Social Media and Parasocial Relationships

Sarah Olivas, a recent college graduate, was going through a difficult time in her life; her school work was piling up, she was working a stressful minimum-wage job, and she had recently broken up with her long-term boyfriend. It was at this time that she discovered actress and singer Ariana Grande’s 2018 album, Sweetener. Listening to Grande’s music helped to alleviate the stress she was experiencing. As an expression of her appreciation, Olivas began to run a fan account on Instagram dedicated to Grande. 

“[Her] music resonated with me in a way I had never felt before,” Olivas said. “Running [the Instagram] account made me feel more connected to Ariana, it made me feel more appreciative of her music and more invested in her success.”

Following a rise in internet culture, it’s nearly impossible to find a college student who doesn’t use social media today. Whether it’s for keeping up with current events, checking in with friends, or sharing slices of life, social media is utilized in a variety of productive ways. As these platforms become more prominent in our daily lives, our concept of interpersonal relationships may begin to change as well. 

According to the Pew Research Center, an approximate 84% of young adults between the ages of 18 and 29 are active on social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat, as of 2021. These younger generations have grown with these platforms, being the first observers of their rise and development. Each platform provides different services, but the underlying concepts remain the same: communication with anyone is quick and easy. 

This connection with others is one of the largest appeals of social media as it has never been easier to keep in touch with friends, family, and acquaintances. It is also easier than ever to follow the every move of politicians, businesses, and celebrities. Those with massive popularity have been granted even larger platforms to connect with their audiences. Through this intertwining of personal use, social networking, and influencer culture, parasocial relationships through the Internet have become more prominent.

 Psychology Today defines parasocial relationships as one-sided relationships formed within the mind of an individual toward someone, often a celebrity or influencer personality, who they don’t know. These relationships often feel very intimate and sincere, partly due to the façade of familiarity granted through social media platforms. 

On applications such as Instagram, the images we see don’t always depict reality. Posts are curated to present the most “socially acceptable” version of the self. The social comparison theory describes how individuals compare themselves to others whom they may deem more “socially fit” or aware than they are. While not all social comparisons result in these outcomes, the influence of social media has created different “selves” within each individual. Social media users are likely to compare themselves to the celebrities and influencers that they follow. These comparisons can lead to issues with self-image or difficulties in connecting with others. 

The rapper Eminem coined the term “Stan,” and named a song the same, which is a combination of “stalker” and “fan”. The term has evolved to have a more generalized definition describing a fan highly invested in their favorite celebrities’ lives. Many celebrities even have names for their stans, such as Beyonce’s “Beehive” or Taylor Swift’s “Swifties.” 

Stans belonging to similar fandoms will often interact with each other through social media platforms, predominately Instagram and Twitter. They may share updates or discuss their appreciation for their favorite celebrities. Many, such as Olivas , create fan accounts to demonstrate their devotion. 

“I wanted to create a space where me and other fans could connect due to our admiration for Ariana,” Olivas said. She and other fans of Grande denote themselves as “Arianators.” 

This rise in internet culture questions the admiration held towards social media figures  and influencers. Parasocial relationships can be created with others regardless of following or popularity. Various factors may lead to such a relationship, including appearance, political ideologies, social influence, similarity in interests, and so on. A research paper written for ScienceDirect found that media figures may play key-roles in developing a sense of well-being as they contribute to personal growth and development for their followers. In this way, social media may transfer purpose, values, and meaning to followers. Parasocial relationships can be beneficial, but they can also create unhealthy idolization of celebrities and influencers. Followers may cross the line between feeling inspired and feeling obsessed with their favorite creators.  

Younger generations are especially susceptible to these influences as they grow up with easy access to the Internet and social media use is normalized, even necessary for many. They may be more prone to developing parasocial relationships with celebrities because of this. When celebrities and influencers share their vulnerable moments on social media, audiences begin to feel an entitlement to witness these moments. Fans may become more consumed with the lives of the celebrities and influencers they follow. Social media has created an environment where privacy is often disregarded which may amplify the intensity of parasocial relationships and, in extreme cases, escalate into instances of harassment such as cyberstalking. 

According to a Current Psychology study, cyberstalking is defined as the harassment of an individual using electronic tools and services. This can include sending unsolicited messages, hacking into accounts, spreading falsities, etc. Large-scale celebrities, such as Swift, have many documented instances of cyberstalkers – some of whom have even shown up at her house to get close to her. Social media sites often are unable to keep track of and monitor these cases. In many instances, celebrities have chosen to delete their social media accounts to prevent these occurrences. 

Social media can create an outlet for individuals to express themselves and connect with others who share similar interests. Some choose to run personal accounts for themselves, while others choose to run accounts dedicated to their favorite celebrities or influencers. The internet has created new ways of relating to people; parasocial relationships are becoming more common among influencers and fans. While many of these relationships remain innocent, others can escalate into more extreme obsessions. As the Internet and social media platforms continue to advance, it will certainly be interesting to observe how these platforms continue to alter our interactions with others and the world around us.

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