It’s Complicated: Breakups with Mediated Characters

Posted by on Mar 14, 2016 in MEL Notes Blog | 0 comments

This post is written in response to:

Eyal, K., & Cohen, J. (2006). When good Friends say goodbye: A parasocial breakup study. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 50(3), 502-523.

Stephanie Whitenack is a first year doctoral student in the Manship School of Mass Communication. Her research interest is in media effects and representations of individuals with physical and intellectual disabilities.


It’s Complicated: Breakups with Mediated Characters

Summary of the Findings

Dr. Keren Eyal and Dr. Jonathan Cohen (2006) examined people’s reactions to the end of a relationship with a television character. They used the framework of parasocial relationships (PSRs)—first introduced by Horton and Wohl (1956) that found that audience members form one-sided relationships with their favorite television characters. They then used this framework to predict distress in audience members who formed a PSR with their favorite character from the television show Friends. Parasocial breakups (PSBs) occur after an audience member’s favorite character—with whom they have developed a PSR with—goes off the air. The researchers completed this study right after the final episode of Friends aired to explore the effects of a “breakup” with participants’ favorite character on the show. Their data shed light on other factors than just intensity of relationship. After controlling for PSRs, they found that commitment to the show, affinity to the show, perceived popularity of character, and participants’ loneliness all predicted reactions to PSB. One interesting thing to note is that these relationships operate somewhat differently than real social relationships. In this study, there were generally low levels of PSB distress reported, indicating that participants are able to have the intimacy involved in a PSR that allows for enjoyable relationships, but they do not facilitate great dependence.


Future Studies for PSB

One obvious limitation of this study was the sample. Only 19 percent of the sample was male. A future study should have a more representative sample of the male population in order to further examine gender differences when looking at PSB. Because this article states their limitations, I focused on the questions this study sparked for future interests. A future study should implement the effects of group PSRs. It should compare PSRs in a group dynamic to more centralized roles. It should examine how a group-based/interpersonal show differs from those shows focusing on just one character’s life journey in particular. I believe this would yield different results. I would imagine that breaking up with a whole group would have different effects than just losing one friend. Also, another study should examine the effects of PSBs right after binge watching a show on Netflix, Hulu, etc. to see if similar effects are found. Finally, I would like to see a study that compares a parasocial break up to a parasocial break. For example, how do participants react when their show is coming to an end, but they know a spin off show that involves their favorite character will air sometime in the future. This could mitigate effects of PSB, but it could also have implications for restlessness/distress waiting for the spin off show to air.


Scholar-to-Scholar Interview and Class Discussion

A great discussion broke out surrounding the topic of parasocial breakup with the main author of the article Dr. Keren Eyal. She stated that she did not know if streaming changes PSRs, but she does think that viewing habits (binge viewing, for example) can indeed impact—and be impacted—by PSRs. She is in fact involved in a couple of current studies that examine this issue. She does not have clear answers yet (and the predictions can go both ways—to enhance or to decrease PSR), but she believes there are many interesting research questions to examine. She does however disagree that audience members’ relationship with an entire cast is not considered a PSR. However, our discussion in class prompted fellow classmate Judson Eldredge to make an argument that indeed audience members’ relationships with an entire cast on a television show can be considered a PSR, and should be examined further.


The Future

Parasocial breakup is an important aspect of the parasocial literature to examine. While many researchers believe these one-sided mediated relationships can hold commonalities with real social relationships, it is important to understand how the breakups of these relationships affects audience members. In the past, my research area of interest was on parasocial relationships and people with Down syndrome. I thought it was important to explore these relationships with a socially stigmatized group. I found that these PSRs with mediated characters were beneficial to people whom, for the most part, had a hard time making friends. I now look back on the study and wonder, if people with Down syndrome can have PSRs then it is imminent that people with Down syndrome experience PSBs as well. I think this will be an important aspect to research in the future, and I look forward to continuing my research on PSRs and PSBs within a disability context.

-Stephanie Whitenack-

Dr. Keren Eyal

Dr. Jonathan Cohen

Article from Huffington Post