Parasocial Grooming & The Danger of Popular Online Personalities

By Katyanna Horvath-Joukes, G12

(TW: mentions of sexual assault)


How many kids have you known that wanted to feel grown up, that didn’t want to be considered children? I’ve known several — in fact, I was one. I was tired of being perceived and treated as someone who was helpless and stupid. These are the kinds of children that are especially in danger of parasocial grooming. I thank my 2014 Youtube algorithm for not recommending me a video from someone who wanted to take advantage of me. The term “Parasocial Audience Grooming” was first coined in Youtuber Korviday’s video on the subject. 

In the 1950s, psychologists noticed a new rising phenomenon: fans of popular television shows believed that they had real personal relationships with characters on the shows they enjoyed. These psychologists dubbed this phenomenon ‘Parasocial Relationships’ — essentially one-sided relationships. David Horton and R. Richard Wohl discussed “Mass communication and Para-Social Interaction” saying, “one of the striking characteristics of the new mass media is that they give the illusion of a face to face relationship with the performer. The persona offers above all a continuing relationship — something that is a regular and dependable event to be counted on, planned for and integrated into the daily routines of life. It is a relationship where the technical devices of the media themselves are exploited to create illusions of intimacy.”

This is the relationship between you and any Youtubers or social media influencers you follow, who you do not know personally. The performer is looking at a camera — but you feel as though they are looking directly at you. This is a one-sided dynamic, especially if you watch videos completely alone and in intimate spaces, such as the safety of your bed. It furthers a false intimacy you feel between you and the performer. You watch them as if they are in the same room as you, but they do not see how you react to what they say or do. You receive everything they send your way, and they receive nothing from you: a one-way relationship.  

As these parasocial relationships become increasingly normalised and an integral part of our lives, especially the lives of young children, we must ask ourselves: what is considered grooming? Must it be targeted at a specific individual? Due to platforms such as Youtube, perpetrators of parasocial grooming have the potential to groom hundreds of thousands of minors, and they don’t even have to deal with their objections, preferences and stipulations. 

You only need a one-way relationship in order to groom a child. In fact, it makes the job far easier. According to NSPCC.org.uk, child groomers do several things in order to create a relationship with the child and their family, for example, trying to gain trust from both the child and their parents by befriending the child. Furthermore, they may try to look for opportunities to spend time alone with the child, such as offering to babysit. Commonly, they will show sexualised pictures and pornography to the child as well as talk about sexual topics with them in order to familiarise and desensitise them to the idea of sexual intercourse. They may also engage in physical activities such as hugging and kissing the child even when the child doesn’t want it. Groomers often target and exploit children’s vulnerabilities, such as emotional neediness, isolation, neglect, chaotic homelife, or lack of parental oversight. The groomer then starts to fill this need, in order for the child to firstly: depend on them in order to fulfill this need, and secondly: in order to become an integral part of this child’s life. To reinforce the relationship with the child, groomers cultivate a sense of love and understanding for the child in a way that others, even their parents, cannot. 


“Parasocial audience grooming describes the grooming of an entire audience or category of that audience.“ (Korviday, 2020). Especially people who are young, impressionable, insecure: children — especially girls. It is not a stretch to see how content creators could have the same effect on their audience as child groomers do to their targets; they gain trust by befriending their viewers (even if it is only a one-sided, or para-social, relationship), they have easy access to the child alone, through Youtube — because it’s just a Youtube video? How bad could it be, right? Several online personalities have been known to normalise sexualising their audiences through videos. Some creators also  discuss their own vulnerabilities with their appearance that many children, especially girls, can relate to intimately. This would then make the children feel as though the creators had a deeper understanding of them as a person — even if they have never met. Flattery is noted to be one of the most basic strategies for child grooming, which is troubling as it is behaviour seen all across social media. That being said, not all influencers who compliment their audience are grooming them. But when compounded with all of the above, consider it a big red flag.

