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April 6, 2023

More Than a Celebrity Crush: Parasocial Relationships and Teens

“People don’t have imaginary friends anymore they have parasocial relationships with musicians.” – @mountbellyache on Twitter

What is a parasocial relationship?

2012 was a golden year for many teenagers. Tumblr was at its most popular, the final movie in the Twilight Saga had just been released, and the mega-popular boy band One Direction had swept the nation. Thousands of teenage girls flocked to their concerts, hung up posters on their walls, and a new form of internet media rose to prominence: the “imagine.” One Direction imagines were one- or two-sentence daydreams about interactions with members of the band—most often Harry Styles—that allowed fans to picture themselves in close relationships, often romantic, with them.

The imagines included usually innocuous ideas like “Imagine: Harry wakes you up in the morning by kissing your nose,” but ranged to more off-the-wall suggestions like, “Imagine: Harry is a soldier and you’re waiting to reunite with him at the airport after his six-month deployment.” Imagines gave fans the sense of being deeply involved with One Direction’s lives, and they projected their ideas of what their personalities were onto the band’s members with so much fervor that fans were often upset when those personalities didn’t match up with reality.

These kinds of relationships are called parasocial relationships; “one-sided relationships, typically with an everyday individual and a celebrity or fictional character.” Though imagines were one of the ways parasocial relationships were brought to the main stage of the internet, they have only become more common as social media has grown in popularity.

Why are parasocial relationships formed?

Relatability is the currency of the internet; if your lifestyle, glamorous as it may be, isn’t even a little bit attainable, how do you get people hooked? So brands give themselves personalities on Twitter, and movie stars hire Gen Zers to run their TikTok accounts. The result is that teens often become personally invested in the lives of people who don’t know they exist, because those people have carefully curated images that make us think they’re just like we are. And while this isn’t necessarily malicious—many celebrities and influencers do profess genuine care for their fans and followers—it’s still one-sided, and seeming like one of us doesn’t necessarily mean someone is truly like us. For example, even though YouTube star Emma Chamberlain rose to fame with a vlog which framed her quirks and foibles and branded her as an average girl, she now charges $10,000 for a private Instagram message saying thank you for being a fan.

Are parasocial relationships harmful?

For the most part, no. Though a teen may daydream about meeting Charlie D’Amelio at a coffee shop or being singled out by Harry Styles at a concert to come up on the stage, they know it’s not realistic. Even though a teen may experience real admiration and even emotional attachment to A-list celebrities and multi-million-follower social media personalities, they know that the relationship is one-sided. However, that doesn’t stop young people from spending their energy on the celebrity. A Mashable article recently reported that young people will sometimes send Instagram messages to their favorite creators, not expecting a reply, but still making time to loop Lady Gaga or Zendaya in on their thoughts. Though the messages do have a recipient, it’s more like journaling than trying to form a connection.

The dynamic can shift when the object of a young person’s interest in a more accessible celebrity, or at least seems to be. Twitch streamers and YouTubers are particularly susceptible to being the unwitting party in a parasocial relationship because of the way that their job requires them to interact with their fans personally. Ludwig Ahgren, a popular Twitch streamer, said, “In the DMs people send me, it feels like I’m not the guy for the job. They ask me for advice as they would a friend, or someone you’re close to. But I’m not involved in the person’s life.” In these instances, the celebrity or influencer can feel uncomfortable in a way that someone with the status, and attached untouchability, of an A-lister might not.

A young person with this kind of investment in someone who neither knows nor actually cares about them is, perhaps obviously, at risk of getting their feelings hurt if they allow themselves to think of the relationship as real and two-sided. But there is another potential risk, one that has more of an impact on the celebrity than on their fan. An example of this is standup comedian John Mulaney.

Mulaney was a favorite of Gen Z for his awkward, self-deprecating, autobiographical humor, specifically the way he gushed about his relationship with his wife, Anna Marie Tendler. In 2021, Mulaney left his wife and shortly thereafter began dating actress Olivia Munn, among rumors of cheating. The story is basic celebrity gossip, but many Gen Zers had singled the comedian out as “one of the good ones.” Young people felt personally betrayed by John Mulaney, and as a result his fanbase has become noticeably smaller. Teens who were attracted to Mulaney’s honesty now feel that he sold them on a lie. The comedian now has less traction, less appeal, and the repercussions will certainly change his career.

Does the Bible have any wisdom on parasocial relationships?

God wants all our attention, all our praise, all our devotion. That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the work and content of celebrities and influencers, but we have to careful to recognize when we feel close to them in a way that distracts us from real life, or even becomes something we use to try and feel better in times when our faith would be strengthened by turning to God for comfort.

Scripture has strong words for anyone who makes idols, elevating another person or thing to a place of worship. Not all parasocial relationships are examples of modern idolatry, but some are. Making a person a representation of all your hopes and dreams, pouring your time and energy into them, turning to them in times of need when they can’t and won’t offer any help is making an idol of them.

In Galatians 4:8, Paul says “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable forces? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again?”

God is not inaccessible to us. He longs to meet us with His presence. He does care about us, He does want us to tell Him about everything, and He will never betray us or turn on us. He is more invested in us than we could ever be in Him, and He pursues our hearts relentlessly even on days when we feel lukewarm. The relationship is two-sided; He puts in as much—in fact, infinitely more—love and time into us as we put into Him. He loves us, and He is all in.

If you want to dive deeper on these themes, check out the Axis Conversation Kit on Social Media!

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