The Friend Behind the Screen

Connection and IsolationFeatures
Artwork by: Arina Stetsiuk

At our core, humans are social beings.

Before civilization, we hunted and lived in packs. Centuries later, we established cities and became even more socially dependent. Before the explosion of media we live in today, people were forming one-sided bonds, or parasocial relationships, with the characters in books. Now we live in a world that amplifies these relationships tenfold. The evolution of media has consumed so much of our world and our psyche that some have questioned whether these fabricated bonds have reached their limit. Parasocial relationships can be a comforting and helpful aspect of our lives, but the 20th century created a society in which they can grow too powerful.

Before we can delve into the threshold of dangerous parasocial relationships we must understand what they are. As defined by social researchers Horton and Wohl (1956), parasocial interaction (PSI) is a term used to describe the human response to characters in media. More committed and long-term feelings towards such fictional or nonfictional characters are called parasocial relationships (PSRs). When trying to understand these psychological phenomena, it is best not to get these terms confused or use them interchangeably. While PSI just describes the emotional response you can experience while watching the nightly news or your favorite Sunday cartoons, PSR is a long-lasting relationship that will reach beyond the screen. Contrary to the abundance of stigma placed upon such relationships, they are not mere symptoms of loneliness or an illness of the anti-social. It is at the core of the human psyche to form relationships. We are afraid of rejection and isolation so we strive for a strong social network. Thus, PSRs are so similar to real relationships in that those who strive for more belonging in their lives are more likely to form PSRs than those who do not. This should not be confused with people who are lacking in friends or family but rather have a need to please and form bonds with others. Their social appetite is projected onto the screen, resulting in the formation of social relationships with figures on television or on social media. Just as real relationships require upkeep, people will maintain PSRs by regularly watching their favorite talk show host.

Though PSRs have existed throughout history, emerging media types have altered their importance in our lives. The most glaring example is, of course, social media. The constant and all-access nature of social media allows us to be much more heavily dependent and committed to our idols than seeing them for an hour weekly. Most importantly, social media makes it almost impossible for us to discern between reality and fiction. This is not limited to social media; reality tv shows such as Keeping Up with the Kardashians trick us by advertising completely scripted interactions as the true lives of the characters. Influencers and reality television stars are, in fact, only actors. The new ability to “interact” with these figures through social media makes us feel even closer to influencers. New forms of communication in the digital age leave us with many questions about PSRs defined by a lack of communication.

When not overused, PSRs can be as normal as finding similarities between yourself and a character on your favorite show. A large part of these relationships is the concept of treating certain celebrities or fictional characters like “old friends.” These personas provide comfort and stability without fear of rejection. We use favorite shows or favorite influencers to form bonds with others and form part of our own identities. PSRs can help boost self-esteem and confidence. In short, Justin Bieber or Harry Potter can't let you down or hurt you.

This being said, we must remember that though there are benefits to PSRs, they are limited. Relying on a scripted reality can confuse us into having unrealistic expectations of real social interactions which are nothing like those depicted in classic 80s rom coms. Since hiding behind screens is so easy, the “fear of rejection” that fuels so many PSRs has not had to be dealt with head-on in life. It has also been amplified by constantly seeing perfect bodies and lives every day on our screens. Our society makes it okay for people to get lost in the digital world, so connected but completely isolated. These factors create dangerous dependencies on PSRs that can lead to long-term problems. Additionally, we must begin to question the effect of the praise received by famous people on the internet. As social media influencers and celebrities become younger and younger, the fans' admiration and worship can, in turn, isolate them. These creators have the opposite of normal teenage lives and are instead expected to act like adults. PSRs are also the perfect target for advertisers to profit off celebrities. PSRs cannot replace true social interaction which is vital for fulfillment.

The changing impact of social media is impossible to predict. It feels impossible to come back to the real world once we fall too deep down the rabbit hole of media in general. I fear that my generation in particular is most at risk of being overly dependent on PSRs. We have never known anything other than to trust what we see on the screen. I am afraid of how my psyche has been altered and how it will affect my future, but I am also hopeful that more research will be done to fully understand PSRs. Humans are always searching for relationships, but the bonds that fill us with love and fulfillment can only be found in the flesh.


Howard University Doctoral Students. “Parasocial Relationships: The Nature of Celebrity Fascinations.” Find a Psychologist, 18 Feb. 2020.

Knowles, Megan L. “The Nature of Parasocial Relationships.” Northwestern University, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2007.

Schramm, H., & T. Hartmann. "The PSI-process scales: A new measure to assess the intensity and breadth of parasocial processes." Communications, Volume 33(4), 385-401, 2008.

Choi, Annette. “The Parasocial Phenomenon.” PBS, 5 Apr. 2017.

Jarzyna, C.L. "Parasocial Interaction, the COVID-19 Quarantine, and Digital Age Media." Hu Arenas, 7 Nov. 2020.

Jaden Flach is 16 years old and lives in Brooklyn, New York. Art might be her favorite thing in this world. Painting is her escape from reality, and she hopes you enjoy her paintings as much as she enjoys creating them.

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