When Your BFF Doesn’t Know You Exist

One-sided relationships aren’t all bad — and can even sometimes been good for you and the kids

By Paris Giles • Art by Jon Wilcox

First printed in the September/October 2021 issue

It used to be that a movie star was a movie star: this glamorous, elusive creature of mystery who we got a glimpse of only on the big screen or the red carpet. Now, thanks to social media, we know what our favorite celebrity’s kid had for breakfast and whether he or she scarfed it down without rebuttal, or if the eggs came with a side of tantrum. 

These parasocial relationships — or the one-sided attachments we form with celebrities, fictional characters, politicians or even sports teams — isn’t a new concept. The term was coined in the ‘50s by sociologists Donald Horton and Richard Wohl in response to the rise of TV, radio and film. The researchers found, and it still holds true, that these parasocial relationships can look eerily similar to our real-life, person-to-person relationships. Our targets of affection have no idea that we exist. Still, their successes are our wins; when they endorse a cause, we buy in; when they suffer a loss, we grieve with them; and if they disappoint us, it hurts.

It’s not just frivolous fandom. 

Studies suggest that these low-maintenance relationships can be beneficial in boosting self-esteem, offering companionship or giving us an aspirational North Star. And, in the case of children, a character they can connect to may aid in education and in the adaptation of social and emotional skills. 

”It’s something about these friends having this really easygoing, fun relationship that really calls to people, particularly when they might feel lonely in their own life. It’s like, ‘Oh, now I can have this vicarious satisfaction being a part of this cool friend group.’”

Our virtual pals might be a good thing

Children and media researcher Fashina Aladé, Ph.D., says in the last decade or so the children’s media field has been especially interested in parasocial interactions and relationships. 

“We see that it has really big effects in the sense that it mediates other effects,” says Aladé, a Michigan State University assistant professor in the College of Communication Arts and Sciences.

Her department recently conducted a study meant to figure out if kids watched diverse representation in a science show whether it would influence their ideas around who a scientist could be. Spoiler: The team didn’t see a big difference. 

“But,” Aladé says, “when I looked closer, the kids who we did see effects for were the kids who had developed these parasocial relationships with their favorite character in the program.” They asked questions like: Is this character your friend? Do you feel sad when they feel sad? Do you trust them? “Those kids who scored higher on that scale — meaning they really formed a bond with their favorite character from the show — those are the kids where we actually saw, at the end, had more positive attitudes toward math, and for doing math and science,” she says.  

While Aladé studies the children, fellow MSU media psychologist and assistant professor Allison Eden, Ph.D., is looking at grown-ups and our reactions to characters in fictional programming, or Eden says, “why we like particular characters or why we don’t like other characters, and then how that affects sort of our whole appreciation for the narrative.” 

Perhaps you’ve been known to keep up with a Kardashian or two, but more than any real person, the characters in your favorite movies and shows are who you really latch on to. Sometimes embarrassingly so? Same. Apparently, this is pretty common.

Eden mentioned a Friends study that found students would watch the TV show to help placate feelings of loneliness. “It’s something about these friends having this really easygoing, fun relationship that really calls to people, particularly when they might feel lonely in their own life,” she says. “It’s like, ‘Oh, now I can have this vicarious satisfaction being a part of this cool friend group.’”

The no drama club

Parasocial relationships are safe and fuss-free, Eden says.

“In a two-way relationship, an interpersonal relationship, there’s always a chance that they’re going to do something or say something that you don’t like, and then you’re in this relationship with that person,” she says. 

Or conversely, maybe you’ll offend your real-life friend in some way and have to wade through that awkwardness, or worst case: the relationship ends and you have to move, get a new job and a new circle. 

That risk doesn’t exist in parasocial relationships. Thus, one of the touted benefits is the absence of the anxiety that often comes with interpersonal relationships. But is that a good thing? Is it not within those anxious moments, uncomfortable as they might be, where lessons are learned and people are made? 

About children, Aladé says, “Certainly, I don’t think we should have kids living in a bubble and only having parasocial relationships and not having relationships with real people.” She says that’s an extreme, unlikely scenario. “Most kids are interacting with lots of other humans, and they’re going to figure out those real-life relationships and figure out how to deal with that anxiety one way or another. I think them having a safe space and having one relationship in their life that doesn’t produce that anxiety — that’s only a good thing.” 

While the potential for unhealthy obsession with celebrity or fictional worlds exists, of course, both doctors say that’s the exception and not of particular concern with regard to parasocial relationships. 

