In his post “Streaming and Superheroes,” CJ Lindsey describes his love of Superman. He writes that as a young child he would “tie a red towel around my neck and run around the house with my fist stretched forward.” Although CJ presumably ditched the red towel years ago, his affinity for Superman remains. Not only has he internalized the superhero’s morals and values, his love for the “Man of Steel” likely steered him towards his first job in the entertainment industry working for DC Comics. According to CJ, “it becomes impossible to ignore the guiding force that character has played in my life.”
How many of us have had similar relationships with media characters? Okay, so I really liked Wonder Woman, we share first names (Diana) after all. Like CJ, many of us were introduced to the characters we formed affinities with on the big screen in a theater or on our television screens at home. But think about kids today. Screens surround them, as do the characters (fictional and real) who potentially wield influence over them.
What’s a Parasocial Relationship?
A “parasocial relationship” is a one-sided, emotionally charged relationship that develops over time between a person and a media character. These relationships can develop with characters on TV, in movies, on social media, via gaming, podcasts…. all the “places” kids visit on their screens.
Every year when I begin teaching Cyber Civics, I chat with students about their screen use. Invariably the conversation veers to the media personalities they like and follow. Typically these include “influencers” of the day, many of whom kids meet on their favorite app, YouTube.
YouTube personalities who have emerged as a new kind of celebrity. Unlike the old days, when such celebrities could only be admired from afar, today youth can interact with them by commenting on their videos and following or sometimes even communicating with them across social media platforms. With so many opportunities to engage, it’s not surprising to see young people forming emotional attachments to these new celebrities.
There are positives and negatives of parasocial releationships.
Positives of Parasocial Relationships
Forming a parasocial relationship with a successful, inspiring media character (like Superman) can obviously provide a young person with inspiration and motivation. Other positives may include:
Providing a sense of community and connection
Encouraging healthy behaviors and habits
Helping to provide courage to overcome challenges or obstacles
Offering companionship (especially during Covid-19)
Forming positive identity traits
Negatives of Parasocial Relationships
It goes without saying that a parasocial relationship with a poor role model is not a recipe for a positive outcome. So it’s a good idea for parents to ask their children who they admire on their screens.
Other downsides of parasocial relationships may include:
Interfering with real-life relationships
Replacing opportunities for real-life interactions
Causing media overuse
Encouraging negative social comparisons
Contributing to over-spending on products tied to or endorsed by the character
Join Our Chat!
Parasocial relationships are becoming more common as youth spend increasing time on screens and their choices of what to watch and who to interact with grow every day. Please join us for our upcoming Chat—"Parasocial Relationships with Media Characters: How Do They Effect Kids?” I’ll be chatting with Dr. Pamela Rutledge, Director of the Media Psychology Research Center and CJ Lindsey, Lead of HBO Max, Editorial Strategy and our resident kids’ media expert, about this fascinating phenomenon.
Diana Graber is the author of "Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology." She is also the founder of Cyberwise and Cyber Civics.