Parasocial Relationships: The Nature of Celebrity Fascinations in the Digital World

May 7, 2024

What are parasocial relationships, and why do they matter in our digital lives? Parasocial relationships are connections where you may feel close to a figure in the media, despite no reciprocal awareness. With the rise of social media, understanding these one-sided interactions is critical. They affect our mental health and shape our social landscape. This article covers parasocial dynamics, from harmless admiration to unhealthy obsessions.

Key Takeaways

  • Parasocial relationships are unidirectional emotional bonds that individuals form with media figures facilitated by the rise of digital media, with potential impacts ranging from positive community and identity building, to negative mental health effects.
  • These relationships can be categorized into entertainment-social, intense-personal, and borderline-pathological, each type having its own potential influence on an individual’s mental and social well-being.
  • Healthy management of parasocial relationships involves setting boundaries, acknowledging the dichotomy of potential benefits and risks, prioritizing authentic relationships, and sometimes seeking professional help when these relationships lead to distress or interfere with daily life.

What Are Parasocial Relationships?

Parasocial relationships are one-sided connections with public figures or fictional characters, where one person extends emotional energy, interest, and time, while the other party is completely unaware of the other’s existence. These relationships are considered a normal and common aspect of human socialization. Our evolutionary predisposition to make social connections extends into media use and this propensity is why we form parasocial relationships.

The concept of parasocial relationships has expanded from those with television personas, to digital relationships with bloggers, social media users, and gamers. The rise of digital media has facilitated the formation and strengthening of these relationships, which can range from light-hearted, to intensely personal and even borderline-pathological.

Navigating these relationships requires understanding their origins, types, formation and ending factors, as well as their potential impact on mental health. They offer a unique lens to understand one’s mental well-being, and with self-awareness, they can be managed in a healthy manner.

Origins of Parasocial Relationships

The term ‘parasocial relationship’ was coined in 1956 by sociologists Donald Horton and Richard Wohl. In their study, they observed that interactions between mass media users and media figures resemble typical social relationships. They noticed that people were forming bonds with television personas, and the concept of parasocial interactions began to take root in the realm of media and communication studies before branching into the field of psychology.

From television personas to social media influencers, the nature of these relationships has evolved with technology. With the rise of digital platforms, these one-sided relationships have become more common. Yet, despite their prevalence, the understanding of parasocial relationships and their impact on mental health is still a relatively new area of study.

The Role of Media and Technology

As the concept of parasocial interaction evolved, so did the platforms for these relationships. The rise of the social media platform has played a significant role in the formation and strengthening of parasocial bonds. The current digital age provides more intimate and frequent interaction opportunities, blurring the lines of parasocial relationships and making fans feel a sense of intimacy with celebrities or influencers.

However, the increased accessibility and interaction available through social media platforms can also exacerbate unhealthy attachments to celebrities for the media user. This heightened level of engagement has led to a growing number of people developing unhealthy attachments, with fans often feeling that they ‘know’ the media figure personally.

As we delve deeper into the types of parasocial relationships, it becomes clear that the impact of these one-sided bonds can vary significantly.

Types of Parasocial Relationships

Parasocial relationships can be categorized into three main types, each representing a different form and stage of parasocial interaction. These categories are entertainment-social, intense-personal, and borderline-pathological. Understanding these types can help us comprehend the range of experiences and emotions associated with parasocial relationships.

The different types of parasocial relationships can be categorized as follows:

  1. Entertainmentsocial parasocial relationships: These interactions are often light-hearted and involve a sense of entertainment.
  2. Intensepersonal parasocial relationships: These relationships involve a deeper attachment and may start to affect real-life social interactions.
  3. Borderlinepathological parasocial relationships: These are the most extreme types of parasocial relationships and can lead to behaviors such as stalking or violence.

While each type of parasocial relationship varies in intensity and impact, they all stem from the same basic human need for connection. Let’s delve deeper into each of these types to understand their unique characteristics and potential impacts.


Entertainment-social parasocial relationships are commonly observed and are typically thought to be the most prevalent type of parasocial engagement. Fans view public figures as a source of fun and a topic for casual conversation among friends. This type of parasocial interaction often forms over shared interests, such as a favorite TV show or musician, and can facilitate real-life connections through fandom and online communities.

These relationships can act as a bridge to real-life connections, as fans meet and bond with other fans in online and offline communities. This interaction can result in reduced loneliness and an increased sense of communal belonging. Therefore, entertainment-social parasocial relationships can have positive effects, bringing individuals together over shared interests and creating a sense of community and belonging.


Intense-personal parasocial relationships signify a profound emotional attachment to media figures, which can sometimes reach the level of celebrity worship. Unlike the lighter, more communal attachments found in entertainment-social relationships, these interactions involve a deep-seated conviction that one has a personal connection with the celebrity. Such relationships are characterized not just by frequent checks on the celebrity's social media, but also by more intense behaviors such as feeling distressed upon encountering negative articles about the celebrity, or getting into arguments with others who do not feel as positively about the celebrity.

