Influencer Parisa Bong has stopped posting her live location on social media. A man has followed her to her car; another one followed her and a friend to the washroom of a restaurant; and there have also been instances when she’d walk out of a gym session to be greeted by a legion of her social media followers.
Parisa, who posts under the moniker @parisabong, now draws boundaries by not replying to anyone she doesn’t know via DMs. “If someone asks where I bought something, then I post my response on Instagram Stories,” says Parisa. This keeps all communication public.
While her fans’ intentions might have been harmless, they exemplify a growing number of fans who don’t know where to draw the lines and separate the influencer’s public persona and their private lives.
These parasocial relationships can have damaging consequences on influencers and celebrities, especially for more extreme cases.
Coined by anthropologist anthropologist Donald Horton and sociologist R. Richard Wohl in 1956, parasocial relationships are one-sided relationships where fans develop a connection with a celebrity or influencer This is not to be confused with fangirling (and fanboying).
Parasocial relationships can be healthy for fans seeking comfort and inspiration, but it can also go to an extreme whereby some fans develop a sense of entitlement and obsession. An unhealthy cycle can emerge as fans expect these public figures to always be perfect and accessible to them.
The pressure to keep up with such unrealistic expectations can lead to mental health struggles for the public figures In K-pop fandoms, there’s even a term for overzealous fans: sasaengs.
Sasaengs do things like stalk their idols and mob them at airports, veering on the toxic and potentially dangerous. In one unsettling incident, 2PM member Taecyeon was taking a nap in his hotel room in Singapore when fans barged in. It was never explained how the intruders got into the room, but it’s been suspected that they stole a keycard.
Twice member Nayeon has been stalked and harassed by a sasaeng fan with the Twitter handle @Josh1994 since 2019 and the fan – a German man known only as Josh – does not seem to be letting up. Koreaboo reported on screenshots shared by @twicehugs on Instagram of a user alleging to be Josh, threatening to kill Nayeon if she secretly dates someone else while ignoring him. According to Kbizoom, Twice’s agency, JYP Entertainment had previously filed a lawsuit against Josh, as he has repeatedly gone to the agency’s headquarters and published Twice member Chaeyoung’s phone number.
These are evidently examples of fans not knowing where to draw the lines and not understanding how damaging such behaviour can be on their idols. It’s as if we forget that influencers and celebrities are only human at the end of the day.
Tracing it back to Beatlemania
Overzealous fans aren’t new. In the 1960s, Beatlemania rocked the world with reports of teenage girls screaming, crying, fainting and chasing the band down the street. A report by The Guardian found that Beatlemania was unprecedented in part due to the band’s talent, charisma and showmanship, but also because of timing and the advent of television. The past decade’s baby boom meant that there were more teenagers then than during Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra’s heyday.
You could say timing and technology are once again playing a role in fuelling parasocial relationships as social media has made it far easier to access celebrities.
“In the past, the main contact between a fan and a celebrity was through interviews done by reputable news sources, where platforms for open dialogue were scarce. In the last 10 years, there has been a large growth in streaming platforms that connects fans with celebrities more intimately but also monetises and incentives viewers to engage in a parasocial relationship,” says Inner Light Psychological Services clinical psychologist Tracie Lazaroo. Online platforms such as Weverse and Lysn are where artists such as Blackpink and BTS talk to fans directly and share new music releases and videos.
“[But] engaging in a parasocial relationship can lead to a slippery slope of fans developing an unhealthy obsession, having unrealistic expectations and experiencing feelings of rejection if not kept in check,” says Tracie.
“When fans place a celebrity on a pedestal, it perhaps provides them more power than a regular stranger should have in someone’s life. This could lead to an unfair social dynamic where fans are waiting for an important person to validate their feelings, intentions, desires or gestures. It is akin to seeking solace from an emotionally unavailable friend who is not available in the way the fan might want them to be. This effectively distracts the affected fan from either seeking help or building an emotionally fulfilling relationship which they sought in the first place.”
It comes down to the fans’ self-awareness
Parasocial relationships aren’t necessarily bad. Celebrities and influencers can sometimes be a positive role model for their fans.
“By sharing more about their lives, they may inspire fans indirectly through their actions,” says Kenny Liew, senior clinical psychologist at Mind What Matters.
“For example, seeing a celebrity have an active lifestyle may inspire their fans to live healthier. They may also directly encourage fans when the celebrities spend time to give supportive messages in their sharing on social media. Celebrities and influencers also have a platform where they often share their vulnerable experiences. This may increase awareness about certain sensitive or previously taboo issues, such as mental health and seeking therapy.”
Ultimately, it is for fans to be able to discern between fantasy and reality; to know the difference between being a fan of someone and not having similar expectations from a parasocial relationship as you would from a two-way relationship.
Tracie advises that fans emotionally check in with themselves if they notice themselves relying on the parasocial relationships as a way to feel better about themselves or as a form of self-soothing.
“Be aware of any psychological indicators of emotional distress such as pervasive feelings of anxiety, rejection, disappointment or social withdrawal when interacting or being exposed to content related to the celebrity,” she says. It is also important to invest time in developing a healthier sense of identity and self, and to continue to engage in other activities to live more holistically. For instance, maintain friendships outside of these parasocial relationships.
Influencers and celebrities can also take steps to stay safe
Nixalina Watson, who’s in her mid-30s, is an award-winning content creator. She set up the Sex & London City blog in 2011, before bringing it to Singapore in 2017. Most recently, she’s launched a podcast called Can’t Keep My Mouth Shut. She says, “When I first joined Instagram years ago, there was more of a ‘wall’ between me and my followers, whereas now it feels everybody owns you and has the right to comment on every part of your life.”
Nixalina is aware that part of her success is her ability to be vulnerable, honest, open and relatable, and she recognises that she pushes the parasocial boundary when she tells her followers and fans that they can DM her at any time they need because she doesn’t want them to suffer in silence.
But as much as she wants to support others with their mental health, she also knows to protect her own energy by taking breaks from both social media and creating podcast episodes. “I realised I get saturated with it – overloaded with pressure and being ‘here’ for complete strangers at the risk of my own peace and mental health, so I need to give myself regular breaks from my role online,” explains Nixalina. “I also do not respond to anybody who is rude, cruel, and vile; I would block anyone who oversteps the mark.”
American content creator Miki Rai is a healthcare professional who shot to fame during the COVID-19 pandemic, creating fun and educational content on YouTube, TikTok (@mikiraiofficial) and Instagram (@mikirai) about her job, lifestyle, and romantic relationship with fellow healthcare professional Kevin. Miki might openly share about her relationship with her partner Kevin, and highlight their careers and approaches to finances, as well as hitting her breaking point and seeking therapy, but she’s mindful not to share her work location or details that might go against her best interests and that of those around her.
“You can always choose to share more later on, but nothing that’s been shown on the internet can ever be taken back.”