When Your BFF Doesn’t Know You Exist

One-sided relationships aren’t all bad — and can even sometimes been good for you and the kids

By Paris Giles • Art by Jon Wilcox

First printed in the September/October 2021 issue

It used to be that a movie star was a movie star: this glamorous, elusive creature of mystery who we got a glimpse of only on the big screen or the red carpet. Now, thanks to social media, we know what our favorite celebrity’s kid had for breakfast and whether he or she scarfed it down without rebuttal, or if the eggs came with a side of tantrum. 

These parasocial relationships — or the one-sided attachments we form with celebrities, fictional characters, politicians or even sports teams — isn’t a new concept. The term was coined in the ‘50s by sociologists Donald Horton and Richard Wohl in response to the rise of TV, radio and film. The researchers found, and it still holds true, that these parasocial relationships can look eerily similar to our real-life, person-to-person relationships. Our targets of affection have no idea that we exist. Still, their successes are our wins; when they endorse a cause, we buy in; when they suffer a loss, we grieve with them; and if they disappoint us, it hurts.

It’s not just frivolous fandom. 

Studies suggest that these low-maintenance relationships can be beneficial in boosting self-esteem, offering companionship or giving us an aspirational North Star. And, in the case of children, a character they can connect to may aid in education and in the adaptation of social and emotional skills. 

”It’s something about these friends having this really easygoing, fun relationship that really calls to people, particularly when they might feel lonely in their own life. It’s like, ‘Oh, now I can have this vicarious satisfaction being a part of this cool friend group.’”

Our virtual pals might be a good thing

“Anecdotally, all parents can report that their kids love a media character, Elsa from Frozen or Elmo, or, you know, whomever it might be,” says Alexis Lauricella, Ph.D., assistant professor and director of the Erikson Institute’s Technology in Early Childhood Center in Chicago.

In the last decade or so, the children’s media field has been especially interested in parasocial interactions and relationships.

“We were interested in whether having a relationship or a connection or knowing the character on the screen, whether that would support infant and toddler learning from screens,” Lauricella says about her early work. She explains a study she and her team conducted in which they had Elmo and an unknown puppet teach the same task of stacking nesting cups on screen. “What we found is that 21-month-old babies — so not even 2 — learned the task better from Elmo than they did from this other character. We believe that is because kids already had figured out and knew who Elmo was, and they probably already had experiences with Elmo, that we sort of lowered the cognitive effort that they had to place in learning the task.”

While Lauricella studies the children, Michigan State University media psychologist and assistant professor Allison Eden, Ph.D., is looking at grown-ups and our reactions to characters in fictional programming, or Eden says, “why we like particular characters or why we don’t like other characters, and then how that affects sort of our whole appreciation for the narrative.” Perhaps you’ve been known to keep up with a Kardashian or two, but more than any real person, the characters in your favorite movies and shows are who you really latch on to. Sometimes embarrassingly so? Same.

Apparently, this is pretty common.

Eden mentions a Friends study that found students would watch the TV show to help placate feelings of loneliness. “It’s something about these friends having this really easygoing, fun relationship that really calls to people, particularly when they might feel lonely in their own life,” she says. “It’s like, ‘Oh, now I can have this vicarious satisfaction being a part of this cool friend group.’”

The no drama club

Parasocial relationships are safe and fuss-free, Eden says.

“In a two-way relationship, an interpersonal relationship, there’s always a chance that they’re going to do something or say something that you don’t like, and then you’re in this relationship with that person,” she says. Or conversely, maybe you’ll offend your real-life friend in some way and have to wade through that awkwardness, or worst case: the relationship ends and you have to move, get a new job and a new circle.

That risk doesn’t exist in parasocial relationships. Thus, one of the touted benefits is the absence of the anxiety that often comes with interpersonal relationships. But is that a good thing? Is it not within those anxious moments, uncomfortable as they might be, where lessons are learned and people are made?

Most experts say worry not. It’s rare that someone only has parasocial relationships without also maintaining real-life attachments. Having some safe spaces is good.

