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Gen Z On Celebrities & Media Consumption: Why It Matters And How To Navigate It In A Healthy Way

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at TX State chapter.

Some would argue that a celebrity is “built” to be marketable or easily digestible. PR executives unarguably play an important role in the behind-the-scenes of business for celebrities and content creators, leading some to claim it affects the ability of the individual to come across as human-like. They argue that each kind gesture is done to feed their positive image, and each personality trait is nothing more than what aligns best with their brand. 

However, if that were true, what would draw in millions of people across the globe to support individuals in the public eye? Why is it that when a celebrity figure is less well known, they’re seen as genuine, but as their outreach grows, their perceived genuinity declines? 

A Sense of Connection

Olivia Garza, 21, a resident of College Station, TX, says a big part of why people care about celebrities is their ability to cultivate deep connections to their fans. 

“We can see bits of ourselves or who we want to be in them,” Garza said, “And every bit of their life is on display, so we can idolize it, grab onto the things we like and form a relationship with these people, even though we will never get to meet them.”

For Garza, the connection she feels this most strongly with is singer Taylor Swift. A fan-relationship that has been years in the making, Garza can recall seeing Swift for the first time at the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo in 2009. 

“I just have always loved her and grown up with her from the very beginning,” Garza said. “As she’s grown and matured into an adult, at the same time that I have, and been re-releasing albums, I understand. Like, I understand why it was so exciting to feel like you’re 22, and ‘Never Grow Up’ and songs like that.”

Garza says her perception of Swift has changed over time. When she was a kid, she thought what most children do of famous people: they’re “cool” and “pretty,” but more one-dimensional, reflecting “characters in TV shows or characters in movies.” 

“They’re like these people that aren’t really even people,” Garza said. “They’re characters. And they’re kind of only there for entertainment and I didn’t really know that much about her. I would just be like, ‘Hey, mom. Play Taylor Swift.”

Things changed once she got older and continued to consume Swift’s music and other content of hers on social media. 

“I realized that she is a person,” Garza said. “Taylor Swift isn’t just someone I see on TV or at a concert. She’s real, she has a life; she has feelings, emotions and struggles. And I think getting older and realizing that made me love her even more…She is a person and she struggles too. And if Taylor Swift can become Taylor Swift despite her struggles, then I can overcome my struggles and become something in spite of them.”

Swift has touched on mental health struggles in the past, both in her discography and in media like the documentary Miss Americana on Netflix. 

“There are some songs that I feel really connected to because they’re more meaningful, darker songs, especially songs like ‘this is me trying,’ which talked about mental health,” Garza said. “I was like, ‘Oh, even Taylor Swift knows what it’s like to feel that way.’ And then watching the Miss Americana documentary on Netflix, and she kind of talks about her [eating] disorder and struggling with that. I struggled with an eating disorder for a long time. So, I’ve always felt super connected to her, ever since I was a small child. Growing up and getting to learn more about her has only strengthened that because I see a lot of myself in her.”

photo of tattoo
Photo by Olivia Garza

It’s a phenomenon some people who criticize pop culture forget, or are unable to understand–the ability to feel seen and understood through a stranger’s representation of your struggles. Especially when that connection is made possible through social media, where the likeliness of doom scrolling or getting caught in an endless comparison loop is also possible, sometimes the cons of social media use overshadow the pros.

However, it’s not uncommon for adults’ mental health to be impacted by celebrities. 

In a journal article that examined the influence of pop songs referencing mental health issues on college students’ mental health, Alex Kresovich writes, “From a media effects perspective, Gerbner’s (1998) cultivation theory suggests that an increasing prevalence of popular songs with mental health references could lead to heightened mental health empathy and diminished mental health stigma among listeners – many of them college students.”

Garza went on to note other artists she admired for talking about mental health struggles in their songs, such as Reneé Rapp, who has a song called “Don’t Tell My Mom.”

“It’s about how she doesn’t wanna tell her mom that she’s struggling because she doesn’t want her mom to worry,” Garza said. “I sent that song to my therapist the first time I heard it. I said, ‘This is how I feel about my mom.’ It’s just nice to [know] there’s other people out there who feel this way. And that’s represented and they’ve become successful.”

The Balance Between Admiration and Delusion

Similar to Garza, Texas State University student Amanda McCoy, 19, says society’s interest in celebrities has to do with a sense of connection and comfort. 

“I think feeling connected to someone, even if they’re out of our reach, is comforting,” McCoy said. It makes us feel closer to them in some capacity. And, also, I think it’s a good way to connect with others because it starts a conversation with your friends and stuff.”

