Growing up, I wasn’t the type of kid to sit down in front of a TV and lose myself for hours. These days, though, I'm all about Netflix for hours, and it all began when the series finale of Pretty Little Liars came and went. Once Rosewood was no more, I found myself pining for Tuesday nights with Aria, Emily, Hannah, and Spencer. I felt a void, as if instead of saying goodbye to fictional characters, I was parting ways with four of my best friends. But why do I get so attached to TV shows if I’m fully aware of the fact that the pictures and dialogue before me are 100 percent fabricated?
You would think someone who studied fiction in college would be capable of separating herself from what’s real and what’s not, but according to experts, it’s not the fantasy of a TV show that draws you in, but the very real emotions actors and actresses portray that get you hooked. Doctor of psychology and licensed clinical social worker, Dr. Danielle Forshee, LLC reassures it's perfectly normal for someone to become attached to fictional characters on TV because of how our brain recognizes human emotion.
"When there’s a character that you feel emotionally connected to, despite the character’s personality likely not being who they really are in the real world," she tells Elite Daily, "your brain recognizes the human emotion they are portraying and starts to feel connected to those characters." As a result of this, Forshee explains, "a bond begins to form."
The human brain doesn't know the difference between real and fictional relationships, so you might connect with TV characters even though they don't exist.
According to Jennifer Barnes, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Oklahoma, it’s because of your brain's inability to differentiate between real and fictional relationships that you're able to still feel the same kinds of emotions from one as you would the other. For example, things like self esteem boosts, decreased loneliness, and even feelings of belonging, Barnes told TIME, are all real-life benefits you can reap from the fictional bonds you create when you regularly watch a TV show.
For example, I’m currently watching Dawson’s Creek from start to finish (yes, I do realize I'm about 15 years late on this one), and in one episode Michelle Williams’ character Jen Linley over-analyzes a new relationship with a hearthrob named Charlie, played by IRL heartthrob Chad Michael Murray. Amidst the couple's witty banter, Charlie responds to Jen's paranoia by stating that “Some things aren’t conspiracy; some things just are.” Despite the fact that this little nugget of wisdom comes from someone who a) has no idea who I am or what my story is and b) isn’t real, his words hit close to home for me. Now I feel like I can get through times of doubt if I just keep those words in the back of my mind.
But even though these relationships can feel authentic, in reality, these types of bonds are what psychologists refer to as parasocial relationships, aka human connections that are strictly one-sided. If you think about it, especially when you’re a die-hard fan who’s watched the show from the very beginning, you probably know everything there is to know about your favorite character, and are able to rattle of trivia facts like who their friends are, their love interest, their favorite place to eat, etc. They, on the other hand, know literally nothing about you.
It’s normal to become attached to characters you watch regularly on TV, but the relationship can become unhealthy if it starts to negatively impact your real life.
Raise your hand (or you know, agree silently to yourselves, since I can’t see you through the computer anyway) if you’ve ever ugly cried at the death of a fictional character on TV, or felt defeated by the end of a series. According to Barnes, it makes total sense why you’d feel sad about the passing of a character, or feel empathy for them when their storyline takes a turn for the worst, because you’ve spent so much time and energy on them over the course of a few seasons. It can even be cathartic if the character is going through something similar to your situation IRL.
TBH, though, your attachment to TV only really raises an issue if said attachment takes precedent over the people and events happening in your real world. "When we witness a character experience pain, happiness, loss or any emotion, our brain recognizes that and we immediately start feeling that same pain as if it was real," Dr. Forshee tells Elite Daily, but, she says, when you start to make watching Game of Thrones a priority over real-life social interactions, work, etc., because you prefer how the show makes you feel over real life, that's when an attachment can become unhealthy.
I know myself, and I'm pretty sure there have been times when I've cried harder at a character's fictional death than I have at my own family member's funeral. This may or may not be an issue in and of itself, but after an hour or two of sobs, the tears dried up, and I was on to the next episode. If nothing else, it's probably a good thing you get so attached to TV shows, because it proves you have empathy for others, even if these folks aren't necessarily real. Just remember to express that same love and affection toward friends and family IRL, because they're the ones that can love you back.