These obsessive parasocial dynamics can impede the formation of genuine interpersonal relationships and lead to social conflicts, especially when others do not share the parasocial enthusiast’s intense attachment. This highlights the potential negative impacts of intense-personal parasocial relationships on an individual’s social interactions and mental health. The intense nature of these parasocial interactions can obstruct the development of real interpersonal relationships and adversely impact the individual’s social life and mental health.


The least common form of parasocial relationships is the borderline-pathological type, which is also considered the most dangerous. These relationships can have severe negative impacts on individuals involved. These relationships extend beyond mere fascination, as individuals become so absorbed by their attachment to a celebrity that this hyperfocus begins to dictate their thoughts, actions, and feelings. This may lead to unhealthy obsessions and fantasies, such as delusions about the celebrity seeking a personal relationship with them. 

At the extreme end, behaviors such as stalking a celebrity can emerge from borderline-pathological parasocial relationships, leading to a dangerous disconnection from reality. This type of parasocial interaction underscores the potential dangers and negative impacts on mental health, underscoring the need for understanding and managing these relationships.

Forming and Ending Parasocial Relationships

Parasocial relationships often begin with frequent exposure to a media figure’s content, fostering a sense of familiarity and connection. Persistent media exposure leads to a perceived intimacy and one-sided relationship, as viewers feel they ‘know’ the media figure personally. Repeated viewing or interaction with content allows media consumers to develop narratives and expectations around media figures, further strengthening the parasocial bond.

However, just as these relationships can form, they can also end. The end of a media figure’s career or a significant change in their public persona can disrupt the perceived relationship, leading fans to disengage. Additionally, viewers may outgrow parasocial relationships as they mature or their interests evolve, leading to a natural and gradual end to the attachment.

In some cases, the end of a parasocial relationship may come suddenly due to a scandal or untimely death. When this happens, fans may experience grief similar to that of losing a real-life relationship. This highlights the emotional depth of parasocial relationships and their potential impact on an individual’s mental health.

Formation Factors

The development of parasocial relationships is strongly influenced by:

  • Media exposure
  • The ability to follow celebrities or fictional characters through various platforms
  • Individual psychological factors, such as attachment styles and natural responsiveness to human-like stimuli
  • Perceived similarities with the celebrity
  • Certain mental health conditions

These factors play a significant role in shaping one’s propensity to form parasocial relationships. Although parasocial relationships with celebrities can be normal and even enriching when you share similar interests, they can become problematic if they start to negatively impact your daily life and well-being.

Parasocial Interaction (PSI) encompasses engagement with media figures through content consumption and interaction. This has evolved with the advent of the internet to create more immersive user experiences. Media psychology plays a significant role in understanding how repeated and consistent exposure to a media personality can lead to enduring parasocial bonds that resemble genuine friendship or companionship.

Ending Factors

Parasocial relationships typically end due to reasons like:

  • A public figure’s change in behavior
  • Retirement
  • Death
  • The cancellation of their show
  • A shift in the individual’s personal interests or connection to the media figure
  • A change in the media figure’s original brand image or interests

A shift in an individual’s personal interests or a notable change in the media figure’s behavior can cause the parasocial relationship to dissolve.

Personal development in the individual, such as achieving new life milestones, or the perceived loss of authenticity in a media figure can also lead to the end of a parasocial relationship. Interestingly, research has found that the end of a parasocial relationship can evoke a response similar to the loss of a social relationship, sometimes leading to distress in individuals and affecting their personal health habits.

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The Impact of Parasocial Relationships on Mental Health

Parasocial relationships can have both positive and negative impacts on mental health. They serve as a lens for understanding one’s mental well-being. The Absorption-Addiction Model suggests parasocial relationships might evolve as individuals seek fulfillment that is missing from their lives, potentially indicating underlying mental health challenges. On the other hand, parasocial relationships can appear safer because there is no risk of rejection, and it is a one-sided dynamic without the possibility for a mutual relationship.

A positive experience with parasocial relationships may indicate that an individual is in a good place emotionally and socially. However, the potential downsides and benefits of parasocial relationships should be acknowledged to understand their influence on individuals’ lives.

In the following sections, we will delve deeper into the potential benefits and risks of parasocial relationships. This knowledge can provide a foundation for managing these unique bonds in a healthy and beneficial way.

Potential Benefits

Parasocial relationships provide emotional benefits such as companionship and a sense of connection that can help mitigate the risk of rejection, making parasocial relationships healthy in certain contexts. A shared admiration for media figures can build community among fans, lessening feelings of loneliness. This phenomenon was especially observed during societal events like the COVID-19 pandemic, where parasocial relationships served as a comfort and source of connection.

