Mathew Klickstein | Wired | February 22, 2016
Room, the film that's up for four Oscars this weekend, is about the psychology of survival: How does a mother cope when she and her son are confined to one space for years? The answer—onscreen, as well in the pages of the 2010 Emma Donoghue novel the movie adapts—is just get through it. But for her son, there’s a slightly different answer—and it says a surprising amount about why we love the people on our glowing screens. __ [Plot spoilers for Room follow.] __ Nearly all of the story’s action takes place in a claustrophobic shack located, it’s later revealed, in a nondescript suburban backyard. The two main characters—a young woman, Ma, and her five-year-old son, Jack—live there, imprisoned by a man who built the shack in order to keep the woman as his personal possession.
Jack (played in the movie by Jacob Tremblay) narrates the book with a naiveté that comes from never having been outside of the room he shares with Ma (Brie Larson in the film). He's sweet and honest and speaks of Ma in much the same way he describes his favorite television characters. Jack’s intimate connection with those fictional players—namely Dora from Dora the Explorer and Bob from Bob the Builder—is so profound that he believes them to be real.
And why wouldn’t he? Dora doesn't just perform for viewers, she engages with them. She stops the action to ask questions, and then seems to listen, enthusiastically telling viewers they've answered correctly. Unlike most TV characters, she interacts with her audience, and for Jack she's one of the only people he has a relationship with besides Ma. Dora and Bob are his friends—his only friends.
In her afterword, Donoghue writes that she meticulously researched the ways in which a child in Jack’s situation would behave, including his intense connection to fictional characters onscreen. This is evident throughout her novel, but never more so than a scene in which Jack's grandparents take him toy shopping. Confronted with multiple images of Dora on backpacks and other merchandise, Jack cannot accept she is a fictional character and can’t understand how the girl who awaited his answers on TV was listening to anyone but just him.
From Dora the Explorer to Fahrenheit 451
We see similar actions, and reactions, from the character Mildred in Fahrenheit 451. The wife of book-burning "fireman" Montag, she reverently watches a chintzy soap opera called The Family—and believes that by reading from a script she’s been sent in the mail, she can affect the plot of her show.
Montag calls out the absurdity of Mildred’s actions; doesn’t she understand thousands of people were sent the same script and the show isn't actually dependent on her actions? In her zombie-like state of mind, though, Mildred simply can’t hear her husband’s entreaties. (Bradbury intended this. Although his 1953 novel is usually held up as a tome about government censorship, he's long stipulated that it's about television's ability to distract people from the real world.)
Considering Jack’s connection to Dora in Room, I decided to bring the topic up to a few Nickelodeon producers I’d come to know while working on an oral history of the network, Slimed! Nickelodeon, after all, created Dora the Explorer, and over the years has produced a lot of programming that benefits from the guidance of scholars, psychologists, and child-development experts.
Almost every one of them were either dismissive of or alarmed by the notion that television could potentially disrupt people's reality. As the naysayers noted, the practice of breaking the fourth wall to directly address viewers was practically de rigueur by the time Nickelodeon came around, used as it was in such popular series as Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street.
But Scott Webb, who was Nickelodeon’s first creative director before moving on from the network in the mid-1990s, responded by discussing what he called “onboarding”—preparing kids to interact with more screens as they move through life.
“The psychology of it would be that you matter to the TV world, that you're kind of peers,” Webb says, making sure to qualify this as his “layman’s view.”
Armchair psychology or not, Webb’s theory could in part be linked to people's attachment to their screens, be they television, phone, computer, or otherwise. (Whether intentionally onboarding or not, creators have been trying to get us into multi-platform experiences for years—whether that means Captain Planet going from animated series to videogame, or the new “cartooniverse” Cartoon Network is developing.)
But why do we attach to things on screens specifically? Some psychologists and neurologists believe this phenomenon to be a result of living creatures’ instinctive attraction to the sun or the moon—or any light source that provides the energy necessary for survival. Animals of all shapes and sizes will take light wherever they can get it, even when it’s artificial. Just as flies will gravitate towards the nearest fluorescent bulb, humans find themselves transfixed by TV’s warming glow. Think Lucy Liu on Elementary or Idris Elba on Luther is the light of your life? You’re not alone—it's nature.
But that explanation is too simplistic. Surely there’s something more to the attachments children form with fictional characters than just staring at shiny objects. There likely is, we just haven't figured it out yet.
Our Parasocial Interactions, Ourselves
Because studies on television's effect on children are relatively new, there’s little longitudinal research—investigations into how TV has affected people over spans of, say, 10 or 20 years. While there have been studies into how and why adults empathize with fictional characters, less is known about the relationships children form with onscreen friends.
“People have just started looking at ‘parasocial interactions’ with children,” says Sandra Calvert, the director of the Children’s Digital Media Center at Georgetown University.
Parasocial interactions were first investigated in regards to their effects on adults watching TV newscasters. News anchors have almost always spoken directly to the camera, fostering the notion that they’re speaking directly, almost exclusively, to viewers watching in their living rooms. The parasocial relationship that forms allows the newscaster to seem as though they're intimately connected with the viewer, similar to Jack’s connection to Dora or Mildred’s connection to the characters in The Family.
This faux intimacy creates a sense of credibility in the newscaster, establishing trust with viewers. This is how newscasters have become, in Calvert's words, “the voice of authority” for many adults. (Hear more from Calvert in the podcast above.)
These parasocial interactions impact human beings in both a cognitive and emotional way, Calvert says. It's in the overlap of the two that “feeling something” can become easily confused for “knowing something.” Parasocial relationships can help a person suspend disbelief, and engage more viscerally with worlds they see on television, in a film, or while playing a videogame.
But around age seven or eight, humans begin to develop a more concrete sense of what is real or fake. It’s during this crucial time that they start to understand that the cartoon, comic book, and videogame characters with whom they have been connecting are no more genuine than Santa, the Easter Bunny, or the Tooth Fairy.
The trick, Calvert says, is that while humans develop the capacity for such understanding of truth versus fiction, there remains an inexorable emotional connection to these characters—characters who once seemed so real. A healthy adult knows that Chunk from The Goonies and Ewoks were never real, but the fact that they were a part of the fan’s childhood very much is.
The Parasocial Network?
Adults know better than to believe they can impact the narrative of a film, television show or book, but what about parasocial interactions in the similarly virtual realm of the internet? Are parasocial interactions to blame for those who fervently believe they're actually friends with celebrities who have millions of Twitter followers or YouTube subscribers? Is it vestigial parasocial interactions that account for people who earnestly feel that their tweet or comment online might (or should) have a significant, direct impact on the world?
That’s a tougher question to answer.
Calvert and fellow researchers are only now delving into the longitudinal effects of potential parasocial interaction with Facebook and other kinds of social media. The platforms are simply too new to make any concrete determinations about how social media may affect users long-term.
In the meantime, Calvert suggests that a person who might feel encumbered by lingering parasocial ties might want to focus more on real-life connections, not Facebook friends. "People play footloose and fancy free with what a friend is and some people collect them thinking the more you have the more popular you are," Calvert says. "But does that mean you have a real relationship? Do they ever write something to you or directly address you?" Though this may be challenging for some, Calvert believes such focus is vital as we become even more distracted by our ubiquitous screens.
At some point, we all have to grow up.