Joey MacIntyre is kissing my best friend.
My back is turned, and I’m probably 12 years old, so the only thing I can imagine them doing is some sort of tight-lipped smooching. Maybe his hands are resting heavily on her shoulders. I’m resigned to my empty little corner of what must be a bed or a couch when I feel Joey’s hand reach over and pinch my butt. I’m ecstatic. He likes me!
And then I wake up.
What’s childhood without an awkward celebrity crush dream? In my day, New Kids on the Block, Devon Sawa, and Edward Furlong could make my toes curl inside my laceless Keds. My friends and I would devour Tiger Beat and Bop magazines, hang posters on walls, and rest our heads on NKOTB pillowcases. As strong as our love was, these heartthrobs were merely a fantasy—people we didn’t associate with in everyday life.
Times have changed.
In a 2015 Pew Research Report, 92 percent of teens said they went online daily—including 24 percent who were online “almost constantly.”
Today’s tween can spend time with their celebrity crush whenever they want. All it takes is the tap of an app icon and there’s Justin Bieber flashing his abs or #TBTing to the days of “Jelena.” They can scroll through a celebrity’s day and comment on how fine they look with that new bleached hair-do.
My younger self would have given an arm and a leg to be a fly on the wall of Joey’s day, but looking at today’s hyper-connected kid, I realize there was something beautiful about crushing on a celebrity who sparkled with mystery.
It’s completely normal for young people to idolize celebrities, whatever form they come in—it’s been happening for centuries. But today’s virtual communities can negatively impact the young, hormonal mind. These crushes are what psychologists call parasocial relationships—one-sided relationships where the celebrity is completely unaware of the fan’s existence.
These false connections are easy—you can check-in with your pretend lover whenever and wherever, as long as you have your phone with you. While adults can pace themselves with cyberstalking, it may be more difficult for the developing brain of an adolescent to handle the intensity of social media. What celebrity is going to let Mindy from Idaho know that her incessant likes and comments on Instagram are making them uneasy?
Along with lacking a lesson on healthy boundaries, Rebecca Simon Stein, LCSW, a psychotherapist that works with adolescents in New York City, says these social media relationships “can encourage a sort of acceptable one-sidedness, rather than a give and take—which any good relationship should have.”
Dating is merciless. It’s even tougher when you’re young and comparing yourself to everyone else. I, for example, was insanely jealous of Mary Big Boobs, who the middle school boys would drop pencils in front of, hoping that she would pick them up and flash some cleavage. I never had any pencils tossed my way.
While crushing hard via social media may be a great way for a sensitive teenager to avoid rejection, it’s an unhealthy form of avoidance. My first boyfriend, who I’ll call Ralph, broke up with me because he had to focus on his schoolwork. We were in fifth grade. I was devastated and thought back to, with rolling tears, the time we walked around the school’s ping pong table holding hands.
Putting time and energy into a celebrity on social media may seem safer for emotional well-being, but according to Stein, these first, real-life, messy relationships are how we learn. It might be tempting to hide behind a screen, “but it won't teach us to be empathic to ourselves and others, and to develop realistic expectations.”
The faux connection burns bright under Justin Bieber’s Instagram posts where you are sure to see a few thousand exclamations of, “OMG I luv the beach 2! wanna play in the water xoxo?!!” below his beachside selfie.
Two weeks ago it was confirmed that Jake T. Austin of Wizards of Waverly Place began dating a fan who had been tweeting him incessantly for five years. Toward the end of 2015, Justin Bieber asked fans to help him track down an Instagram user who he found to be stunning. Should these few instances of successful fandom give other tweens hope of landing their prince charming? No. But it will.
This unreachable dream may drive kids to put their noses to screens even more, losing out on precious face-to-face time with their peers. According to Stein, this high level of screen time can lead to “social isolation and poor real-life social skills, which can have lasting effects into adulthood.”
And what about good old-fashioned fantasizing? While social media mimics face-to-face interaction and creates the façade of intimacy, it also blurs the line between fantasy and reality. Now, young people are missing out on the ability to daydream in a real, healthy way. “Fantasy is normal and even important developmentally,” says Stein.
When kids today stare at a Twitter feed, they are restricting their ability to think outside the box—they are given a set medium that inhibits creative thinking and impedes their imagination. In his popular 2006 TED Talk, Sir Kenneth Robinson, an international adviser on children’s education, said, “Imagination is the source of all human achievement.” In short, it helps us to become innovative, successful adults.
It’s one thing to use Internet dating as an adult, but it’s quite another to introduce children to romance via a one-sided, screen-based relationship. As prevalent as cyber-crushing is these days, this antiquated swooner considers herself lucky to have grown up in the days of limited celebrity information.