Harmful or Wholesome: Parasocial Relationships

By Keyonna Gellin, Collin Bouressa, Lauren Knisbeck & Valeria Tavarez


Anyways, I hope you get this, man, hit me back. Just to chat, truly yours, your biggest fan, this is Stan,” Eminem.

This thumbnail from Eminem’s song “Stan,” released in 2000, pictures Stan, a crazed fan who acts recklessly after not getting a response from the rapper. (Photo from YouTube)

Today anyone with an online presence has likely come across the word “stan” but might not know that the term came from an iconic Eminem song, Stan, which is about a fan’s unhealthy obsession with him. Stan writes to him constantly, and his frustration grows as time goes by without a response. Eventually, his frustration comes to a head when he drunk-drives himself and his pregnant girlfriend off a bridge. Who’s to blame? In Stan’s eyes, Eminem.

The fictional Stanley from the song had what’s commonly known as a parasocial relationship with his idol. A parasocial relationship refers to a person imagining a relationship with someone they don’t actually know, like a celebrity or a public figure. Stan may be fictional, but his behaviors aren’t. In the 1980’s, 21-year-old actress Rebecca Schaeffer was murdered by a 19-year-old stan named Robert Bardo. Bardo stalked Schaeffer for three years before her death. Schaeffer received numerous letters from Bardo but replied to only one. In 1989, Schaeffer was in the film comedy Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills. In the film, she appeared to be in bed with a co-star. When Bardo watched the scene, he became enraged and decided that Schaeffer should be punished for “becoming another Hollywood whore.” Bardo went through extreme measures to find Schaeffer’s address. When he got access to the address, he went to her door, and after a short conversation, Schaeffer asked him not to come back. Bardo left but then came back an hour later and shot Schaeffer in the chest. This is one example of an extreme situation stemming from a parasocial relationship.

According to research, only about 3-5% of fans part of a study exhibited this type of borderline-pathological behavior. But how do fans get to this point? They pass through the first two levels of celebrity worship. The first tier is known as the entertainment-social level, where fans participate in social interaction based on their favorite celebrities. This typically includes fan clubs. The next level is the intense-personal level in which fans obsess over their favorite celebrity and can act impulsively when expressing emotions related to the celebrity. The final tier is known as the borderline-pathological level, where fans cannot control activities related to their fantasies about their favorite celebrity.

The same study suggested that any fan who identifies with the first tier of celebrity worship is at risk for unhealthy behaviors, though most don’t move past that level. On the flip side, professionals suggest that parasocial relationships are normal and can even be beneficial. So, in the end, are these parasocial relationships wholesome or harmful? That depends. The COMM Voice researched and spoke to a variety of fans to ask them their perspectives and experiences with fandom and celebrity culture to get a better idea.

Fans’ Experiences: 

One infamous fandom centers around K-pop groups. Taylor Barfield is a K-pop fan and listens to a lot of BTS. When asked how big of a fan she is, Taylor said she’s a 12 out of 10. “… you feel like you’re a part of the group if that makes sense like, you’re not just a fan, you’re family.” Barfield estimated she spends around $10K per year to see K-pop groups, which includes the cost of travel, tickets, merchandise, photo cards, and albums.

Photos of photo cards from K-Pop group Monsta X and BTS vinyl.(Images from Instagram.com/taylorwithluv)

UW-Green Bay student Cassie Kirkpatrick calls herself a Swiftie or a Taylor Swift fan. “I feel like I’ve always liked her. I’ve liked her since elementary school. So maybe I am a Swiftie,” she said. “There was a timeline of when it was cringey to be a Taylor Swift fan, [though].”

Kirkpatrick shared her thoughts on parasocial relationships today. “I think parasocial relationships are inherently a little unhealthy because we follow someone we don’t know, but we feel like we do.” She also acknowledged that parasocial relationships can have their benefits despite their somewhat strange premise. “Through parasocial relationships, you can build communities with other fans, but the things you have in common is your one-sided relationship with someone who doesn’t know you.”

