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Fans and celebs lose in parasocial affairs

Have you ever been locked into hours of doom-scrolling your favorite influencers, and been left with a foggy brain? This phenomenon has become commonplace in today’s society, dubbed as parasocial relationships.

Jayne Roberts, columnist for the University of Georgia Today, defines parasocial relationships as a “nonreciprocal connection, often between a fan and celebrity where one party invests time and emotional energy through repeated contact.”

This dynamic has become pervasive in our lives with the rise of social media giving followers unprecedented access to influencers’ lives. Followers know intimate details through minute-to-minute updates on other people’s pages and have a wealth of knowledge, without the followers even being aware of who follows them. This relationship gives a sense of intimacy to followers so they can trust and bond with the influencers.

Parasocial relationships are unhealthy for both followers and influencers. In the case of influencers, it commodifies them and strips them of personhood and privacy. For followers, it blurs the lines between reality and marketing and often targets children. 

Sometimes, this experience may feel unique because of the intensity social media brings but it was coined by Yale professor Donald Horton in 1956. Horton studied how television personalities in the 50s interacted with their fan base by portraying themselves as authentic and caring about the consumer. This type of communication mustered up strong fan bases who would tune in every night.

Fan dedication, however, can be intrusive to an influencer’s or celebrity’s life. In the early 2000s, Britney Spears captivated fans worldwide with her music, dancing and girl-next-door persona. Through marketing her as a sweet southern girl, she developed a loyal fan base. 

But, as a result of the attention, she was hounded by paparazzi and fans, treated as a product to consumers and stripped of privacy. The attention constructs an echo chamber where people ask for more of their personal lives to be displayed to the public. This intrusion can lead to mental health issues and threaten safety, while fans are encouraged to consume a false reality without concern for the damage it does.

Being a fan isn’t so easy either, with ever-developing marketing targeting youth with parasocial relationships. Children are less developed and cognitively vulnerable to marketing because they cannot distinguish advertising from entertainment. The American Psychological Association says, “Children under the age of 8 lack the cognitive development to understand the persuasive intent of television advertising and are uniquely susceptible to advertising’s influence.”

This has been addressed in mainstream media by the Children’s Television Act which restricts the amount of time children’s programming, including advertisements, to 12 minutes per hour on weekdays. The Children’s Television Act also makes sure that the programming cannot include commercials for products related to the program.

There aren’t many guidelines for social media targeting children that contain embedded marketing in which there is no distinction between regular content and paid partnerships. The FTC has guidelines for disclosure of paid partnership content, but many videos and posts fall through the cracks. 

Young children idolize characters like Elmo and Bluey while the same can be said with the creators they watch on YouTube and TikTok. It is easy for young children to fall susceptible to marketing when they see their favorite creator promoting a product due to these parasocial relationships.

Social media is something that will be in our lives for a long time, so it is important for us to understand the landscape. The degree to which parasocial relationships take advantage of people for the sake of marketing is determined by us and who we engage with. It is easy to say don’t engage with the clearly scammy side of media, but deceptive marketing is bleeding into much more and becoming covert. The best tool we have against this is becoming critical media consumers and making sure the content children are consuming is appropriate.

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