Adolescent Psychology and the Media

Parenting has often been referred to as life’s most difficult job, and it seems as though in recent years, this job has become increasingly more rigorous. Technological developments in recent years have given rise to novel methods for children and adults to access information. Many of these advancements are aimed specifically at the youth culture, though are responsible for a gradual transformation of the entire culture at large. Adults however, often seem a step slow in recognizing the magnitude that these new innovations will have upon all of our lives and the lives of today’s children.

In the United States in general, but especially here in Los Angeles, the media is extremely influential in our lives. Today, given the meteoric rise in the accessibility of new technology, more information is currently available for public consumption than at any other time in history. Children and adolescents are especially impressionable and often crave what Heinz Kohut termed “selfobjects” in order to help cope with the psychological rigors of youth. This hunger for connection to someone or something that feels bigger than one’s self is a normal psychological process, however in today’s media dominated culture in Los Angeles, pre-teens and adolescents seem especially vulnerable to potentially destructive influences.

A 1995 study at the University of Maryland studied the phenomenon of the idealization of celebrities amongst several cohorts of teen and pre-teen groups including kids 10-11, 12-13, 14-15 and 16-17. The study produced results indicating that each group evidenced some degree of idolization and modeling behavior related to the media created celebrities that were included in the study. The highest degree of idolization and modeling behavior however was noted in the age group of 10-11 year olds. The study suggests that idolization is a developmentally appropriate response to being a child, and certainly this is as true today as it has ever been. This psychological phenomenon was termed ‘narcissistic idealism’ by Kohut who believed that adolescents engaged in this process in order to compensate for the narcissistic injury of the inevitable failure of one’s parents to live up to their child’s lofty needs and desires. According to Kohut, this compensatory process of idealization thus becomes necessary to fill the void left by our parent’s failures to be superhuman. An adolescent’s focus for new compensatory selfobjects quite naturally turns to the bigger than life personas of celebrities who are often anointed by society, especially here in Los Angeles, as god-like in nature.

This process of idolizing celebrities is certainly not specific to today’s culture. Television played a large role in America’s obsession with the Beatles in the 1960’s, creating an unprecedented wave of teenage idol worship at the time. Arguably there has since been no indication that a teenager’s hero worship of the Beatles in the 1960’s produced any negative psychological consequences, but the climate in today’s celebrity obsessed Los Angeles seems to present greater dangers. The ability of the internet to promulgate information that reaches millions instantly has created a scenario where adults and adolescents are inundated with the seductive pull of salacious celebrity gossip. One can now access this type of information without even intending to. A trip to seemingly any grocery or convenience store is culminated by the familiar sight of big, glossy magazines advertising the misbehavior of the newest young star or starlet. This information has always been accessible, though in the past it was often relegated to appear in the same publications that detailed the latest alien abduction or Elvis sighting. It seems that in today’s media driven culture, celebrity news is desired by the masses to such an extent that at least five different magazines, two entire cable channels and several more primetime television shows on major, public networks are all devoted to the goal of feeding the collective, insatiable hunger for news on celebrities. More often than not this news focuses on celebrities who have fallen from grace.

The widespread infectious nature of this public desire for celebrity seems all too acceptable here in Los Angeles where celebrities, paparazzi, and civilians breathe the same air and walk the same streets. Entertainment is a major aspect of the fabric of our culture which was built on the desire to be rich and famous and the need to be entertained. As a culture we devour and consume information in order to feed this need for constant entertainment which seems to be both supplied and created by the media. This hunger for entertainment seems to be most pronounced amongst adolescents who are driven toward the egocentric filling of selfobject needs. Those who engage in the compensatory narcissistic idealism that Kohut described seem most likely to be impacted by our media crazed culture in which one can easily discover what parties their favorite young celebrity attended last night, what they drank, ingested, inhaled or injected, and who they spent the night with. The celebrity party lifestyle is of course nothing new to the average person’s awareness, but the video, photos and detailed blogs of each celebrity’s own egocentric gratification of his or her own needs through sex, drugs and alcohol are novel. A potential danger of the normalization of this behavior is that celebrities today essentially live in a consequence-free environment, protected from real life consequences by their own aura, mystique and wealth. The average adolescent may feel invincible, but of course is not immune to the very real ramifications of the potential emulation of their favorite hero’s behavior. Children may not try everything they see on television, but 1995’s study at theUniversity of Maryland indicates that late latency aged children and early adolescents are most prone to engage in the behaviors normalized by their idols.

The potential impact of the idealization of today’s celebrities by today’s youth will only be identified years down the road, but one can now at least speculate that the burden in aiding adolescents in Los Angeles today to deal with these issues will fall upon both parents and therapists to face the massive, potentially negative influence of the media in our culture today.

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