However, tied in with that, McCoy says, is also a feeling of a desire for your life to reflect aspects of theirs.

“I think sometimes celebrities, even if we don’t wanna admit it to ourselves, embody certain aspects that we wish we could do, like do fun things, not work a regular job, and everything,” McCoy said. “So seeing them doing that is just enticing.”

McCoy added that sometimes–it’s not exactly that viewers or fans want to be famous, but on a bare necessities level, want to be wealthy enough to provide for their family.

Although McCoy says she’s gone through many phases of being fascinated with a few celebrities–Harry Styles, Jennifer Lawrence, and Miley Cyrus to name a few–a celebrity she has admired for about six years is Bella Hadid. 

“I like everything that she stands for,” McCoy said. “She’s such a good model. I’m not a nepotism baby hater because the babies are nepotism babies, but I don’t like the ones that don’t admit that their parents were famous and helped them. And the Hadids definitely don’t do that…”

Although McCoy says she began as a casual fan of Hadid in 2018, over the years, her fandom of her has been sustained through following her projects–in both modeling and humanitarianism.

“She’s a really good model, and I’m low-key into watching models,” McCoy said. “I’m not super into fashion and stuff like that, but I do like to watch their walks and stuff and I feel like she has a good one. And also…I wouldn’t say that she considers herself an activist, but I think she gives a voice to the voiceless.”

According to Borgen Magazine, Hadid has participated in various acts of philanthropy over the years, ranging from volunteering with The Bowery Mission by preparingThanksgiving meals, donating winter clothes to The People’s Table, based in NYC, and donating supplies to those affected by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake in 2023 that hit Turkey and Northern Syria.

Additionally, according to Vulture, Hadid has spoken up on social media regarding her support for the Free Palestine movement and marched in protests supporting the cause. 

Although McCoy says her heightened interest in certain celebrities ebbs and flows, she does feel that in supporting various figures, her identity has been shaped in a lot of ways.

“I’ve always been a pretty confident person since I was a kid. But I think seeing other confident people, even if it was just a character that they portrayed,” McCoy said. “That helped influence my personality. Hannah Montana was one of them growing up. She made me more outgoing and extroverted, I think.” 

McCoy also says that her experience engaging with pop culture has helped her to be more empathetic towards people she doesn’t know personally. 

“I don’t like those people that are like, ‘Oh, pop culture sucks’…or, like, people who think that just because a celebrity is out in the public, that means they can be mean to them…” McCoy said. “I hate that, and I feel like growing up with pop culture has made me see everybody as human no matter how far removed I am from them.”

However, McCoy says her experience following the lives of other celebrities has varied, citing her experience being a fan of Harry Styles as an example. 

“I used to be a huge Harry Styles fan. I still love him, but whenever I would think about being super duper invested in this celebrity’s life, it would kinda make me uncomfortable, oddly enough. So I kinda dialed back just a little bit…” McCoy said. “I’m a fan of him, just not as much as I used to be.”

McCoy feels she now has a healthier relationship with her media consumption. However, with her experience being a fan of Styles, she explained a situation most fans have found themselves in at some point: how easy it can be to forget that they do not actually know celebrities personally, regardless how much it feels otherwise. 

“I just had to kind of touch grass and remember that I still don’t know them. Not saying that there’s anything wrong with people being stans and stuff…” McCoy said. “I feel like I have a touch of anxiety, so all of that– it was just a lot for me. So I was like, ‘I have to dial it down and just be a fan of people and not want to be invested in parts of their life that I shouldn’t be in because I don’t know them.’”

McCoy recalled the instance that led her to this realization with Styles–news about one of his romantic relationships online. 

“I remember me and my best friend, we both liked Harry Styles a lot specifically…If he got a new girlfriend or something…we probably cared about it more than I should, being somebody that’s very far removed from him as a person,” McCoy said. “And honestly, not even with me, but seeing people in his comments being [like] ‘I hate her. I hate this,’ I was like, ‘This is a very strong reaction for people we don’t know.’”

However, McCoy’s experience being a fan of Styles and other celebrities in general has also been made up of wholesome memories, many of them carrying a strong sense of nostalgia. 

“Before my 15th birthday, Fine Line came out. And, the first single for Fine Line was ‘Lights Up.’ I really like that song. And it also came out on my birthday…” McCoy said. “I feel like I was just a teenager and coming into my own music choices.”

McCoy says shortly after the album was released, her family visited Los Angeles, California, where the renowned cafe Styles namedrops in his song “Falling” is located.

