant, a celebrity exemplar still had a more positive influence on certain dimensions of risk perceptions, compared with an exemplar featuring an ordinary person. Even though the noncelebrity exemplar featured the experience of a person who was arguably more relatable to the participants in this study (most of whom it is presumed are not celebrities), they appear to have relied on the celebrity’s experience as benchmark with which to estimate their own susceptibility. Exposure to the celebrity exemplar also increased participants’ felt anxiety about COVID-19.
So it appears that public perception of COVID may be driven more by those who we have parasocial relationships with. It explains why the Biden Administration took to using Tik Tok influencers to push messages that encouraged their followers to get vaccinated.
But it also explains the perception surrounding doctors such as Fauci, who’s role in disseminating COVID public health policies and information may have elevated him to idol status. With daily press briefings and constant interviews it wouldn’t be a surprise for many to view Fauci through the lens of a parasocial relationship. As such, people may exhibit strong attachment and dependencies to Fauci and have used him as a model to externalize not only their ideas in regards to COVID, but also their intellect. Although a speculation, I would argue that this level of idolatry would at least explain the fervent hostility people had in response to criticisms against Fauci, as well as the fanaticism that led people to create art that memorialized Fauci.
It’s the same behaviors exhibited by Depp fans during his trial as well as fervent supported of Ardis’ theory, and they all illustrate the dangers of parasocialization in excess.
Things to Consider
Parasocial relationships are becoming an ever growing part of modernity, and for some it provides an alternative avenues for otherwise stressful and anxious situations. However, not all parasocial relationships are beneficial. For some this may lead to idolatry and fanaticism, leading many to become blinded in their cult-like obsession and zealotry. It’s striking a balance between the two that is necessary to maintain a healthy online presence.
If you are someone who enjoys watching YouTube livestreams, podcasts, or other forms of media, take note of what relationship is being formed between you and your media of choice. Are you able to walk away whenever you choose, or do you feel a strong dependent attachment to what you are viewing? Do you become anxious and have fears of missing out (FOMO) if you don’t watch a livestream immediately when it airs? Do you find that these behaviors get in the way of real experiences that can be made with actual individuals? Keep these questions in mind, and remember to not become a slave to your own vices.
Under some circumstances it may be worth considering a social media “detox” in which you remove accounts on social media platforms or go cold turkey and avoid any social media for a period of time. Doing so may afford you the proper time and perspective to understand whether you enjoy social media recreationally or have become wholly dependent upon it.
It’s also important to understand whether the relationships you have cultivated are real, or are entirely online and parasocial. If parasocial relationships detract from real-life engagement, become aware of your dependency and step back from the tech world and back into the real-world.
Keep in mind that many tech giants have utilized the pandemic as a way to push for more parasocial interactions through streaming services, virtual reality, and further automation, all done with the intent to make you more complacent, distracted, and not engage with others in real life. Be aware that Big Tech is relying on your needs and desire for a parasocial world in order to design technology that preys on this mindset. Many social scientists are also using this time to examine the “so-called” benefits of parasocial relationships, and this research may be used to validate future lockdown measures. Tik Tok influencers and celebrities have already been used as a way to influence our perceptions on COVID.
As the anarchist Michael Malice has routinely stated, people in higher power have gained a lot of information on what people are willing to put up with during this pandemic. Know that this information can be weaponized against us, and find a proper balance between the real-world and the parasocial world. And remember, there is no real substitution for personal, fruitful interactions with one another.
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Jarzyna C. L. (2021). Parasocial Interaction, the COVID-19 Quarantine, and Digital Age Media. Human Arenas, 4(3), 413–429. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42087-020-00156-0
Pierre de Bérail, Marlène Guillon, Catherine Bungener, The relations between YouTube addiction, social anxiety and parasocial relationships with YouTubers: A moderated-mediation model based on a cognitive-behavioral framework, Computers in Human Behavior, Volume 99,2019, Pages 190-204,ISSN 0747-5632,https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2019.05.007.
Nathan Walter, Jonathan Cohen, Robin L. Nabi & Camille J. Saucier (2022) Making it Real: The Role of Parasocial Relationships in Enhancing Perceived Susceptibility and COVID-19 Protective Behavior, Media Psychology, DOI: 10.1080/15213269.2021.2025110
Cohen EL. Stars—They’re Sick Like Us! The Effects of a Celebrity Exemplar on COVID-19-Related Risk Cognitions, Emotions, and Preventative Behavioral Intentions. Science Communication. 2020;42(5):724-741. doi:10.1177/1075547020960465
I have certainly engaged in the struggle to find a balance in my new life. I am enraged with the changes I see in the world. I am constantly saying "I can't believe this" at the newest offence when nothing should surprise me anymore. I have several like minded children, grandchildren, and a few close friends so I have the social interactions I need but still turn to substack for the sense of community it offers. Knowing this small fellowship of people who come from differing backgrounds of faith, science, and political ideology has confirmed to me that the fight is worth having even though I suspect the loss is inevitable. Words that ground us in what matters in life are appreciated during times when the losses add up. Thank you.
The Tom Hanks example is interesting. He is an older diabetic and yet he did fine with Covid. I actually felt at that point that WELL-MANAGED preexisting conditions were not a huge risk factor, as opposed to unmanaged. It would be interesting to know what early therapies he received at that time. I’m sure he took SOMETHING. My guess? HCQ or Ivermectin.