Day after day, my husband and I watched an hour-long episode from a BBC series that he had bought me for my birthday, called Ballykissangel. With each passing day, I became more attached to the characters. They became my friends; I could picture their quaint Irish town in my head and I felt like I was a part of their little world.

But one day, after spending numerous hours developing and enjoying a connection with the residents of the town on this TV show, the unthinkable happened. In a freak accident on the show, one of the main characters was killed off. This fun, sassy woman was on the verge of a wonderful dating relationship, her business was flourishing, and life was looking up for her. I had spent over a month watching her grow and develop as a person. Then, she was suddenly gone. As pathetic as it sounds, I was devastated. I was not only upset, but I was really angry. I never realized that I could be that moved by the death of a fictional character!

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After watching a television or movie series, have you ever felt like you know the characters so well that they are like one of your friends? Could you see yourself having drinks with Carrie and Samantha in Sex and the City? Or, is there a musician, actor, athlete, celebrity chef, or broadcaster who you feel like you know personally because you follow their work? These feelings of closeness or friendship you may have with media personalities are called parasocial relationships. In a parasocial relationship, you can come to feel intimately connected to people in the media who you’ve never met before but have only watched on the TV or in movies. And today, because of the information we can gain on the Internet, we can immediately find out about people’s personal lives – who they’re dating, their likes and dislikes, and where they grew up. This enables us to feel even closer to the people we watch day in and day out. It’s possible that we may even know more about certain celebrities’ lives than the lives of those in our own social circles.

At this point, you might be wondering, why talk about this? Why is it important to think about the parasocial relationships we have with people in the media? Well, research has shown that these relationships can actually influence people in their real, face-to-face social relationships. In fact, the stronger a person’s feelings of closeness are to those they’ve connected with through the media, the more likely they are to be influenced by that person (their thoughts, values, and choices). So, for example, if that particular character or celebrity is supporting a specific cause, endorsing a lifestyle choice, product or fashion trend, then you are more likely to do the same because of your “friendship” with them. Therefore, you can see that parasocial relationships can have both positive and negative influences on people.

It’s possible that we may even know more about certain celebrities’ lives than the lives of those in our own social circles.

Let’s say that Jennifer Garner is one of your favorite actresses. You admire her and have followed her career and life. Currently, she is an ambassador for the nonprofit Save the Children. Because of the parasocial relationship you have with her, research would suggest that you would probably be more likely to take an interest in that charity, too. Alternatively, a person can be negatively influenced through their media “friendships”. For example, if a teenager’s favorite television or movie character is always engaging in unprotected, casual sex that never leads to any negative outcomes, studies suggest that this teen would be more likely to support or engage in risky sex themselves.

The research on parasocial relationships shows us that it’s important to think about who we’re watching or listening to in the media. As we form “friendships” with media personalities, we open ourselves up to their influence, even if they are only fictional characters. When we spend copious amounts of time with them, like a real friendship, we can start to think like they would think. We feel for them when they suffer and celebrate with them when they succeed. Studies even suggest that after binge watching a television series on Netflix or finishing a long running book/movie series, we might even experience feelings of loss or sadness over saying goodbye to people we’ve spent so much time with.

So, today, in light of all this research on parasocial relationships, you might want to take a minute to think about how many celebrities you have as “friends”. How have they positively or negatively impacted your thoughts, emotions or choices?

Image via Bethany Small

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10 comments

  1. So true, thank you for bringing this discussion to life. If we are to spend some time watching fictional characters, at the very least, we should be watching characters that help us bring out the best of us.

    1. Thanks, so much, Yuri! I agree! (I’m sorry I’m just responding to your comment. I don’t know how I missed it.)

  2. This article is a bit sobering in its truth. The influence of media individuals–hugely pervasive in the age of all things digitally social–is pervasive. How much more can we feel we know an individual when we have access to “instant gratification” via sites like Twitter and Instagram. This does present a wonderful reality to actors/actresses/personalities, yet it may also serve as a form of false friendship. Taking a step back to assess the balance of time spent with “real” versus “fictional” friends would prove beneficial.

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    1. Thanks for commenting, Leslie. Excellent point about Twitter and Instagram! So true!

  3. I had the exact same thing happen with the exact same character on that series. I bawled and was mopey and grieving for DAYS.

  4. It makes sense to have relationships with these “people”, we bring them into our homes and now with marathon TV watching sessions we spend a lot of time with them. It can only be a negative thing to welcome them into your life if you forget that the context of a show is much narrower than reality, and very one sided.

    1. Great point, Alys. You really have to step back and remind yourself that the show you’re watching was constructed by someone to frame “reality” in a certain way.

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