One-sided relationships aren’t uncommon — and if it’s with a media personality you’ve never met, it might be a parasocial relationship.

Interactive media is all around us. With the latest virtual reality technology, you could immerse yourself in any fabricated world of your dreams.

Deliberate immersion is one thing, but what happens when you start to become emotionally attached or invested in the life of a media personality you’ve never met?

At what point do you go from being a fan to having a parasocial relationship or a parasocial interaction?

Parasocial relationships occur when you experience a one-sided, emotional attachment with a fictional character or media personality.

The concept was first introduced by researchers Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl in the 1950s. They observed how an audience was able to feel individually invested when addressed by a TV performer.

Even though that performer knew nothing of the person watching, the viewer still experienced a sense of personal interaction.

Parasocial relationships vs. parasocial interactions

Parasocial relationships are not the same as parasocial interactions.

You could have a parasocial interaction anytime you feel as though you’re involved with or interacting with a media personality.

Horton and Wohl described this as “more than mere running observation,” implying that you’re not just watching the person but instead feel involved in the moment.

Parasocial interactions tend to be limited to in-the-moment observations, such as television shows, live streams, or other media events.

Parasocial relationships, on the other hand, often persist into daily life, long after you’ve seen an influencer or media character.

Your thoughts might center on them during the day, for example. You might wonder what they’re thinking or how they’re feeling, or you might even feel romantically involved with them.

You might habitually check your social media accounts to stay on top of what they’re doing.

In some cases when someone is experiencing a parasocial relationship, they might speak as though they personally know the celebrity they feel attached to.

Celebrities — be they movie stars or royalty — have been around for centuries.

With the advancement of technology, the opportunity to experience parasocial relationships has grown.

According to Dr. Mike Anderson, a sex and relationship expert from Toronto, older generations might have formed parasocial relationships through media exposure, particularly through print media such as magazines.

Younger generations, however, might be more likely to form parasocial relationships with celebrities they know through interactive platforms, such as Twitter or Instagram.

“Overall, the shift in focus from print media to digital media has had a significant impact on parasocial relationships,” he says.

Modern types of media could make you feel more intimately invested in a celebrity’s life. Celebrities update their platforms frequently on subjects such as their relationships, health, activities, and thoughts.

You might feel as though you know a celebrity as well as you know any of your family members.

The difference is they don’t know you on the same level — or at all. Their updates might feel personal, but they’re often received by thousands of people around the world.

Digital media could also encourage the hope of individual interaction with a celebrity. They might acknowledge your post or follow, creating a sense of individual recognition that reinforces the parasocial relationship.

Many theories exist to explain why you might form a parasocial relationship.

Some theories focus on how parasocial relationships might serve to fulfill human needs, such as companionship, encouragement, or validation.

Parasocial attachment theory

One of the main theories involves attachment style, or how you relate to other people and form relationships.

Are you fearful and avoidant, anxious, or secure in your interactions with others? Your attachment style might be a part of what determines whether your parasocial relationship is one of friendship or romance.

If you’re insecure when it comes to romantic partner attachment, for example, parasocial romantic relationships might feel less stressful than in-person ones.

Affective bonding theory

A 2022 study suggests that parasocial relationships could be the result of affective bonding theory.

This theory states that humans are hardwired to react to any form of human-like communication, even if it’s fictional.

Because these emotional reactions feel real, the brain determines that they are real — even if they’re in response to a fictional or unattainable character.

Affective bonding theory also suggests that, in addition to natural human responsiveness, parasocial relationships tend to fulfill some need, goal, or motive.

Feeling romantically attached to a celebrity might fill a need for intimate companionship, for example.

Mental health conditions

Some forms of mental health conditions might also impact the chances of forming a parasocial relationship.

A 2019 study on YouTube parasocial relationships found that viewers living with social anxiety disorder were more likely to become involved in parasocial relationships than those who did not have the condition.

Parasocial relationships aren’t good or bad in and of themselves.

“Parasocial relationships could have a number of positive and negative mental health consequences,” says Anderson.

He indicates that parasocial relationships could increase feelings of social support by providing an opportunity to connect with others in a meaningful way.

They could boost self-esteem, he adds, by providing people with opportunities to admire and compare themselves to celebrities. Following a celebrity athlete on social media, for example, might help motivate you to make positive changes in your health and wellness.

You might even find that your opinion on people changes based on parasocial relationships. A 2020 study on prejudice reduction, for example, found that parasocial relationships helped diminish real-life prejudices toward groups previously viewed negatively.

Not all parasocial relationships have positive outcomes, however.

“On the negative side, parasocial relationships could lead to unrealistic expectations,” says Anderson. “This might be because people often idealize celebrities and expect them to be perfect.”

Not only might these unrealistic expectations involve your own self-image, but they could also impact how you view those around you. For example, you might not settle for a romantic partner if they don’t meet the same criteria as your parasocial relationship ideal.

Anderson also points out that you might also find yourself more sensitive to celebrity gossip.

When you’re emotionally invested in a media personality, you might feel deeply empathetic toward their experiences, to the point where it affects your mood.

In a 2016 book on media use and well-being, author Tilo Hartmann indicates that repeated exposure to a media personality could contribute to long lasting bonds that feel like genuine friendship.

This suggests that you might be able to avoid parasocial relationships by limiting how much you follow fictional characters, media personalities, and celebrities you feel aligned with.

You might be able to help this process by:

  • unfollowing or limiting social media accounts
  • putting time constraints on media exposure and browsing
  • avoiding interactions that encourage social media participation (commenting, liking, etc.)

Not all parasocial relationships are harmful or need to be avoided, however. Some parasocial relationships could positively influence your health and well-being.

If you feel as though attachment with a media personality is impairing or negatively impacting important areas of your life, speaking with a mental health professional might help.

With interactive social media, parasocial interactions have become more common.

Parasocial relationships — emotional, one-sided bonds with media personalities — have also increased since the print-based media age.

Parasocial relationships could be beneficial. But if you feel your attachment to a media personality is impairing your daily life or causing you distress, you might benefit from speaking with a mental health professional.