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In-Depth: Study finds extra pandemic screen time leads to strong feelings for fictional characters

USD study finds feelings are as strong as with real people
Posted at 7:17 AM, Oct 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-14 10:17:09-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - A new study from the University of San Diego found that our emotional attachment to fictional characters became nearly identical to our emotional attachment to family and friends during the coronavirus pandemic.

Associate Professor Bradley Bond wanted to find out if months of relationships dominated by streaming, Zooms, and video calls impacted the way we form attachments to each other.

Over eight weeks in the spring of 2020, he surveyed 200 people about their emotional connections.

"We spent significantly less time with our real friends and significantly more time with screens," he says. "In turn, we compensated for the lack of engagement with our real friends with people that we feel like are our friends on screen."

Professor Bond calls the bonds and attachments we have to fictional characters a "Parasocial relationship."

"We develop, maintain, or dissolve these relationships very similarly to the way that we engage with our real-life friends," he says.

His study, published this month in the journal "Psychology of Popular Media," found that people who spent less time with their real-life friends had the most substantial amount of emotional growth for fictional characters and celebrities. He also found that people who spent time with real friends primarily through screens also had strong growth in their feelings for their "TV friends."

"Seeing our friends almost primarily, if not entirely on screen, kind of blurred the lines between social and parasocial," he says. "So our TV friends seem even more real in the way we process them."

Professor Bond says it's healthy to form an attachment to fictional characters and celebrities. He says extreme cases where people obsess or develop an unhealthy attachment are usually a result of other, underlying mental health issues.

He says these kinds of healthy attachments can be harnessed to promote positive behaviors during a pandemic.

"If the people that we see on screen are processed in a way that is similar to how we process our real-life friends, then the argument could be made that those individuals could promote health information, particularly vaccines or healthy behaviors," he says. "They could even be used for support and guidance."

Professor Bond adds "real" friends have benefits we can't get from parasocial relationships, like non-verbal cues and physical touch.

But when quarantines and social distancing make in-person connections difficult, it's important to know we can still get emotional fulfillment from our "friends" on screen.

"Screen time isn't a waste of time," he says. "In times where we might need emotional support or need to feel connected to others, entertainment media might be able to compensate for that lack of connection."