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From fans to victims: The dangerous side of parasocial relationships with online influencers and children

By Josie Simon, September 6 2023—

Imagine discovering that your closest childhood friend was never real in the first place. This is the harsh reality for countless children and young adults who have fostered parasocial connections with their beloved online influencers.  

My parents’ divorce in 2009 left me feeling lonely and disconnected. Seeking solace, I stumbled upon a group of YouTubers — Colleen Ballinger, Shane Dawson, Jenna Marbles and Zoella — and they quickly became my lifeline. They were not just online celebs but my trusted confidants, offering comfort, guidance and a sense of belonging.  

As I immersed myself deeper into the world of YouTube, I felt like I had entered an exclusive club. Relishing in the content of my favourite influencers, I developed a strong emotional attachment and a profound sense of connection. With countless hours spent watching their videos, I shared their victories and felt their sorrows.

To me, these influencers were my friends. However, the version of them that I cherished so dearly was a mere illusion. Though I was part of an online community, I remained a stranger among many. My fixation on these digital relationships blinded me to the possibility of nurturing genuine personal connections. As a result, I missed out on opportunities to form authentic friendships.

Looking back, I now realize that my tendency to form parasocial relationships with online influencers was merely one manifestation of a deeper issue. The world of YouTube had become a cocoon, insulating me from the painful reality that my once-happy family was now broken and my childhood was slipping away.

My story speaks to a growing trend among children and young adults in today’s world of social media. The ease and accessibility of forging parasocial relationships with online influencers have become prevalent. These connections arise when an individual develops a one-sided attachment to someone in the public eye, such as a social media influencer or celebrity. With human contact becoming increasingly scarce, these virtual connections can feel warm and comforting. However, they can also be perilous, particularly for young fans.

The Colleen Ballinger controversy involving Adam McIntyre is a powerful example of the dangers of parasocial relationships with under-aged fans. Ballinger, also known as Miranda Sings on YouTube, had a devoted young fanbase, which included a then 13-year-old McIntyre. McIntyre, now 20, accuses Ballinger, then 30, of sending pornography in private group chats with children, discussing sex positions and mailing McIntyre lingerie when he was only 13. This inappropriate behaviour sent shock waves throughout the YouTube community, demonstrating that influencer/fan relationships can lead to the victimization of children.

The Colleen Ballinger and Adam McIntyre controversy is a wake-up call for parents and influencers alike. Young people navigating their social lives need proper guidance in person and online. Parents must also remain vigilant about their children’s online interactions. 

At the same time, as social media personalities gain influence over their followers, they are morally obligated to establish a safe boundary between themselves and their fanbase. Failing to do so can lead to dangerous parasocial relationships, where reality becomes distorted with fiction and vulnerable minors can be victimized. Influencers must recognize their power dynamic, exercise responsible behaviour, and prioritize the safety and well-being of their audience above any other consideration. Establishing clear boundaries between influencers and followers can ensure everyone has a positive and safe online experience.

Losing ourselves in virtual relationships is easy in the technology and social media age. However, it is crucial to remember that genuine connections flourish in the real world, leaving lasting impressions that cannot be replicated online. While we appreciate our online connections, it is vital to prioritize nurturing in-person relationships with our loved ones. Doing so safeguards our emotional well-being and ensures a more fulfilling existence.

This article is a part of our Voices section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet editorial board.

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