Relationships with Athletes:

Lebron James fan, Deonte Carlton, said that when he was around the age of seven, he was interested in basketball, and he liked the way Lebron played and wanted to play like him. Carlton said that parasocial relationships are appropriate for varying levels of sports fans. “There are casual fans who just enjoy sports, and then there are die-hard fans for their team or even just a player. It makes sense because those specific super fans are spending their time and energy into something they love, which is totally fine.”

A young 76ers fan cheers on the team while dressed in Alen Iverson’s signature accessories and embellished with copies of Iverson’s tattoos (Photo from Philadelphia 76ers Instagram)

While parasocial relationships are absolutely present in the world of pop culture, there are many versions of those relationships. A type of parasocial relationship that is often glossed over is the relationship between sports fans and athletes. From a young age, children look up to athletes as though they are heroes. Kids often mimic what their favorite athletes do on the field. For example, the litany of people that were doing the griddy after Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase popularized it as a touchdown dance in the 2020 NFL season. Fans are also encouraged to look like their favorite players. All major sports leagues market players’ jerseys to their fans.

Austin Korff has been a self-identified sports fan since he was five years old. His love for the game began with the well-known duo of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. Korff said, “fandom means community.” He is now a sports podcaster who follows college football and the NFL almost religiously. He defined why he loves sports and what fandom means, “There is a sense of belonging, the thrill of shared success, the thrill of shared failure.” Fandom and community are the heart of sports.

But, there is a difference between fandom and parasocial relationships. Korff differentiates the two: “[fandom] that becomes unhealthy shouldn’t be justified on the basis of fandom,” he added, “sports fans get the benefit of the doubt with this more than someone like, say, a Swiftie.” Sports fans get a pass when they act emotionally, whereas others, like fangirls, don’t. Sports fans are defined as “ardent admirers or enthusiasts of a sport or performing art,” and most sports fans are men. According to Statista, 86% of men surveyed said they are a sports fan in some respect. A fangirl is defined differently as “a girl or woman who is an extremely or overly enthusiastic fan of someone or something.” The language in the definition is pointedly different: fangirls are “overly enthusiastic,” while sports fans are “ardent admirers.”

It is not only one-sided communication. Sometimes, fans will take it to the level of using forms of media to directly interact with athletes that they follow, specifically social media. Korff said, “Some people take out their frustrations and anger on players who aren’t performing well, typically via social media, in extreme ways.” He mentioned that this might stem from fantasy football or die-hard fandom. Fans feel more connected to celebrities now than ever, and athletes are not the exception.

As boundaries have dissolved in the world of social media, athletes feel constant pressure from the overwhelming amount of notifications, the influx of unwanted messages, and constant pressure from brands. While new technology has given fans opportunities to engage directly with athletes, as pointed out in Olivia Archer’s article on parasocial relationships in sports, “[new] abilities of communication do not guarantee the civility of fans.”

In the same article, tennis superstar Naomi Osaka’s Instagram comments were studied, and 7% of the comments were deemed negative. Fans were attacking Osaka directly, saying things like, “This is what happens when you take your eye off the ball, you lose,” and “I thought you should have been a champion. Instead, you play for money, not fun or honor.” This took place after Osaka decided to pull out of a tournament for her mental health. The comments were not all bad, but fans feel more comfortable speaking their mind to celebrities over the internet than they would in a face-to-face encounter. This can lead to athletes’ mental health being negatively affected by the overwhelming amount of toxic comments they receive after performing poorly or making a decision that fans may not agree with.

The Movers: Media Outlets and Social Media

In the digital age, it’s no surprise that anyone could form a parasocial relationship with celebrities and public figures. In fact, according to Time Magazine, an estimated 51% of Americans have had a parasocial relationship at some point. Elvis Presley fan Sandy Hasseler became a fan when she was a child with the help of her mother. “…  grandma started me on Elvis by watching his movies. Playing the 45 records on my little suitcase record player.” Though social media is an easy way to keep track of your favorite celebrity, that wasn’t the case for Hasseler, who said she used to stay up to date with the King of Rock’ n’ Roll with magazines.