Power Dynamic Advantage

Due to the #MeToo movement that started in 2006 and gained real momentum in 2017, millions of people have come out with experiences concerning individuals who are popular, whether they be celebrities or influencers. Thanks to this, we are aware of just how often parasocial relationships are taken advantage of and abused. Here are just a few examples of hundreds that are available: celebrities such as Jerry Harris (took advantage of underaged boys) and Ansel Elgort (sexually assaulted a 17 year old girl). You also have influencers such as Tony Lopez (who sent explicitly sexual messages to tens of very young girls on social media, as well as being both sexist and homophobic) and James Jackson, more commonly known as Onision (who has been accusmed of grooming, manipulating and sexually abusing multiple women), however there is one person I want to talk about specifically: Shane Dawson, who has been on Youtube since 2008. That is 12 years worth of grooming and manipulating his audience.

“I would rape all of you.” he said while rating young female teen bodies, as if they were adults. He would ask his underaged fans to send him photos of themselves which he would then rate and sexualise in front of his camera and upload to Youtube for his thousands of other viewers to see. This desensitises them to the idea of older men thinking of them sexually, and normalises objectification in their eyes. Dawson asked a young girl to both sexualise and humiliate herself by asking her to twerk for him in a recorded video call which he then posted online. This promotes the ideals of pedophillia to thousands of people and in fact makes being sexualised by older men something to be achieved, as his viewers obviously iconise him. He kissed a 12 year old girl at a meet and greet when he was in his twenties, which once again promotes pedophillia and the idea that sexual attention from older men is something to be strived for. Finally, he created highly sexualised content that normalised pedophillia, sex and sexual topics to young children, for ten years.

Here is a story from an anonymous woman, who used to watch Shane’s videos, and how she feels they affected her as she grew older.

“When I found Shane I was probably 8 or 9 years old. I grew up in a pretty stable family, with parents who made me feel safe, if not a little invalidated at times, but that’s been addressed later in life. 

I’m now a 20 year old woman and am watching the clips being showcased in DeAngelo’s videos and I remember every clip. I remember those creepy vlogs with his cousins, and his racist jokes, the milly stuff. I remember seeing it and thinking it was funny and shocking and that’s what made people laugh. I would go to school and make Shane Dawson jokes and my friends would be upset by it after a while because they were vile jokes. But I was a 9 year old girl who felt special because I could watch these ‘adult’ videos and wanted to feel shocking and edgy like Shane. That was enough to make me wish Shane hadn’t come into my life, giving me tools to ostracize myself for a quick laugh, leaving me pretty isolated.

My high school life became pretty lonely because I was struggling to find common interests with people my age. So I went online and found a Youtube Twitch streamer whom I liked watching a lot! Through him, I met a man in his early 20s in California, he had about 300 subscribers but that was enough for me. For years we would Skype and I didn’t wanna get into what would happen in the calls. But I remember feeling so loved and special, and looking back on it I remember seeing myself as those girls Shane would kiss at cons and his little cousin who got attention. All I’m trying to say is I’m struggling to cope with the concept of parasocial grooming. I feel like if I hadn’t had felt it so funny and exciting to be sexualised by mature men I wouldn’t have ever thought of an older man that way. I feel like watching Shane made it acceptable to open myself up to men like him and it made the red flags feel funny and exciting.

I watched Shane as a kid and I feel like if I hadn’t I wouldn’t have been manipulated and abused in my teen years by older men online.”

There are hundreds of others coming out with similar stories to this one. This only goes to show how similar the effects of watching Shane Dawson content are to that of actual child grooming. Keep in mind that at the time, Shane had already had hundreds of thousands of subscribers. How many of them have been taken advantage of and manipulated because they watched Shane’s content when they were children?

It is horrific.

We must pressure people like this to retire from the internet. Their platforms and all their content should be permanently deleted in order to ensure that there is no possibility of influencing any other children. They should no longer be able to create and upload content to any given platform, and above all they should be unable to make money off of it. Finally, they should donate the money gained from the videos in question to funds for aiding victims of domestic violence, kidnapping and sexual abuse as they have aided in the susceptibility to these actions. They have done so much damage.

For more information on these subjects, please watch these two videos:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oes59qHzwoA (Parasocial grooming and Shane Dawson. Korviday, 19:09 minutes long)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x2WBythSGoQ (The exact moment Shane Dawson’s career ended: 12:37PM 06/30/20. Dangelowallace, 1:13:34 hours long)

I would highly recommend watching both.

Cover Image Courtesy of Psychology Today

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