Teenagers lining bedroom walls with boy band posters, little girls swooning over Kim Kardashian's newest outfit, and boys memorizing their favorite baseball player's stats after every game can often be harmless admiration. Or, they could be signs of an obsessive compulsion that brings fandom to unhealthy psychological levels. Parents, meanwhile, struggle to toe the line between what is normal development and harmful derailment.
"Adults may find it puzzling, even irritating, but it's not trivial," child psychiatrist Dr. Alan Ravitz told the Child Mind Institute about this almost irrational adoration. "We call it 'child's play,' but it's actually part of the work necessary for healthy development."
Growing up is a time to establish psychological and emotional independence, however, too much focus on the lives of others can hinder a child from developing their individuality from within. The science of "celebrity worship syndrome" and "idolatry" is rife with convoluted perspectives, and many parents may not understand why children focus all their attention on celebrities — sometimes to the point of obsession, disrupting their social lives and school work.
What Degree of Idol Admiration Is Normal?
In 2008, psychologist Shira Gabriel from the University of Buffalo tried to quantify the influence of celebrity worship by measuring it through a three-part experiment. First, Gabriel recruited 348 college students, one-fifth of whom admitted to having a celebrity crush. She handed out questionnaires to establish each student's normal range of self-esteem, and subsequently had them spend five minutes writing an essay about their favorite celebrity. This was then followed by another self-esteem test.
It turned out that the students who scored the lowest on the first round of self-esteem tests scored much higher after they wrote about their favorite celebrities. Gabriel pointed out that a little admiration for a celebrity can be good for a person because it reinforces a feeling of community and belongingness — two crucial components of healthy childhood development. But too much can be harmful, she said. Stalking, extreme imitation, and isolating oneself from friends and family all have negative effects.
"We would never make the argument that these relationships can or should replace real relationships," Gabriel told Time. "Because people form bonds in their mind with their favorite celebrities, they are able to assimilate the celebrity's characteristics in themselves and feel better about themselves when they think about that celebrity. And that is something these individuals can't do in real relationships because their fear of rejection keeps them from getting close to people."
This in turn places celebrities on a pedestal and turns them into objects of consumption, rather than the humans they are. As Australian cultural studies professor Graeme Turner from the University of Queensland puts it: they are "familiar strangers." Turner says it was around 1914 when the first star personalities began to emerge from screen performances. Since then, there has been a steadily growing acceptance of idolizing celebrities. Prior to this time, stars were autonomous — their private lives remained shielded, distinctly their own, and did not mix with their public appearance. Today, this obsession fuels a $3 billion dollar industry comprised of tabloids, paparazzi photographs, exclusive interviews, and reality TV shows, all of which follow the life of celebrities outside of their work.
Idolatry can take hold of people in any age group; however, when it goes from being a healthy admiration to something more, it can become a mental illness known as celebrity worship syndrome. The fairly recent medical term was first coined by Dr. Lynn McCutcheon in the early 2000s, when Western society had become so fixated on celebrities' lives that it began to impact their own lives in negative ways.
Anxiety, depression, high stress levels, poor body image, isolation, and obsessive-compulsive behaviors: All of these have been linked to celebrity worship syndrome because the patient's energy is focused entirely on someone who may not even know who they are. Celebrity worship is a personality disorder that's been around for decades, but was only recently recognized as technology has advanced, allowing fans to create blogs, share information, and access a worldwide community of people with the same idols.
According to UK psychologists at the University of Leicester, an estimated 36 percent of people suffer from celebrity worship syndrome, and they predict the rates of unhealthy idolatry will continue to rise. Further clouding these issues is the fact that many athletes enjoy the same celebrity status. They become so influential in different aspects of young athletes' lives that it becomes difficult to discern between a healthy passion for the sport and something more.
Future of Fandom
In the end, people let the obsession consume them — something that may not come as much of a surprise considering the news is often inundated with celebrity stories. The combined exposure of screen time from television sets, computers, tablets, and cellphones has allowed fans to follow their idols' lives at a closer, virtual proximity. And in turn, this may have given birth to a newer, more disconcerting generation of idolatry.
"As kids individualize themselves from their parents, which is a natural part of development and growing up, they try to establish psychological and emotional independence," Ravitz said. "No matter the culture, they need somebody to look to, aside from their parents, for guidance and a model for becoming an adult. In our culture, this is often a sports figure, an actor, or a pop star."
Parents and adults are not immune to idolatry and can often be guilty of many of the same obsessive behavior as children. But as these children begin to grow up, clutching cellphones in their small hands, it will become increasingly important to implement positive, influential parenting techniques in order to create a healthy ripple effect over the long term. Parents can do this by encouraging their kids to get involved in school activities; they can provide feedback about their kids' strengths and positive qualities; or give them responsibilities at home. Suggesting a part-time job or volunteer work can also promote a sense of self-worth. Encouraging time with friends who don't share a similar celebrity crush and having conversations about the difference between fan behavior and more harmful admiration can also help.
Ultimately, it is these fundamental approaches that will lay the groundwork, and determine how society will raise its children to to balance idolatry with reality.