“I’m not aware of any research that shows parasocial relationships being problematic,” Aladé says. 

Still, reality television, to a degree, and certainly social media have added some complexity to our relationships with public figures and blurred the line between parasocial and interpersonal. Now, you can comment on an Instagram picture and maybe that celebrity comments back. The relationship is lopsided, yes, but is it still one-sided? And even if Jennifer Lopez, Tom Hardy or whomever doesn’t see your comment, the possibility of interaction is more real than ever before.

“We know that when people anticipate — even if it’s not there — if we anticipate the possibility of future interaction, we tend to have more intense feelings,” Eden says. And, of course, we’ve seen influential celebrities endorse questionable “wellness” products or spew potentially harmful rhetoric. 

Like kids following a friendly character into math and science, adolescents and adults can be just as malleable. 

Detroit mom and hair stylist Bettie Lutcher says her 12-year-old twin daughters, Lilly and Bailey, are all about TikTok. The girls are also big into K-pop, specifically, the girl group Blackpink. “Korean culture (piqued) their interest, from being connected to K-pop,” Lutcher says. The trio planned for a mommy-daughter date to the theater to see Blackpink the Movie. While Bailey and Lilly are having fun singing along to their favorite tracks, learning the dance routines and connecting to a different culture, Lutcher says she still takes care to limit their time on social media, YouTube and the like. 

“It’s important to me to see how that’s affecting them,” she says. Lutcher wants them to “stay connected, but not to where it’s influencing them to do something that they maybe don’t naturally or authentically want to do.” 

Lilly wants to follow her K-pop friends’ footsteps into entertainment, while Bailey wants to be a lifeguard. While the kids are doing their thing, Lutcher says she follows other big-name stylists on social media — or anyone flourishing, really. 

“Even if it’s not in my field, I follow success,” she says. For her, it’s motivation. “I feel proud of people that I don’t know, just the same as if I did. I can’t explain it. Even if you don’t know them, you know them, because they shared whatever it is: the success of their business, the birth of a baby, the loss of a loved one, the opening of a store.” 

We wondered whether researchers Aladé and Eden find themselves forming one-sided parasocial relationships of their own with entertainers, characters or anyone else. Eden, an avid reader, says she follows a number of authors on Twitter and feels like they’re friends until an unrequited comment reminds her that, no, not really. “They’re actually just, like, people who don’t know me,” she says, laughing. 

Aladé says she’s not particularly celebrity-oriented, but she does follow actor Kristen Bell and comedian Nicole Byer, among a handful of others. About Byer, Aladé says, “I’ve certainly never interacted with her, but I’ve gone to a show, and in my mind, I feel like I have this connection because we have — it is funny to hear how silly that sounds out loud — the same birthday and grew up in towns next to each other. I think of her as my alter ego.” Aladé has also been following the blog Mommy Shorts, run by Ilana Wiles, for years. “I’ve been watching her two kids grow up since they were babies, and I do feel pretty attached to their family,” she says. “She has a small enough following that she does sometimes message back, but does she know who I am? Like, surely no.”

TAKE THE QUIZ!

Are you the parasocial relationship type?

Take our super-duper, totally ‘scientific’ quiz and find out

Have you ever used some version of the phrase “I just feel like we would get along” about someone you don’t actually know?
A) Often
B) Once or twice
C) Never

How many celebrities or famous people do you follow on social media?
A) A ton
B) A handful
C) None

Do you own a jersey or any other sports memorabilia?
A) Several
B) One or two things
C) Not one

Do you ever let the TV or radio play in the background, “for company?”
A) All the time
B) Occasionally
C) Never

Have you ever felt proud of a celebrity or famous person’s achievement?
A) Many times
B) Once or twice
C) No

Have you ever written or messaged someone you don’t know just to express admiration or gratitude?
A) A handful of times
B) Once or twice
C) Never

Have you ever felt disappointed in a celebrity or famous person?
A) Often
B) A couple times
C) Nope

Have you ever bought a celebrity- or influencer-endorsed product that you wouldn’t have ordinarily?
A) Many
B) One or two
C) Never

Have you ever finished a TV series and afterward missed any or all of the characters?
A) All the time
B) A few times
C) Never

TALLY YOUR ANSWERS:
As = 4
Bs = 2
Cs = 0

36-26

You may be a bit obsessed, but that’s OK

24-14

You’re known to form an attachment or two

12-0

You seriously couldn’t care less

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