“I remember going to the Beachwood Cafe…” McCoy said. “My parents knew I wanted to go because it was in the song. And my dad asked the waiter, ‘Hey, is Harry Styles around?’”

McCoy smiled as she recalled the moment. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. This is so embarrassing.’ It was so funny…My dad was genuinely asking.”

Beachwood Cafe in Los Angeles California
Photo by Amanda McCoy

How Parasocial Relationships Impact the Lives of Fans

People have mixed feelings about parasocial relationships. For every few people who find them creepy or pointless, there are hundreds who have found comfort in them–even if a lot of the time it’s a one way emotional exchange. 

Texas State University student Theodore Wright, 20, says oftentimes, people care about celebrities because they don’t have to worry about what the celebrity thinks about them. 

“They don’t really know the celebrities personally like they know the people in their lives, so they don’t have to worry about judgment from the person,” Wright said. “And I feel like people love to judge other people in this society, but the fact that that person is miles away, cities away, so out of reach of you that they can’t reflect you, talk to you, or really judge you in any way… makes celebrities really attractive. There’s not a relationship they have to return to you.” 

Three celebrities that Wright admires are content creators Daniel Howell and Phil Lester (commonly referred to as just “Dan and Phil”), and Mark Fischbach (known online as “Markiplier”) who experienced a rise in fame through their gaming videos on YouTube. 

“They haven’t done anything to show that they aren’t good people, which with most celebrities you’ll see it happen…they find horrible things about these people. These are just two YouTubers that just want to have fun and make videos,” Wright said. 

Wright discovered Dan and Phil through a time on YouTube in which react videos were immensely popular. He recalls thinking they were funny, but beyond just that, he was drawn to them for how passionate they were about their creative projects.

“I think there’s a lot of miserable artists out there that do things at this point because they think they should,” Wright said. “But these people genuinely care about what they’re doing and they continue to do it…they reach out to people, and they care about them even if some of the people are weird and too obsessive and creepy.” 

Similarly, with Markiplier, Wright admires how much effort and humility he exemplifies through his content. 

“He cares about the people that care about him, and he puts out so much effort. He makes so much money and he puts it into art. He’s making a movie right now that’s gonna be in theaters. He is working towards something that he genuinely cares about and loves the people that support him and support them back,” Wright said. 

Wright says he found comfort in watching Dan and Phil’s content in high school, and became more interested in Marikplier’s content freshman year of college–a time when he was having trouble making friends.

“I had no one that wanted to talk to me because I was the weirdo that didn’t want to go out and party. So getting to be with those people is really where my relationships begin because they were there for me when no one else was,” Wright said. “I think it’s a matter of vulnerability. People love to judge, and my friends do that a lot because, I mean, they’re human. Of course, they do. But these people can’t react to me because they don’t know me.”

Aside from the content creators Wright admires giving him a sense of comfort and nostalgia, he says he also sees aspects of himself reflected in them. 

“Their excitement in what they want to do and how happy they are to do it–it’s something I really see myself in them for,” Wright said. 

Through being a fan, Wright has been able to cultivate friendships based on their shared interests in certain content creators. 

“The friend I went to see his [Daniel Howell’s] tour with freshman year was some girl I hardly knew, but I knew she liked Dan and Phil, so we wanted to see him together…” Wright said. 

Although Wright did not have the best view at the concert, he said it was both an overwhelming and exciting experience.

“His first act is all about things that are killing the world, like social media and global warming…” Wright said. “And then the second act is how we should pursue life anyways because there are things to enjoy.”

He added, “I think community is the best memory I could possibly have because, like I said, to wrap it all up in one big circle– you start with judgment. Everyone judges you all the time, and the reason we’re attracted to celebrities is because they don’t. But, the celebrities attract people together that do care about you and that don’t judge you.” 

Ultimately, Wright says he feels supporting these content creators has heavily impacted his outlook on life.

“I think at the very core, there are times I think I might have actually not been here if it weren’t for these people–which I know is ridiculous because they’re just some 2010 YouTubers…” Wright said. “But…being able to get that joy in 10 minute [YouTube videos] and getting to feel that they saw me and I mattered–is the reason I’m here today.”

people at concert in front of stage
Photo by Theodore Wright

The Importance of Boundaries Within Parasocial Relationships

According to a blog post on Thriveworks, they reported that “51% of Americans have likely been in parasocial relationships, even though only 16% admit to it.”

There’s a difference, of course, between those who are unaware that they’re experiencing a parasocial relationship and outright denying its existence. 

