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The Parasocial Network

Illustration by Sophia Spagna '26, an Illustration major at RISD and Illustrator for BPR

Kids have always wanted to grow up quicker and seem older sooner, and in today’s world, that means emulating influencers. This is why we see ten-year-olds storming Sephora storefronts around the United States in search of Drunk Elephant skincare and Summer Fridays lip gloss and then posting “haul” or “get ready with me” videos. There is no reason why tweens should be wearing crop tops to elementary school or carrying pencil cases filled with Glossier products—yet the over-sexualization that fundamentally underpins Gen Z’s collective aesthetic has influenced younger children to adopt distinctly adult clothing styles. In an attempt to fit in with their online idols, younger kids imitate what they think most defines their generation’s lifestyle: excessive attention to beauty and sexual appeal. 

Despite looking oversexualized, Gen Z is actually more isolated and celibate than any prior generation. One survey found that young people today are twice as likely to report feeling lonely than seniors over 65. The pandemic is partly to blame. Just like the isolation brought on by Covid-19 caused a developmental slump for young children, it precluded young adults in high school and college from going out to bars and parties or meeting romantic partners on their campuses. They did not learn how to date or even casually hook up. This has resulted in a decline in the number of teens reporting that they have ever had sex—from over 50 percent in previous decades to a mere 30 percent in 2021. Evidently, Gen Z has a sex problem. While the internet should theoretically connect us across space and time, in Gen Z’s case, the pandemic-driven obsession with influencers isolates more than it unites.

Social media sites like Instagram, TikTok, and OnlyFans differ from traditional porn sites by offering direct user-to-creator engagement. When pandemic loneliness hit, people turned to the “influencer” rather than the adult film star to fulfill their need for intimacy. While porn can only offer depictions of sex, influencers tend to have a combination of personality, style, skill, and otherworldly attractiveness: They appeal to nearly all of Gen Z, a generation desperate for connection. In psychology, this is called a “parasocial relationship”—where one person develops a meaningful emotional connection with someone who is “completely unaware of the other’s existence.”

Influencers may not know their fans, but they know what makes money; generating parasocial relationships is their entire business strategy. Social media monetization is engagement-based: The more interactions each post gets, the more the creator earns. An uptick in an influencer’s follower count means the same for their bank account. So, influencers tailor their content to seem vulnerable, casual, and relatable. By offering users a glimpse into their “real lives,” designed to give strangers the false sense that they are good friends or romantic partners, influencers are able to increase their fandoms. Because people missed the dopamine rush of seeing attractive strangers out in public mid-pandemic, content that was not explicitly sexual but vaguely suggestive—like a shirtless room tour, sensual dance while lip-syncing, or sexy outfit reveal—got strong engagement. Influencers experienced a 67 percent increase in likes and, notably, a 51 percent increase in comments after the pandemic: As influencers wove sex into their posts and personas, users became hooked.

While Covid-19 drove these relationships initially, dependence on influencers has continued to spiral even after pre-pandemic sites of romance reopened. Maybe the pandemic lasted too long, and everyone developed new habits and superficially “deep” connections. Or maybe the ease and allure of social media meant the rise of influencers was inevitable. Either way, 320 million new users joined social media in 2023 alone—and since businesses are still struggling to gain followings of their own, individual influencers reap the rewards of most of this traffic.

Although young people can go out, they are still duped by influencers that embody an inaccessible image of romance, making in-person suitors appear disappointing. Not only are unrealistically good-looking people like Vinnie Hacker quite rare in the real world, but a connection with them is even more elusive. And even then, real people are not constantly available like someone’s Instagram profile is. Real relationships take work. Logging onto social media and being inundated by influencers dancing shirtless to suggestive music and showing off sexy designer clothing seems to be the most accessible, easy, and instantly rewarding option for Gen Z.

Like Gen Z, every generation comes to develop certain lifestyle ideals and thus defines itself with specific aesthetics. For example, the Greatest Generation, born between 1900 and 1925, endured the heavily gendered division of labor post-World War II and started families as the ‘Man the Hunter’ trope rose to popularity. Therefore, the Greatest Generation and their Baby Boomer children defined their lifestyles through the aesthetic of a man-and-woman nuclear family—which, for most, was pretty easy to attain. Millennials began to break down this archetype, with women joining the workforce and marriage rates decreasing. For the most part, though, they did not deviate significantly from the old norm. Gen Z, on the other hand, is defining its relationships and sex through the maximalist images of opulent wealth and beauty perpetuated by influencers. Massive spikes in anxiety, depression, body dysmorphia, and a slew of other mental health concerns are well-known consequences of these unattainable, influencer-driven beauty standards. When we let the appearances of influencers become the desired aesthetics of our entire generation, we let social media corrupt us.

Our whole lives are being consumed by perfection and hypersexualization—the goal is to be as hot and desirable as influencers are. In 2023, a whopping 57 percent of Gen Z reported wanting to become an influencer. Many young people have a troubling approach to day-to-day life: Every event is an occasion, and everyone “needs” to look good all the time. Our digital profiles are becoming increasingly central to how we see ourselves—who we are as people is no longer confined to the physical world and real-life interactions.

The growing prevalence of nano-influencers—or people with between 1,000 and 10,000 followers—has both made it easier to interact with influencers and lowered the perceived barrier to entry of becoming one. Given the underlying sexual element of many influencers’ success, Gen Z’s attempts to become internet-famous necessitate self-definition through sensuality. This is damning for proper and mature development. Although hypersexuality is often marketed as liberating, in reality, it often leaves people incredibly disempowered since “sex appeal” is entirely rooted in the opinion of others.

The harms of this aesthetic are pervasive beyond Gen Z. Most kids in Generation Alpha are getting smartphones around age 10—exposing them to the Gen-Z-controlled world of social media at a much earlier stage of development. These kids spend hours on their screens, and it is inevitable that they, too, idolize older teenagers and young adults posting eye-catching content online.

However, the answer is not to ban TikTok or demean young people for being too slutty or narcissistic or suggestive, as many older politicians are currently doing. (It is worth noting that it is not rare for the same politicians to get caught in their own sex scandals.) We cannot force a generation that has grown up with total digital freedom into the now archaic aesthetics of older generations. The internet is not going anywhere, and its existence alone should not be a justification for wreaking havoc on society’s youth. 

Parents need to stop giving iPads and smartphones to toddlers. Social media companies also need to be held accountable for the content they propagate and profit off of at the expense of our generation’s romantic and emotional future; repealing laws that make these platforms immune to liability for their content would be a good start. And, it is time for Gen Z to stand up for itself and unplug from the influencer hellhole, lest we let ourselves be consumed by a lifestyle and aesthetic that will never satisfy us.