Many college students experience feelings of loneliness, alienation, and displacement. This is particularly common among students from non-traditional backgrounds (e.g., first-generation students), those pursuing demanding degrees (e.g., STEM fields), or those who have moved away from their hometowns to pursue their academic journeys. In fact, McAlpine (2021), a researcher from Boston University, reported a significant rise in symptoms of depression and anxiety among college students, especially in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic. It is undeniable that such feelings can contribute to the development of these conditions, prompting individuals to seek alternative coping mechanisms.
Recent news has been focusing on the phenomenon of parasocial relationships and their impact on college students and the broader population. Parasocial relationships are defined as one-sided “imagined friendships or relationships with a celebrity or public figure” (Hart et al., 2023). Some researchers contend that mainstream media has oversimplified parasocial relationships, failing to acknowledge the nuanced benefits they offer, including increased confidence, feelings of comfort and companionship, and a source of inspiration. Other researchers suggest that parasocial relationships may lead to emotionally unstable behavior, such as heightened aggression or difficulties in distinguishing between reality and fantasy. Some observers in this discussion argue that parasocial relationships come with a spectrum of benefits and consequences. They posit that concerns arise when individuals exhibit self-harming or harmful behavior towards others, or when they excessively fixate on these relationships as an escape from reality.
In the digital age, average users have unprecedented access to the most intimate moments of prominent figures, strengthening their parasocial relationships. For instance, influencers often share their personal challenges or hobbies with their audience, directly engaging with viewers. Users relate to these figures and maintain their parasocial connections because they have continuous access to the figure's daily life. Studies suggest that such relationships can provide individuals with a sense of pride in the public figure's successes, motivating them to succeed in their own lives (Hart et al., 2023). College students can transform their feelings of loneliness into motivation and ambition when inspired by the public figures in their parasocial relationships, replacing loneliness with hope and a positive outlook on life.
Another study found that parasocial relationships offer individuals a support network (Haupt, 2023). Because the figure is well-known, individuals can connect with like-minded fans who share similar interests, often forming online communities. Whether someone has a parasocial relationship with a K-Pop idol or a TikTok influencer, they are likely to discover fellow fans who share their passions. This enables college students, who may not have explored their interests or found their community on campus, to experience a sense of belonging through their parasocial relationships. Researchers like Hart (2023) also highlight that parasocial relationships are "low effort and low risk." Admiring influential figures from a distance allows individuals to avoid the fear of rejection or abandonment. College students can appreciate these figures without the need for strenuous relationship maintenance, allowing them to stay focused on their own endeavors.
At the same time, it's crucial to acknowledge that excessive engagement in parasocial relationships can lead to detrimental consequences. Individuals diagnosed with mental health conditions are particularly susceptible to developing delusions within their parasocial relationships (Hart et al., 2023). Given the ease of access to an influential person's presence, whether through social media or other platforms, it becomes easy to fall into delusions regarding the closeness of the relationship. College students, who often experience heightened feelings of loneliness, should exercise caution in such situations and avoid overly relying on a public figure for their mental well-being.
Moreover, individuals with strong parasocial relationships with social media influencers may perceive these influencers as more credible, leading them to trust product recommendations (Dolan, 2022). Social media influencers can influence consumer behavior through their online personas, potentially promoting materialism within the general population. College students and those prone to loneliness should be vigilant in such scenarios, as they might be unwittingly manipulated due to their deep parasocial connections with the influencer. This is especially important for college students from less privileged financial backgrounds, who should assess the impact of their spending on products endorsed by influencers.
Additionally, when a parasocial relationship reaches a borderline-pathological stage, where an individual is willing to perform any tasks for the public figure regardless of the harm involved, seeking help becomes crucial. Research indicates that individuals who cross these boundaries and start viewing the public figure as a "soulmate" often exacerbate their feelings of loneliness and isolation, distancing themselves from their real-life social circles (Haupt, 2023). Such instances also involve individuals expressing irritability and frustration towards others who may not view the parasocial figure in a similar perception. College students should reflect on their parasocial relationships and evaluate whether these connections are fostering unhealthy obsessions.
Like many practices in our modern society, parasocial relationships are a double-edged sword. They can provide emotional support to individuals, help them work towards their goals, and offer a safe space to share interests. However, they can also lead to the accumulation of obsessive feelings and incite delusions towards the public figure. It's crucial for individuals not to center their entire lives around their parasocial relationships but to use them as an additional tool in their emotional support network. It's essential to make time for connections with real-life friends and family, actively pursue personal interests, and explore one's physical environment. College students can derive empowerment from their parasocial relationships, but they should also be mindful not to become too immersed in them. Remember: balance is key.
Dolan, E. W. (2022). Parasocial relations can enhance social media influencers’ persuasive
power, study suggests. PsyPost. https://www.psypost.org/2022/11/parasocial-relations-
Hart, W., Hein, E., & Sternlicht, A. (2023). What are parasocial relationships? why an
imaginary friendship with a celebrity can actually be healthy, according to experts.
Haupt, A. (2023). The benefits of Parasocial relationships. Time.
McAlpine, K. J. (2021). Depression, anxiety, loneliness are peaking in college students. Boston