Is Celebrity Culture Bad for Kids?
Experts say our national obsession promotes narcissism and entitlement.
by Helaine Olen
February 8, 2010
My ten-year-old son and I were walking past a local movie theatre the other day when we saw that they were screening The Miracle Worker, the 1962 film about Helen Keller. I began to tell him how Keller lost her sight and hearing as a toddler and how she was unable to communicate with the rest of the world until a very special teacher named Annie Sullivan reached out to her. I was about to add that despite her severe disabilities, she became a writer and champion of world peace when I was interrupted by a question I hear all too often these days: “Was Helen Keller famous?”
I tried to explain that wasn’t exactly why we remember her, but my son wasn’t interested. “But she was famous,” he kept saying, as though the world’s fawning attention was more important than her amazing story.
My son, you see, is obsessed with fame. He wants to be an actor when he grows up and thinks he needs an agent now, even though the closest he’s gotten to Hollywood is a kiddie Shakespeare class at our town’s recreation center. He’s annoyed that I won’t let him set up a Facebook page or post videos on YouTube like some of his friends. He loves Entertainment Weekly and would no doubt read TMZ – if he knew it existed.
He’s got plenty of company. Almost all his friends are capable of Talmudic-level discussions about the ups and downs of American Idol contestants, and many plan on careers as pop or sports stars.
In fact, many child psychologists and educators argue that, in the past decade, our national obsession with fame and celebrity is infecting children at younger ages. Many point the finger at our 24/7 media culture and the fact that celebrities are now marketed to children more than ever before. Nickelodeon has its Kids’ Choice Awards; the Discovery Channel has Endurance, a kid reality show; and Disney’s mega-hit Hannah Montana explicitly tells its preteen audiences that fame is good. “In some ways you are just like all your friends, but on stage you are a star,” sings Miley Cyrus in the opening credits.
Not surprisingly, children and teenagers increasingly tell pollsters that they aspire to the glamorous life. A British study found the top three career choices of British kids were pop star, sports star and actor – whereas 25 years ago it was teacher, businessman and doctor.
Recent stateside data is similar. When author Jake Halpern surveyed several hundred middle-schoolers in upstate New York for his book Fame Junkies: The Hidden Truths Behind America’s Favorite Addiction, a little under fifty percent said that when they grew up they would prefer to work as a personal assistant to a celebrity than be a university president, corporate CEO, Navy Seal or U.S. Senator. And when the Pew Research Center polled 18-25 year olds in 2007, they discovered the vast majority listed fortune and fame as the top two goals of members of their generation, as opposed to helping others or becoming leaders in the community.
“You can tell a culture by its heroes, and today we have a string of people who are celebrities simply because we live in a celebrity-driven culture,” says Madeline Levine, author of The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids.
Others point the finger at mom and dad. In his book The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism is Seducing America VH1’s celebrity addiction guru, Drew Pinsky, blames the fame epidemic on lackadaisical parenting. He argues that because of depression, alcohol and drug abuse, and focus on their careers, mothers don’t bond as well with their children as they did in the past, resulting in a generation of narcissistic children who think they deserve fame and fortune.
W. Keith Campbell, co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, however, cites studies that show the opposite. According to him, the most narcissistic children are the progeny of so-called helicopter parents: moms and dads who think their children are gifted – as well as the self-esteem movement in schools. When we give out awards and medals to all children, not just those who make significant scholastic or athletic achievements, argues Campbell, then we are saying they don’t need to work hard to do well and master a skill. “Telling kids they are special means ‘I am different and better than other people,'” he explains. “It makes them want attention.” Mothers don’t bond as well with their children as they did in the past, resulting in a generation of narcissistic children who think they deserve fame and fortune.
Nor do children see the hard work behind many celebrities, from the skills learned methodically over a period of many years (how many play dates do you think Tiger Woods got to have as a kid?) to the relentless cultivation and maintenance of their personal brands. “Being a celebrity is not something that happens over night, but kids don’t see that,” says Susan Bartell, a child therapist and author of The Top 50 Questions Kids Ask series. “They think all you have to do is dance in front of a mirror, hitchhike to Hollywood and you’ll be a star. They don’t see you have to be both hard-working and lucky, and still have tons of support and connections for it to happen.”
So what’s a parent to do? Levine says it’s important to explain that people are famous for their achievements, not simply for achieving fame. Getting children out of their own little worlds is also a good idea. Charity work or travel can provide perspective. And talk to children about current events and let them know the news consists of more than the latest doings of Justin, Miley and the Jonas Brothers. As for school, praise children for performing hard work, not simply for their innate talents or just for showing up.
Pinsky points out that you can also use the media for productive purposes. Instead of pretending that you don’t know about, say, Lindsay Lohan’s latest escapade, discuss it with your tween-aged children and make it clear why you don’t approve of her behavior.
And, finally, know it isn’t completely hopeless. “We have a culture where fame and narcissism is desirable, and I don’t see anything that is going to change that,” says Campbell. “But narcissism peaks with age – around 19-20 – and the fame desire should peak too.”
- Dr. Drew Pinksy: Doctor Drew wants to save your kids from celebrity culture.
- Jake Halpern: The author of Fame Junkies on our Britney-watching addiction.
- Po Bronson: What new science can teach us about parenting.
This article was written by Helaine Olen for Babble.com, the magazine and community for a new generation of parents.