Parasocial relationships have come a long way since their introduction in the 1950s, when sociologists coined the term to help describe the deceiving sense of intimacy fans could have with public figures thanks to radio, television, and cinema. Today, media outlets like TMZ, People, E! News, and others give people access to celebrity news. While these outlets are known for their coverage of celebrities and public figures, an article by NPR suggests that celebrity stories have made their way to mainstream newsrooms, too.

A study by Statista showed that in 2018, 72% of global social media users aged 16-24 kept up with their favorite celebrities via social media. In addition, the Pew Research Center showed that by 2022, about 50% of  U.S. adults frequently got their news from digital platforms. One reason fans may like to keep up with their idols on social is that it can be a form of escapism from stress. In addition, according to psychologists, gossip can bring people together, so discussing celebrity news and culture can be a way for fans to bond. “I do still come across [news about Taylor Swift], even if I’m not trying to seek [it] out. Just because I hang out with people who talk about her, and I also see it on social media,” Kirkpatrick said. Digital platforms allow for a fast turnover in coverage and constant access to celebrities’ every move.

Impact on Parasocial Relationships

Celebrity coverage is nothing new; outlets have been doing it for decades, but their means have evolved greatly since the days of the silver screen and home radios. (Graphic by Lauren Knisbeck (Photos taken from Newspapers.com, Pinterest, and Rolling Stone)

When looking at the dynamics that cause this relationship, studies show anxious attachment styles are more likely to latch onto a celebrity. These individuals tend to feel closer to people who can never truly be in a relationship. Low self-esteem and codependency fuel the relationship. Individuals in the extreme tier of celebrity worship may feel that their behavior is normal and stubborn to change. Hasseler had obstacles to being in the Elvis fandom, “I wanted to be super connected [to the fandom], but [there were] no resources then. And now [there’s] too much drama.” The death of Elvis Presley affected his fans deeply, Hasseler being one of them: “When a news bulletin came on that Elvis is dead… I cried very much… I thought I was going to marry him.” Although Hasseler is not part of the extreme tier, her love for Elvis is very strong.

Parasocial relationships can be viewed from two perspectives. One, the degree of concern for the media figure, and two, the degree of concern the media figure has for their fandom. When the idol is able to appreciate the fan, it strengthens their one-sided bond.

Whether the parasocial relationship is beneficial depends on the figure and the fan. When figures display good characteristics, their fans tend to be ‘good.’ There is a relatability when a person hears their favorite YouTuber or actor speak on mental health, and they may feel more inclined to find resources like Betterhelp and the Suicide Hotline. Big-name celebrities like Beyonce, Demi Lovato, and Lady Gaga have openly talked about their struggles with mental health. Encouraging healthy habits can influence stans to seek help. Demi Lovato said at the National Council for Behavioral Health in Washington D.C. “I think it’s important that people no longer look at mental illness as something taboo to talk about.”

A 2017 study also found that parasocial relationships help adolescents develop a sense of self. It can help individuals determine characteristics of what they would like to see in future friendships. In a Time Magazine article, psychologist Lynn Zubernis explained why parasocial relationships can be a support system for people. “We find people, characters, stories, whatever it is to emulate and to take attributes from and to sort of use as inspiration,” Zubernis said. “It’s a lifelong process—not just something that happens in adolescence.” Parasocial relationships tend to differ among sexes. It has been shown that men tend to look for inspirational icons and authority figures. Women, on the other hand, tend to look for friendship in parasocial relationships. They can fulfill one’s lack in real life relationships and help people cope with loss and stressful situations. Parasocial relationships can create negative repercussions without healthy boundaries, especially in the days of constant media coverage of public figures. Based on the CommVoice findings, it seems best to enjoy this relationship in moderation.

“I’m glad I inspire you, but Stan, why are you so mad? Try to understand that I do want you as a fan,” Eminem.

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