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EDITORIAL: Reality or virtual reality?

Parasocial relationships are more common than you may think — and even more harmful. – Photo by Elliot Dong

Throughout our daily lives, we often find ourselves engrossed in our smartphones, navigating through social media platforms with countless images of celebrities with whom we have no personal connection.

The pervasive online presence of celebrities and influencers ensures that we are perpetually linked to these public figures. As a result, it is estimated that more than 1 in every 2 individuals has experienced, or is currently experiencing, a parasocial relationship at some point in their lifetime.

A parasocial relationship is an unreciprocated connection in which an individual perceives the existence of a personal relationship with a public figure. This happens when one cultivates feelings of intimacy and acquaintance toward an individual they have never met.

This concept is not new. In fact, sociologists Donald Horton and Richard Wohl coined the term in 1956 to describe the artificial sense of closeness brought on by the advent of radio, TV and cinema.

In some contexts, a parasocial relationship may serve as a normal or advantageous outlet. As suggested by one study, this type of relationship may play a pivotal role in the formation of one's identity and sense of independence during adolescence. A further investigation revealed that parasocial relationships can help bolster the self-esteem of those with low confidence, facilitating a closer alignment with the self that they aspire to be.

Problems begin to arise when individuals develop intense attachments, a situation that has the potential to devolve into dangerous conditions. People may find themselves increasingly consumed in the lives of media personalities, leading to an emotional dependency and a potential deterrent to the cultivation of genuine, real-life connections.

At its extreme, a parasocial relationship can progress to erotomania — a rare psychiatric condition characterized by the delusional belief that another person, typically of higher social status like a celebrity or politician, reciprocates romantic feelings.

Especially during the age of COVID-19, social isolation has been linked to the worsening of mental health issues and an increase in overdose deaths. This type of isolation can prompt individuals to substitute real human connection with online parasocial relationships, which highlights the dangers associated with relying on one-sided, virtual relationships for emotional support and companionship.

Typically, these relationships are confined to the screen, but there are concerning consequences when they extend beyond this boundary.

For instance, Chad Michael Busto has faced arrest on several occasions due to his attempts to engage with various celebrities. A notable example occurred in August 2023, when he attempted to rush the stage during an interview involving Drew Barrymore and Reneé Rapp. There is a potential for escalation that not only breaches legal boundaries but also poses a safety risk that cannot be ignored.

In cases like these, the distinction between parasocial relationships and stalking becomes increasingly blurry. The incidents in which fans struggle to distinguish between fantasy and reality are not simply isolated events, and those involving celebrities like Justin Bieber and the members of the hit pop group One Direction demonstrate a recurring pattern.

And it is easy to understand why there is such a prevalence of incidents. With an average of almost 2.5 hours spent on social media every single day, the accessibility of celebrities through online platforms has reached a point where the lines between virtual and real-life personas and interactions blur.

Celebrities and influencers extensively document their daily lives through vlogs and posts on various platforms like Snapchat, Instagram stories and YouTube. An even more pronounced example can be found within the Twitch streaming community, where the record for the longest continuous stream stands at more than 800 days.

The immersive and intimate nature of these interactions makes it understandable that viewers develop parasocial relationships. The differences between admiration and fixation can become frightfully obscured through such extensive exposure to the content of a single individual.

While this phenomenon has been proven to be harmful to impressionable audiences, in some ways, it can significantly benefit the celebrities themselves.

They often capitalize on the situation, recognizing that increased engagement with their content directly translates to higher earnings, incentivizing them to craft their online presence in a manner that is inherently addictive. As proven, this celebrity worship is extremely harmful to the mental health of internet users.

The blending of real life with marketing campaigns through personal commodification on social media narrows the divide between genuine experiences and advertisement. Influencers, as their own marketing platforms, often obfuscate this distinction.

In light of these observations, it becomes imperative to recognize that the onus primarily falls on the audience to cultivate a discerning eye for strategically crafted content. In the same vein, both celebrities and influencers wield a significant power: the ability to shape societal values and norms through their online personas. Their ability to foster a culture of transparency and authenticity in their online content can reduce the possible harms of their influence.

The need for balance and ethical standards for the ways in which social media content is produced and presented cannot be overstated. Distinguishing between the real and the cleverly calculated content lies at the crux of the future of our collective digital well-being, and it ensures that our social media engagement enriches rather than detracts from the quality of our lives.

The Daily Targum's editorials represent the views of the majority of the 156th editorial board. Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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