And while it is easy and tempting to disappear into a fictional world, one that is perhaps more colorful than your actual environment, Eden says, “Most of us have what we would call a ‘harmonious fandom relationship,’ where we can incorporate our liking for a fictional character or fictional world into our everyday life without doing too much damage — or sometimes, (with it) even being beneficial.”

While the potential for unhealthy obsession with celebrity or fictional worlds exists, of course, the doctors say that’s the exception. “There’s always a chance that people might take a relationship too far.” But, Eden says, “I think that these things get hyped a lot in the media.”

Still, reality television, to a degree, and certainly social media have added some complexity to our relationships with public figures and blurred the line between parasocial and interpersonal. Now, you can comment on an Instagram picture and maybe that celebrity comments back. The relationship is lopsided, yes, but is it still one-sided? And even if Jennifer Lopez, Tom Hardy or whomever doesn’t see your comment, the possibility of interaction is more real than ever before. “We know that when people anticipate — even if it’s not there — if we anticipate the possibility of future interaction, we tend to have more intense feelings,” Eden says.

North Riverside resident and new mom Lindy Rivera says the pandemic was especially tough but that being plugged in on social media helped to cushion the blow of isolation, if only a little. A young, working mother who’s run five marathons (she plans to make it six in October), being cut off from friends and family, she says, was “extremely, extremely tough.”

Her son Marcelo was born in August 2019, just months before the lockdowns, so, it helped to log on and watch the Verzuz battles or listen to music. She also followed a handful of new mom pages for tips, tricks and camaraderie. As things are returning to normal, Rivera is finally getting back to her loved ones — including the Chicago Cubs. “I am obsessed. The team is like a family to me, and they don’t even know I exist,” she says. She’s followed the team to other cities like a band on tour, and the guest list at her wedding even included fellow fans she’d met just months before. “I always thought, ‘Oh, when I get older I’m going to outgrow it.’ And it just grew from when I was a little kid. So, (I’m) 33 now and I still haven’t been able to shake it off. I’m starting to think this is going to be a lifetime thing.”

Little Marcelo even has his own pinstriped jersey. “He already knows how to say ‘Cubbies.’”

We wondered whether researchers Lauricella and Eden also find themselves forming one-sided parasocial relationships of their own with entertainers, characters or anyone else.

Lauricella says she tends to follow gymnasts Simone Biles and Chellsie Memmel, and NFL star Tom Brady. “I do. I feel very much connected. I recognize that they don’t know who I am, and they don’t care who I am,” she says.

Eden, an avid reader, says she follows a number of authors on Twitter and feels like they’re really friends until an unrequited comment reminds her that, no, not really. She says with a laugh, “They’re actually just, like, people who don’t know me.”

TAKE THE QUIZ!

Are you the parasocial relationship type?

Take our super-duper, totally ‘scientific’ quiz and find out 

Have you ever used some version of the phrase “I just feel like we would get along” about someone you don’t actually know?
A) Often
B) Once or twice
C) Never 

How many celebrities or famous people do you follow on social media?
A) A ton
B) A handful
C) None 

Do you own a jersey or any other sports memorabilia?
A) Several
B) One or two things
C) Not one 

Do you ever let the TV or radio play in the background, “for company?”
A) All the time
B) Occasionally
C) Never 

Have you ever felt proud of a celebrity or famous person’s achievement?
A) Many times
B) Once or twice
C) No 

Have you ever written or messaged someone you don’t know just to express admiration or gratitude?
A) A handful of times
B) Once or twice
C) Never 

Have you ever felt disappointed in a celebrity or famous person?
A) Often
B) A couple times
C) Nope 

Have you ever bought a celebrity- or influencer-endorsed product that you wouldn’t have ordinarily?
A) Many
B) One or two
C) Never 

Have you ever finished a TV series and afterward missed any or all of the characters?
A) All the time
B) A few times
C) Never 

TALLY YOUR ANSWERS:
As = 4
Bs = 2
Cs = 0

36-26

You may be a bit obsessed, but that’s OK 

24-14

You’re known to form an attachment or two

12-0

You seriously couldn’t care less

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