“I recognize that as a thing I do because I have a lot of parasocial relationships with a lot of different celebrities. But I feel like a lot of people who don’t know the limits or their boundaries that they should set for themselves and for those celebrities–I feel like they don’t understand that because they choose to ignore it,” Wright said.

Although celebrities experience an influx of support from fans, it can be daunting when parasocial relationships cause individuals to act in a way that crosses the line in terms of what is appropriate within interactions with people they don’t know personally. 

“I think I get really triggered by people going too far…” Wright said. “I think people should go to the signings, go to the events. I do think it’s weird we pay money to see people. But if that’s what it takes, do it. Because when they’re not on the clock for you, they’re not on the clock for you. That’s the line for me is knowing when the time and place is. The time and place is when they have agreed to it.”

The Phenomenon of Celebrity: From A Sociology Perspective

Texas State University Professor Dr. Rachel Romero teaches the sociology course Popular Culture and Society.  

Dr. Romero says that before there was Hollywood, there were other figures that would receive veneration: saints, kings, gods and totems, being a few. As those figures became less relevant as culture progressed, society observed a rise in stardom–bringing about the new figures individuals would use to make sense of the world: celebrities.

They’re the new figures that we look up to to help us work through, in some way…” Dr. Romero said. “Things like grief, aspirations, dreams, our likes or dislikes. It’s something that’s both extraordinary and something that’s like us. These are totally regular humans with normal lives, but then there’s something really special about them.”

In 2024, it’s not just actors, actresses, and musicians that we see experiencing fame–many have grown to care in the same way about influencers and social media content creators as well.

Dr. Romero says with the rise of these “DIY celebrities,” the perception we have of them as  celebrity-like figures is different. Rather than feeling like we could never be like them, it’s quite the opposite. 

Many of them are people who have or have started off with typical jobs, are students, or are even sometimes families–simply sharing bits and pieces of their everyday life online. Juxtaposing with the unattainable dreamlike reality we see superstars live, this allows us to not just see DIY celebrities as relatable, but also presenting an attainable reality that people could potentially have themselves. 

These people begin to shape our ideas about all kinds of things, especially your values, our perceptions of success, beauty standards, social norms, and they contribute a great deal to our identity formation. The way that identity formation is gonna happen is that you have to identify with celebrities. So that means you have to consume a lot of celebrity,” Dr. Romero said.

Online Consumption, Mental Health and a “Culture of Sameness” 

According to a 2022 study by McKinsey Health Institute, more than one third of Gen Z respondents spend more than two hours online per day and “Gen Zers on average, are more likely than other generations to cite negative feelings about social media.”

Dr. Romero says that although she doesn’t think there’s a direct relationship to social media use and poorer mental health, research does reveal that mental health is at stake when it comes to high online consumption for Gen Z.

This generation is actually very comfortable talking about feelings and mental health, so that’s really great. But they’re also feeling these feelings very deeply. Right? And in some ways, in very isolated ways,” Dr. Romero said.

Additionally, Dr. Romero says other issues that can arise is fatigue from an over consumption of content, or an idea discussed by critical theorists, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, a culture of “sameness” and the death of creativity.

“We see that a lot…you’re mindlessly scrolling through your screen and it’s just bite-sized information,” Dr. Romero said.

Additionally, with an algorithm also at play in most social media sites, created with the intention to keep you engaged as long as possible, it can be difficult to put the phone down or stop to digest the information you just viewed. 

“You see an external motivation to do things, to create this idea of success, or beauty, friendship, love–whatever it is, and so the TikTok effect is very interesting and it is endless,” Dr. Romero said. 

A Never Ending Story of the Human Experience

When it comes to celebrities who are infamous or who we witness take a “fall from grace,” many times, online fan communities can be split–where some decide to no longer support the figure because their actions don’t align with the user’s ethics, others might defend the figure with their whole chest.

“The biggest thing that jumps out to me is that to be a celebrity, you don’t need wealth, you need good looks, you don’t need really to be talented. What you need is visibility…” Dr. Romero said. “Once you have that fan base and your visibility, people are still talking about you. It’s entertainment.”

She added that, good or bad, controversial or not, a lot of people want to see what will happen next. It’s easy to get hooked–similar to how you would be watching a horror movie or playing a suspenseful video game. 

That’s the thing about content creators and influencers is that it’s not a show that comes to an end. It’s a celebrity that you grew with. It’s someone that you know for like 10 years, 15 years, for however long you’ve had, you know, since you were in high school,” Dr. Romero said. 

When people create content based on their everyday life, the amount of emotions the viewer is able to experience is abundant.

