A frantic mother of a 15-year-old girl in a local suburban neighborhood tells her therapist that her daughter has quit the cheerleading squad, no longer dreams of college and becoming a lawyer, and her childhood friends have been replaced with friends she has never met. Her daughter has been isolating, reading all the latest celebrity gossip magazines, and becoming more rebellious at home.
Clearly, her daughter is pulling away, which can be one of the hallmarks of addiction, depression, or an adolescent trying to form an identity. When you think of addiction, you think of drugs, alcohol, or even an eating disorder. But what about the newest addiction affecting teenagers: Celebrity Addiction? This phenomenon has nabbed one-third of Americans and is linked to depression, anxiety, body-image problems, and addiction.
In no way is this author comparing the ravages of substance abuse to celebrity worship, but it is important to look at today’s teenagers with a different set of eyes. According to recent studies, many adolescents believe that emulating the lifestyle of their favorite celebrity is one of the only ways to form an identity and if they don’t reach the same level of stardom, they will become “nobody.”
There is also a dramatic shift in the way teenagers perceive success. In fact, research reveals that teenagers would rather surround themselves with celebrities or become one, rather than becoming a more intelligent human being. In addition, it is showing that having these fantasy relationships with a celebrity stimulates the production of opioids, chemicals in our brain that make us feel better. It is no wonder we are raising a generation of adolescents, for example, who would rather become a famous actress like Paris Hilton rather than a presidential nominee like Hillary Clinton.
This type of value system was seen at the Grammy Awards a few years ago. You have to wonder what it means when musician Amy Whitehouse is singing “no, no, no”, refusing to go to rehab to deal with a drug addiction and becomes a huge Grammy winner. What does this tell our teenagers? It sends out the message that it is appealing to be in the throes of a drug addiction. Or what about Lindsay Lohan being the first story on the Today Show with regard to her jail sentencing for several probation violations related to her issues with alcohol? Does she deserve to be the first story on a major television network?
Teens not only mimic the clothes, jewelry, and cosmetics celebrities use, but now increasingly see addiction as glamorous. Joanne Barron, National Outreach Director for Insight Treatment Center for adolescents says, “Unfortunately, too often what we see or hear about celebrities has to do with a lifestyle of excess — smoking, drinking or drug use, constant parties, and sexually acting out.”
This is not necessarily new in popular culture. Many musicians and actors have died tragic deaths from addiction, and many more will die in the continuing drug epidemic. Musician Janis Joplin glamorized drugs in the 1960s and died at age 27 of a drug overdose. And what about Timothy Leary and his famous quote, “Turn on, tune in, drop out”? Last year we viewed a barrage of specials portraying the very disturbing life of Michael Jackson and Corey Haim. Their lives were viewed more times than true news-worthy stories.
Adolescence is often a time of soul searching and finding an identity. It can also be a very vulnerable and impressionable time. However, today’s identity formation has crossed the line. Teen idolization is even turning into a medical issue. Teens are undergoing surgery to have lips like Angelina Jolie and carving dimples in their chins to look like John Travolta. Has the media gone too far?
“Whether we like it or not, celebrities are role models for teens. For many years, we have seen the influence of pop culture on our youth. Ever since television and movies became mainstream in America, teens have tried to emulate the speech, dress, and behavior of their favorite celebrities,” says Barron.
Scientists have found a correlation with celebrity worship and depression and anxiety. Which comes first, the proverbial chicken or the egg, or does it matter? Does depression lead to addiction or does addiction lead to depression? The bottom line is there has been an epidemic of teenagers who believe they are entitled to become famous and will become famous during the course of their lives. Maybe mimicking the drug addictive behavior of celebrities is the closest thing they will ever come to being a celebrity or knowing one.
Of course, there are numerous causes of addiction, such as trauma, a genetic predisposition, peer pressure, or a divorce or significant loss in a loved one’s family. However, the media normalizing celebrity addiction by sensationalizing where the latest actor is going to rehab does not help in reducing the problem; it only reinforces it.
One of the other difficulties many adolescents face today is eating disorders. Television, Hollywood, magazines, and the Internet portray slender women much more often than the majority of women with normal body types. They then develop distorted images of what a body should be based on what the celebrities portray. “Once these idolized perceptions are accepted as truth, thought distortions may develop, which can lead adolescent girls into self-destructive behaviors, such as eating disorders, self-injurious behaviors, excessive exercising, and other destructive behaviors,” reports Buck Runyan, the COO of the Center for Discovery, an eating disorder treatment program.
How can we prevent our teens from idolizing these tragic figures of fantasy and deception? How can we reduce substance abuse and eating disorders among teens? Self-esteem is one of the buzz words of this century. Lack of self-esteem can increase the odds that your teen will look for numbing-out methods to suppress their discomfort, pain, and frustration during this time. When children are comfortable in their own skin, they can reach inward for well-being and strength, rather than becoming reliant on outside sources to dull their senses. Having an open dialogue with your teen without judgment or criticism allows your teen to feel more comfortable sharing issues, such as substance abuse, peer pressure, and sex with you. They will feel heard and understood, which will allow them to trust you with their deepest demons. Otherwise, they look for validation somewhere else, potentially joining groups or gangs where drugs and alcohol is the norm.
Another solution to this growing epidemic might be getting to know our neighbors more closely to feel part of a community, rather than having to look outside our neighborhoods for a sense of belonging. Creating deeper bonds within our own circles might alleviate the need to search outside for validation. Perhaps reducing the number of reality television shows on the air might diminish the problem. Reality television reinforces the idea that it is easy to become famous, and that we are entitled to this fame and fortune. Teens believe becoming famous is a cure-all for life’s challenges.
This pandemic of celebrity addiction is on the rise and needs to be squashed. Our society is in the midst of raising a generation of narcissists whose only sense of self is around entitlement and becoming famous. Healthy relationships will be replaced with illusory celebrity relationships that lack intimacy and real connections to others, and teens will continue to seek temporary relief from substance abuse and celebrity worship to ward off the pain that normal adolescence brings.