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Making it Real: The Role of Parasocial Relationships in Enhancing COVID-19 Risk and Protective Behavior

Nathan Walter, PhD

Assistant Professor
Department of Communication Studies
Center for Communication and Health

Director, Center of Media Psychology and Social Influence

School of Communication
Northwestern University

From the very first days when states and localities have issued shelter-in-place or stay-at-home orders as part of the efforts to control the spread of COVID-19, some of the most vocal voices supporting social distancing were celebrities who tested positive for the virus. These actors, musicians, politicians, newscasters, and athletes took to traditional and social media to inform the public about the severity of COVID-19 and the importance of taking protective measures. Using the concept of parasocial relationship (PSR; long-term, one-sided, emotional bonds individuals develop with mediated figures), this study examines the public health implications of disease disclosures by celebrities. In particular, the study attempts to answer the following questions: (a) is having PSR with celebrities who tested positive for COVID-19 makes the idea of the virus and its dangers more real and concrete? (b) are the effects of PSR stronger for those for whom it would otherwise seem abstract and vague, such as those who are less at risk (young people), follow it less on the news, and do not know anyone in their lives who is ill with COVID-19? Implications of the findings suggest that meaningful involvement with a sick celebrity can make the pandemic seem more personally-relevant and encourage protective COVID-19 behaviors.

Presentation date: June 11, 2020.