Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.
Do you have an emotional relationship with famous personalities you follow on social media? Do you feel a connection with reality TV stars or other celebrities? For example, as you watch their Instagram story or YouTube video, do you ever send them a message or leave a comment hoping for a response? Or, as you see them on TikTok, do you ever imagine getting advice from them about how to handle an issue in your life?
In “When Grown-Ups Have Imaginary Friends,” Jessica Grose writes about “parasocial relationships,” the experience of having an emotional relationship with a media personality:
This weekend I had multiple text threads going about Hannah’s issues with her housemates, and whether she was in the wrong in her fights with Amanda, Luke and Kyle. These are not friends of mine; these are people who appear on the Bravo TV show “Summer House,” whose drama I am embarrassingly invested in, and whose psychological motivations I spend time dissecting with friends and co-workers.
The kind of one-way friendship I have with these reality stars has a name in the sociology world: It’s called a “parasocial relationship,” which is an emotional relationship with a media figure. The term was coined in the 1950s by two sociologists who observed that dominant mass media — at the time, TV and radio — created the illusion of a friendship between spectator and performer, and “the most remote and illustrious men are met as if they were in the circle of one’s peers.”
Social media has added another dimension to this dynamic, because occasionally the performers will interact with you, which perpetuates the illusion that you have involvement in their lives.
Though explaining these friendships may make you feel like a creep, they are normal, and quite common, said Alex Kresovich, a doctoral student at the U.N.C. Hussman School of Journalism and Media who has published research on parasocial relationships. “The feelings people have with these media persona are nearly indistinguishable from their friends in real life,” despite the fact that the celebrity in question usually (but not always) has no idea you exist, he said. (A small subset of people may develop an unhealthy obsession with celebrities — it’s called “celebrity worship” in the clinical literature — but that’s not the norm.)
Amanda Hess, a critic at large for The Times, wrote about her parasocial relationship with the Peloton instructor Cody Rigsby, explaining that his “sweetly annoying” conversation helps her sweat through 45 minutes and tricks her into feeling bonded to him. Tara Tsukamoto, 35, a mom of two kids in Elk Grove, Calif., who does daily workouts with Sydney Cummings, a YouTube star with more than 1 million subscribers, said her 4-year-old son recognizes Ms. Cummings and asked if she was going to come over to their house.
“I know we aren’t really friends, but I do kind of feel like I know her,” Ms. Tsukamoto said. “Also even though we’ve never met she provides a lot of what a real friend would: advice, funny stories, inspiration to become a better version of myself.”
Students, read the entire article, then tell us:
What is your reaction to some of the stories and experiences shared in the featured article? Have you ever found yourself connecting or identifying with someone on social media or reality TV who you’ve never actually met?
Do any people you follow online interact with their fans by responding to comments or messages, or doing Live videos and responding to fan questions? How does this make you feel personally closer, or not, to the influencer or celebrity?
Have parasocial relationships become more important or relevant in your life since the pandemic? Why or why not?
Do you think there are good or healthy things about feeling an emotional connection with people you follow? Has a parasocial relationship ever helped you get through a hard time or influenced physical or mental health choices you made?
What are the downsides of identifying strongly with a celebrity? The article mentioned that some celebrities are skeptical of vaccines, and we recently asked students if a celebrity had ever persuaded them to do something. Are there other situations when feeling as if you’re friends with an influencer could be a bad thing?
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Students 13 and older in the United States and the United Kingdom, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.