“If you think about entertainment, some people enjoy the horror genre, suspense, or drama. And so what has more than all those components than the human experience? And if you have humans living out their lives and you’re already invested, why would you stop watching?” Dr. Romero said. 

Media as a Form of Healthy Escapism and Cultivating Community

For some, consuming online media is a hobby. For others, they might describe it as an addiction. For many though, it’s a form of healthy escapism–a sense of comfort in a time that is ever-changing and challenging.

“I hate the word ‘guilty pleasure.’ Like, we shouldn’t feel guilty for feeling pleasure…It’s just pleasurable to get a peek into… living vicariously through or having access into the lives of the rich and famous,” Dr. Romero said. “That can be really fun as a form of entertainment. Now, escapism becomes dangerous when we’re just bathing in the content, and we are not disconnecting.

Dr. Romero added that it can become an addiction when it becomes a state of “false consciousness.”

Although the line between healthy and unhealthy escapism can be tricky, Dr. Romero says consuming online media and engaging with celebrity content can also a positive impact. 

People sometimes associate the term “fangirl” with a negative connotation–pairing it with the idea of a crazy, irrational, or childish girl, but this couldn’t be farther than the truth.

“Like, why do you have to feel bad about that? Why is there a sense of shame with those things? With the term ‘fangirl,’ it’s the same. It’s really minimizing and then like cutting down people to that… fan culture can be really powerful and really meaningful to people,” Dr. Romero said. 

Fanhood can be a means for connection in common interests–across cities, states, and countries. Similar to how people get together in person or communicate in a group chat online to watch a live sports event, it can be an enjoyable and exciting experience that can build lasting friendships.

“My husband really enjoys [sports], he’s a fangirl for that,” Dr. Romero said. “He’s a part of this community of people [online]…so whenever he’s watching the game and he roots for the Detroit Lions and he’s not in Detroit–none of these other members of the group are in Detroit–they’re really watching this game together. And they have critical dialogue about all kinds of things, not just the NFL, because they’ve been friends for a very long time.”

The Importance of Thinking Critically About Online Consumption

So, what does it all mean for online consumption to be a multifaceted experience, filled with pros and cons, positive and negative impacts, and as many opportunities for growth as it does opportunities to lose your unique sense of self?

It comes down to critically thinking about your online media consumption–and it’s not as daunting as it sounds. 

“For me, all that comes back to self reflection. If you’re using whatever celebrity content, whatever media, whatever you see–as a mirror. This is not about those people. This is about me. When you walk away after consuming whatever content, you’re having critical dialogue with somebody else. You’re self reflecting about how something made you feel. What kind of thoughts, curiosity, something prompted or not prompted,” Dr. Romero said. 

A rejection of making media consumption an active process, thinking about media critically, or taking celebrity admiration too far may also partly explain why infamous celebrities can keep their fandom–even after the figure acts in a way that challenges most of their fandom’s ethics.

“They’re humans just like you and I. And so it’s important to remember that,” Dr. Romero said.

Dr. Romero added that it is important to use media consumption as a way of exploration, rather than letting the content wash over you without being an active member in the experience.

“Take a moment to digest what you just consumed and think about it critically,” Dr. Romero said. “How is this related to something that is in my world? How am I making these connections? How do I feel after I put my phone down and walk away?

It’s normal to go through ups and downs when attempting to consume media in a way that positively impacts you–or at the very least, doesn’t harm your mental health. However, if you’re invested in pop culture, enjoy online media, or simply love keeping up with your favorite celebrity, it is in your best interest to pay attention to how it makes you feel.

“I think that can be great stimuli…It’s not just consuming for the sake of consuming. But how it can serve as a form of personal growth or lesson learning,” Dr. Romero said.

Fandom can be an identity forming, community cultivating, meaningful experience–one that helps us feel more understood and equips us with the tools to extend empathy to others. Social media, too, can be an outlet for creative expression and encourage us to look at the world around us in a different way.

One of the main takeaways through researching the consumption of online content and fandom is being active in the experience–taking a step back to also ask yourself–Is this ethical? Is this impacting me in a positive way or do I feel worse after seeing this? 

Dr. Romero added other questions one can ask themselves in the process of self-reflection after consuming media:

  • “What does it say about your desires?”
  • “Where do you want to be?”
  • “What do you dream about?”
  • “What are you curious about?”
  • “How does this fit or align with the person I want to be and the person I am today?”
Melanie Love Salazar is Journalism student at Texas State University. She has written for the student-led radio station at Texas State and has experience writing across various media platforms. One of her biggest passions are for live music, and other hobbies of her's include going to drive-in movie theatres, reading, and drinking coffee!