People can form strong social bonds with celebrities and fictional characters who they do not personally know, a phenomenon known as a parasocial relationship. New research published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships provides evidence that these parasocial bonds were strengthened during the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States.
“The development, maintenance, and dissolution of socio-emotional bonds that media audiences form with televised celebrities and fictional characters has long been a scholarly interest of mine,” said study author Bradley J. Bond, an associated professor at University of San Diego and director of the aMP lab.
“The communication literature conceptualizes our one-sided connections with media figures as parasocial relationships. The social function of our parasocial relationships with media figures has been debated in the literature: do our parasocial relationships supplement our real-life friendships? Can they compensate for deficiencies in our social relationships?”
“Social distancing protocols and quarantine behaviors that spawned from the global COVID-19 pandemic provided an incredibly novel opportunity to study how our parasocial relationships with media figures function as social alternatives when the natural environment required individuals to physically distance themselves from their real-life friends.”
The data for the study was provided by a four-wave panel survey of 166 participants, which was conducted between April 7, 2020 and June 7, 2020.
The participants first provided a list of four close friends and four fictional characters or celebrities who they felt “connected to, almost like they are your friends even though you’ve never met them in real life.” In the subsequent surveys, the participants reported how often they communicated with their close friends and how often they were exposed to their favorite media personas. They also reported their feelings of closeness for each friend and each media persona.
Bond had predicted that feelings of closeness to one’s friends would weaken over time during social distancing, but he instead found that closeness among friends remained stable. The participants reported less face-to-face communication than mediated communication, indicating that people utilized technology to maintain ties with close friends.
Parasocial closeness, on the other hand, significantly increased during the pandemic, particularly among those lower in attachment anxiety and higher in parasocial engagement. In addition, participants who experienced a greater decline in face-to-face communication tended to have a greater growth in parasocial closeness, suggesting that some “participants developed more meaningful socioemotional bonds with their favorite celebrities and fictional characters” to compensate for social deficiencies, the researchers said.
“Our friendships are durable, and we will utilize media technologies to maintain our friendships when our opportunities for in-person social engagement are significantly limited,” Bond told PsyPost. “However, our favorite celebrities and fictional characters may become even more important components of our social worlds when we experience severe alterations to our friendships.”
“Moreover, if we rely solely on media technologies to stay in touch with real-life friends, the way we process our real-life friends may begin to mimic how we process our parasocial relationships — as both occur over screens.”
But the study, like all research, includes some limitations.
“The data suggest that the more time we spent communicating with our real-life friends via screens, the stronger we begin to perceive our parasocial relationships with media figures. Experimental research is needed to test this argument, and to examine what cognitive changes occur that begin to blur the lines between the social and parasocial,” Bond explained.
“The concept of parasocial relationships was developed by psychologists Horton and Wohl in the 1950s, but it has received significant attention in the last 15 to 20 years. The more we learn about how we develop and sustain our one-sided socio-emotional connections to media figures, the better we would be able to ensure that said connections are healthy, prosocial, and potentially utilized to increase efficacy of public health messages, positive identity development, and more.”
The study, “Social and parasocial relationships during COVID-19 social distancing“, was published May 19, 2021.