Just one week remains until boy band One Direction begin their ‘On the Road Again’ tour in Australia. Many parents of teenage girls are probably anticipating a media frenzy and crowds of screaming adolescents like the kind of pandemonium on display when Justin Bieber appeared on Sunrise five years ago. He was greeted with shrieks, cries, love letters and posters declaring marriage proposals from infatuated young girls.
Preoccupations with celebrities are like a mark of transition into the teenage years, especially for those just entering puberty. Counselling psychologist Meredith Fuller ascertains this behaviour as a normal sign that young people are individualising themselves from their parents. Adolescents may anticipate having a relationship of their own, but as this can be unattainable during the teenage years they instead divert attention to celebrities. The commitment some teenagers show to their star crushes, like camping outside the hotel they’re staying at or purchasing every CD and merchandise with the celebrity’s name, are like a dress rehearsal for the demands of a real relationship.
Dr Alan Ravitz, an adolescent psychiatrist from the Child Mind Institute in New York, also appraises this behaviour as a natural spring forward in psychological and emotional independence. It’s commonplace for teenagers to gravitate less towards their parents and other authority figures. However, they still need role models and often turn to marketable celebrities who exude confidence and success.
Celebrity worship not just for girls
You may have heard the term ‘fangirling’, used to describe the screaming, crying, fainting and other expressions of excitement girls assume at the mere sight or thought of their idol. However, counselling psychologist Dr Carl Pickhardt cautions us to be equally mindful of celebrity worship among teenage boys. The reality is, girls enter puberty before boys so we often hear about their crushes earlier on. But as teenage boys explore their sexual identity and romantic interests, they too may become infatuated with celebrities who embody ideal partners.
Dr John Maltby and his researchers addressed this phenomenon extensively in his renowned 2003 study, ‘A Clinical Interpretation of Attitudes and Behaviours Associated with Celebrity Worship’. An association was found between celebrity worship (CW) and variables of poor mental health such as increased anxiety, depression, stress and low self-esteem. For this reason, we cannot assume our teenagers will outgrow their obsessions simply with age. Recent studies among undergraduate university students also revealed that celebrity worship underscored ongoing issues such as pressures to undergo cosmetic surgery, materialistic values and compulsive buying. That being said, the findings of Maltby’s research also highlighted that the link between pathological CW and poor body image was greatest for teens aged 14–16. Staying attuned to signs of mental health issues and helping teenagers develop more robust coping strategies are likely to prevent celebrity interests from spiralling out of control.
When interest becomes obsession
So what separates a healthy interest from an irrational obsession? To help us draw the fine line, Dr John Maltby and his research colleagues devised a Celebrity Worship Scale with three independent dimensions. The first is Entertainment-social which defines a harmless interest whereby teenagers simply enjoy watching, reading and talking about the celebrity to pass boredom. A typical attitude they might have to it is, “Learning about my favourite celebrity is a lot of fun”. These teenagers may daydream about their favourite celebrities but it doesn’t significantly interfere with their everyday functioning.
The interest has gone too far if your son or daughter manifests any characteristics of the following two levels:
- Intense-personal – describes teenagers who feel a special attachment to a celebrity and are disillusioned by the belief that another celebrity’s life events impact on them eg “I believe my favourite celebrity is my soul mate”.
- Borderline-pathological (also known as Celebrity Worship Syndrome or CWS) – describes uncontrollable fantasies and actions eg “I would commit a crime to meet my favourite celebrity”.
The following tips explore these continuums in greater detail to help you prevent your teenager’s attachment to their idols from reaching extreme heights.
How to recognise when your teenager is in an imaginary relationship
Does he/she experience difficulties eating, sleeping or concentrating in class due to their fantasies? Teenagers can be so immersed in imagined relationships, they have already planned in detail how they’ll meet their celebrity crush – and even break up with them. Celebrity worship can also be grounded on psychological absorption and addiction which is evident through actions such as checking Instagram or Twitter frequently to feel more ‘connected’ to their favourite celebrity.
