What do celebrities mean to kids?
- By the time our kids are in middle school, they start to look to their peers for a sense of what’s socially acceptable or desirable
- Kids choose public personas as role models, but there are no guarantees that a star will stick to a lifestyle that kids can look up to—and that parents will approve of
- Studies show a direct link between role models, advertising, and the effect that both have on our kids’ behavior
Kids have always looked to celebrities as role models, and now that kids are immersed in the 24/7 media world at younger and younger ages, the effect is magnified exponentially. Everywhere kids turn, they see images and hear reports about their idols. And they’re often left alone to make sense of it all (or they try to figure out what’s happening with their fellow third graders, and the results aren’t pretty).
Media is one gigantic super-peer
By the time our kids are in middle school, they start to look to their peers for a sense of what’s socially acceptable or desirable. That’s not to say that parents don’t remain the primary influence in their kids’ lives. But the competition starts to get fierce at this age—which is entirely age appropriate. And when the media comes into play, all sorts of things can go awry. Studies repeatedly show that there’s a direct link between role models, advertising, and the effect that both have on our kids’ behavior. Take smoking, for example. Studies show that exposure to pro-tobacco marketing and media more than doubles the odds that kids will start smoking. And half of kids who start smoking do so, they say, because they saw someone they looked up to smoking in the movies.
Underestimating celebrity influence
We already know how advertising impacts teens—so why should we underestimate the influence of today’s young celebrities? Thanks to celebrity blogs and gossip sites, scandalous pics are leaked online, commented on, updated, and archived—and available to kids of all ages. And the media’s barrage of coverage around celebrity scandals further normalizes this type of behavior. Can this influence kids’ behavior? One out of every five teen girls now say that they’ve sent sexually revealing pictures of themselves through their mobile phones.
What can parents do?
- Grab the headlines, and make them teachable moments. If you’re watching a TV show and there’s a scene featuring teen drinking—or you see pictures all over the Internet of celebs smoking pot or getting arrested for drunk driving—check in with your kids. For young kids, see how much they understand. Grade schoolers get lots of really random information from their peers—so set the facts straight. For tweens, you can impart your values about what’s to come. And for teens, ask questions. For example, ask whether their peers are using alcohol, or whether they have any anxieties or questions about drinking. Take time to share your opinions—and expectations—about the issues.
- Use the power of consequences. Point out when a celebrity is suspended or loses endorsements as the result of questionable behavior. Establish consequences in advance in your own home. And tell your teens the facts—not all consequences involve being grounded. Explain that sometimes the consequences of scandal can be notoriety.
- Watch your messages. Be a good role model in front of your kids. Make sure that you don’t glamorize alcohol or drugs by sharing stories about any “wild days” in your past. If teens ask about your personal experiences, answer their questions, but don’t say more than you need to. They may look like they aren’t listening to you (after all, their rooms are still a mess), but they are.
- Have a media literacy moment. Point out that the media uses stars’ misbehavior to make money. The more people turn to Web sites and TV networks for pictures and gossip, the more money the companies behind the sites and channels make.
- Impart your values. Yes, it may sound old fashioned. But our kids need us to tell them what matters to us and why. That’s the essence of parenting. Face it: They spend more time with media than with you or in school. Equal the playing field. Speak up—often.