Furthermore, entertainment-social parasocial relationships have been shown to decrease prejudice against stigmas, including mental illness, thus serving as a potential mental health benefit. For instance, fans who feel a deep connection to a character or celebrity who openly discusses mental health challenges may develop a more compassionate attitude towards these issues. This effect can extend to their views on mental health, reducing stigma and encouraging a more supportive environment. Parasocial interactions can serve as a ‘secure base or safe haven,’ providing comfort and assisting individuals in facing life’s challenges.

Individuals may feel that parasocial relationships bring them closer to an ideal self-image, thereby potentially:

  • Increasing self-esteem
  • Boosting confidence
  • Providing a sense of belonging
  • Reducing feelings of loneliness

For adolescents, parasocial relationships play a role in identity formation and the journey towards autonomy by offering a safe space for emotional exploration.

Potential Risks

While parasocial relationships can be benign or even beneficial, intense-personal and borderline-pathological parasocial relationships often carry significant risks. These more involved forms can lead to impulsive behaviors, challenges in forming intimate relationships, and elevated levels of anxiety and neurosis. There are historical instances of borderline-pathological parasocial relationships leading to dangerous behaviors, including John Hinkley Jr.’s attempt to impress actress Jodie Foster by shooting then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

It is important for individuals to recognize when their thoughts and behaviors about a media figure result in distress or interfere with their daily activities. In such cases, they are encouraged to talk to a professional. This highlights the need for strategies to manage parasocial relationships in a healthy manner.

The therapists at Resilience Lab can help you understand the potential risks of parasocial relationships as well as help you establish healthier boundaries and engagement with celebrity content. 

Navigating Parasocial Relationships in a Healthy Way

Navigating parasocial relationships in a healthy way involves:

  • Setting boundaries
  • Acknowledging potential downsides and benefits
  • Implementing screen-free days or scheduling downtime on electronic devices to manage time spent engaged with parasocial relationships
  • Implementing screen-free days or scheduling downtime on electronic devices to manage the time spent engaged with parasocial relationships, and turning off notifications or using silent mode during real-life social interactions.
  • Investing more in real-life relationships to enhance personal connections and ensure a supportive social network that complements rather than competes with parasocial ones.

Moreover, it’s vital to prioritize genuine connections over parasocial ones. The following sections will delve further into how to set boundaries and foster authentic relationships, providing practical strategies for managing parasocial relationships in a healthy manner.

Setting Boundaries

Setting boundaries in parasocial relationships is crucial to ensure they do not consume an individual’s life or negatively impact their mental health. It is important for individuals to consciously regulate how much they consume content about a celebrity and to limit the time spent focusing on these parasocial interactions. This form of boundary-setting helps maintain a healthy balance and prevents the relationship from becoming overly intrusive or damaging to one's everyday life and mental wellbeing. By recognizing that these relationships are one-sided, individuals can better manage their expectations and prevent emotional over-investment.


Self-differentiation is the ability of a person to recognize their own thoughts and feelings as distinct from others, including celebrities. This understanding helps individuals see the celebrity as separate from themselves, reducing the intensity of the parasocial attachment. When people enmesh themselves too closely with a celebrity, it can magnify the negative effects of the relationship. By fostering self-differentiation, individuals can lessen these risks, promoting personal happiness and comfort without the accompanying guilt or shame that can arise from blurred boundaries.

Fostering Authentic Relationships

While parasocial relationships can offer a sense of connection and community, it’s essential not to neglect authentic relationships. Investing time in building meaningful, long-term relationships with valuable people in one’s life is recommended to prioritize genuine connections over parasocial ones.

By balancing parasocial interactions with real life relationships, individuals can enjoy the benefits of both without compromising their mental health.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a parasocial relationship?

A parasocial relationship is a one-sided emotional bond that a person forms with a public figure or fictional character, often facilitated by media and technology. This bond is formed through prolonged exposure and interaction with the figure or character.

What are the types of parasocial relationships?

There are three types of parasocial relationships: entertainment-social, intense-personal, and borderline-pathological. Consider these categories when understanding parasocial relationships.

How do parasocial relationships form?

Parasocial relationships form through frequent exposure to a media figure's content, which fosters a sense of familiarity and connection. This can lead to a one-sided emotional attachment.

Can parasocial relationships impact mental health?

Yes, parasocial relationships can have both positive and negative impacts on mental health, influencing one's overall well-being.

How can I navigate parasocial relationships in a healthy way?

To navigate parasocial relationships in a healthy way, it's important to set boundaries, recognize the pros and cons, and prioritize genuine connections.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a crisis and needs immediate help, please call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

Clinically Reviewed by Christine Carville, LCSW-R.

Christine Carville, LCSW-R, is the co-founder and Chief Clinical Officer of Resilience Lab. Christine developed the Resilience Methodology, a trans-theoretical training model for therapists to provide individualized, flexible, trauma-informed care. She has also been teaching at the Columbia School of Social Work since 2016 and continues to maintain her own private psychotherapy practice.

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