Have you ever been watching a Twitch stream and felt like you knew the person behind the screen? Especially after the COVID-19 pandemic, many gamers, avid tv-watchers, or social media users have formed what are called parasocial relationships with those they admire after long periods of not being able to communicate with the outside world. They may feel like they have an intimate connection with said personality, and could find it hard to distinguish that relationship from real ones.
The term was conceived by psychologists Donald Horton and Richard Whorl in 1956 after they studied the relationships between mass media users and respective figures. This led to the term parasocial being coined, meaning to “resemble” a personal relationship. Interestingly enough, said relationship may not even be with a person - it could be with a fictional character or an online persona.
What does this mean for gamers specifically? Parasocial relationships, while potentially damaging, can actually be beneficial to providing belonging and community to those who would normally be without. Particularly for young people, parasocial relationships are common due to the nature of social circles in the earlier stages of life. But as for whether they are healthy or unhealthy, the verdict is still out.
Parasocial relationships can be harmful for those without a close circle of friends, as these types of relationships can replace having real-life friends, as well as create impossible standards for real friendships. They have the potential to deepen loneliness, because they are only replacements for friends in the real world. Along with this, not only can they damage the viewer’s life, but the idol’s as well, depending on the severity.
While that is true, parasocial relationships often enhance the social lives of those who participate in having them. The modern era of technology is making it easier and easier to form strong bonds with those who you do not see every day, and parasocial relationships can be the same in nature. The one-sided relationships can give viewers a sense of community, as well as lessen anxiety that they will not be accepted or rejected by their idols. This hinges on whether the relationship is moderate or extreme - it is rare that individuals reach the point of obsession, but we always recommend checking up on yourself and others.
It is important to note that parasocial relationships are often influenced by what the idol/streamer/figure wants the viewers to see. By no means are these types of relationships delusional, but viewers should understand that their relationship with their idol is beneficial to both parties, not only the viewer. All this being said, we endorse engaging in a structured amount of time online, and staying safe and healthy while navigating the digital world.