Taking your celeb crush a little too far? Fantasy relationships with people on screen can be problematic
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Social media and reality television offer us a small window into the fabulous lives of celebrities, influencers and anyone else with a large following.
Whether it’s in the form of 280 character Tweets or glamorously curated Instagram posts, with just a few scrolls through an app, everything from favourite foods to hangout spots is laid wide open for anyone to consume.
Apps like Snapchat and TikTok are also becoming increasingly technologically advanced with options for instantaneous engagement through instant messaging and “live” options allowing celebrities and the likes thereof to engage with fans in real-time.
With this level of access to their private lives, it gradually begins to feel as though we’ve built a real and lasting relationship with people we’ve never met and who don’t even know of our existence.
In psychological terms, this is referred to as “parasocial relationships”. According to counselling psychologist, Rakhi Beekrum, “These are one-sided where one party does not even know that the other exists. A prime example is those who run celebrity fan pages.
“With the increased use of social media, such relationships have become more prolific. While parasocial relationships were previously mostly with movie stars or sports stars, they have now started to extend to such relationships with influencers.”
While it’s good to have role models in life and to be inspired by the people we idolise, there is the danger of taking this imagined relationship too far.
A TikToker from the US, Joe Bartolozzi, is one of the many influencers who has recently addressed this unusual phenomenon with his fans. In a multi-part video series that came after being inundated with messages that concerned him, Bartolozzi said,
“You guys should view me as an entertainment outlet, not a friend. The reason being, I don’t know you guys. I don’t know the vast majority of my followers – I don’t know your name, what you look like, where you’re from. If you view me as a friend and you say something like, ’I love you so much, I’ll never stop loving you. That’s weird.”
The never-ending reel of information social media offers super fans allows them to feel close to their celebrity idol.
However, the idea they have in their mind is often carefully curated through online and film persona’s and an extremely expansive team of public relations professionals. Sometimes, it isn’t even the celebrity themselves chatting to the fan in the comment section, but instead, a social media manager seeing to their duty of keeping engagement rates up.
So, what reason do people have to create these imagined relationships with their favourite actor, athlete or influencer? “Those who enter parasocial relationships may do so to improve their self-esteem. They might feel better about themselves due to an association with the celebrity. Or they might get into such relationships to curb their own loneliness. Even though it’s one-sided, they still get engagement from other fans,” said Beekrum.
Dreaming up scenarios in which you might run into the captain of your favourite football team or celebrity crush is pretty harmless, however, Beekrum said, “It can be problematic when it impacts one’s ’real life’ relationships or when the celebrity does something that they disapprove of.”
The pressure on influencers to set good examples and be kind towards fans is insurmountable in the wake of “cancel culture” (a modern form of ostracism in which someone is thrust out of social or professional circles – whether it be online, on social media, or in-person).
Fresh out of high school, Bartolozzi is dealing with the burden of fans who have come to view him as more of a peer than an entertainer and are confiding their mental health struggles with him. “I’m 19, I’m not a therapist, I’m not a genius. I don’t know how to solve those issues, only experts do.”
This article first appeared in Sunday Insider, Oct 17, 2021