Consequently, these teenagers may become heartbroken or even depressed if the stars they’ve messaged on social media platforms never reply. They could also react with intense jealousy and resentment; in 2012 singer Taylor Swift received numerous death threats from teenage girls when she was rumoured to be dating their celebrity crush Harry Styles.
Break the cycle of celebrity infatuation
According to Dr Lin Fang, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto, delving too deep into fantasy relationships can hamper teenagers’ motivation to foster real connections, even friendships, with others. This seems plausible when you can imagine how a young girl’s bond with a classmate may not measure up to the fantasy friendship she might have with seemingly flawless celebrities.
In this instance, it’s likely your teenager lacks stimulation or responsibilities and needs parental support as he or she seeks to become more proactive in their life. Taking up extracurricular activities or a part-time job and limiting the time they spend on social networking sites can be a useful distraction from celebrity gossip.
Have discussions with your teenager about how celebrity idols brand themselves and the tactics they use to attract more devoted fans. In our increasingly social networking-driven world, stars like Styles are almost as accessible to them as a real partner. Seeing a selfie of their idol in an Instagram feed, among school friends, with the caption “I love you” can give the exciting illusion that it’s a personal message when, in reality, the image has been sent to millions of followers.
Be wary of your teenager over-identifying with a celebrity’s accomplishments
In an interview with Radio.com surrounding her social media backlash, Iggy Azalea, a prominent breakthrough artist of 2014, recounted the bitter tweets she got from teenage girls and even 12-year-old ‘trolls’. Azalea was amused at the irony of comments putting down her achievements such as, “You suck! We have a number one!” She had a reality check for these girls: “You don’t have a number one. Your favourite artist does. But you’re 12, writing this from your mum’s computer.” This might come as a revelation to teenagers who emulate or empathise with the stars they worship and approximate their own potential successes to the accolades of their idols. For instance, a teenage boy might shy away from playing soccer with his friends but find solace in and rest upon the achievements of his favourite athlete. As their confidence is contingent on someone else’s, these teenagers may show anger and aggressively defend their favourite celebrity when others make critical remarks.
Be a role model and show them alternative influences
Dr Pickhardt recommends that you show interest in their favourite stars as this is often interpreted as a sign you care about the things they believe are important. Encourage these conversations with your teens and end them with words of reinforcement, for instance, “I really like talking to you about these things”. This is particularly important for teenagers who are less outspoken about their crushes.
Introducing adolescents to role models besides those in the entertainment industry can also be beneficial. As an example, entrepreneur Edwina Dunn founded the ‘What I See Project’ (whatiseeproject.com), an online, not-for-profit forum featuring inspiring video monologues from women with various occupations, from leading scientists to blacksmiths. As Dunn shared in the October 2014 edition of Psychologies magazine, her project shows young people that “there are more ways to be interesting than simply being in fashion or music”.
The same goes for boys whose self-esteem and understanding of girls (or other boys) can be equally distorted by music, movies and magazines like Men’s Health, featuring lean, muscular men with six-pack abs. A recent focus group study showed teenage boys often associate this appearance with having composure, confidence and social power. Encouraging conversations about how these traits are manifested by men in their day-to-day life can mediate the pressure to measure up to those who are famous.
Like Dunn, we can agree that there are a handful of celebrities who can empower teenagers. However, your child is more likely to genuinely identify with the insights of role models closer to home than they are to the celebrities in the public domain. These are the prime years for them to focus on self-enhancement and self-awareness. Bridge a gap between your teenager’s world and the world of celebrity lifestyles, and you will help progress them further towards real personal and academic growth.
About the author
Phuong Hua is studying a Bachelor of Psychology at Monash University. She is an online peer moderator for ReachOut Australia and works alongside mental health professionals to moderate forums on a range of youth-related topics. Phuong has also worked with high school students as a tutor and volunteer for Embrace Education. She hopes to combine her passion for psychology with writing to draw attention to issues of mental health and wellbeing and provide empowerment to people seeking a more fulfilling lifestyle.