By Alyson Mischel, MSW, LCSW
|Parasocial Interaction (PSI)|
Historically, social workers are trained to work with the populations most in need of assistance. They practice in prisons, with drug users, the severely mentally ill, batterers and domestic violence victims, and with HIV positive clients. But, increasingly, social workers have private practices and treat people who can afford to pay for traditional 50 minute psychotherapy sessions. Regardless of the brand of social work practiced, or the population served, social workers can rely on concepts of media psychology to serve their clients.
Most everyone watches television, listens to the radio, or reads some form of printed press on a daily basis. Media is the 21st century’s glue – it’s what connects us and makes a Wall Street banker able to relate to a struggling waiter in Los Angeles. As a consumer who may communicate with a therapist online, or have a therapist use television and film as case studies, it’s important to understand the following basic concepts of media psychology and how they relate to psychotherapy.
Telemedicine is the delivery of medical and/or psychological services at a distance with the use of technology like telephones or web-based systems. Treatment via telemedicine could involve two medical professionals talking over the telephone in real time about a case and also the use of satellite equipment allowing a doctor in California to evaluate, diagnose, and treat, a patient in Brazil.
The focus of telemedicine is largely consultative, which is why there is a growing trend toward online, synchronous psychotherapy. Some psychotherapists offer online and telephone counseling services for marriage, depression, parenting, family, and grief issues. The International Society for Mental Health Online, the National Association of Social Workers and the American Psychological Association have issued statements about telephone counseling. Understanding how telemedicine works is essential for consumers since psychotherapists increasing use e-mail and the Internet to provide services.
Cinematherapy is the use of film as a metaphor to bring about positive growth in psychotherapy clients. Watching television and films may be a catalyst for healing and change. Movies can be “windows” to the unconscious in the same way that dreams and fantasies are. Watching films allows clients to become consciously aware, resulting in gained insight and emotional release. Cinematherapy works best in the tradition of Systems Theory and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which are the treatment modalities used by most social workers. Films may help clients become aware of their irrational beliefs and poor coping mechanisms. Cinematherapy is another tool like stories, myths, and fables, that psychotherapists use to treat their clients.
Parasocial Interaction (PSI) occurs when a viewer responds to a media figure as though he or she were a real person. Many people feel like they “know” or are “friends” with the characters and hosts they see on television, and this may be therapeutic or harmful. NBC’s The Today Show calls itself “America’s First Family” and viewers may see the show’s hosts, Matt Lauer and Meredith Viera as trusted friends. Fans wait for hours in the cold outside the Rockefeller Center studio to see and interact with the hosts, who they refer to by the familiar first name. And, if a viewer ran into Matt or Meredith on the street in New York, they might approach them as they would an old friend, whereas to Matt and Meredith, the encounter would be one of stranger to stranger.
PSI is not about lonely people watching television and feeling a connection with a show host or character. With the rise of gossip Web sites and t-shirts proclaiming “Team Aniston” or “Team Jolie,” everyone experiences PSI to a certain degree. As a consumer, it’s important to know about PSI, because what you experience as sadness or unhappiness may just be…life. You may not drive a Mercedes, or own a mansion like a celebrity or television character, but that doesn’t mean your life isn’t full, meaningful, and relevant. Popular culture and the media often sell consumers a false bill of goods by presenting unattainable and unrealistic images. Maybe you have enough, are satisfied enough, and are loved enough. Perhaps you are just comparing yourself to the wrong group of people.
There are many more theories and concepts related to the study of media psychology. As a consumer, ask your therapist if they practice telemedicine and cinematherapy, and if they consider parasocial interaction as a possible underlying cause of depression and anxiety. Knowledge of media psychology principles will make you a better consumer, and will hold social workers accountable for keeping up with the constantly changing field of psychotherapy.
To read more from Alyson Mischel visit www.alysonmischel.com