The In crowd, gossip, selfies, likes, shares, followers, and other trappings of celebrity seem to be what young people want today, not something meaningful or making a positive difference. Why? And what can we do about it as parents and community leaders?
Young people, especially adolescents, seem more fascinated than ever before by celebrity, so much so that becoming a celebrity in one form or another has become a goal for many. What attracts people to celebrities is that they seem to be generally admired, even adored, and their influence over their fans seems sometimes to reach cult status. The rise of social media adds to this phenomenon because one’s success on these platforms is generally rated in terms of the quantity of followers (not their quality). Ironically, while a leading political figure might boast that he has 20 million followers on twitter, there are pop music stars with more than 80 million. The idea that success in life depends on how many people admire and “follow” you, may be causing irreparable damage to our children.
Stephanie was in a happy long-term relationship with the 17-year-old boy who she met on the internet. She said that “the guy” was really nice and charming. He was often complimenting her looks and personality. She spent hours talking with him on Skype. Sometimes, he asked her to show him her beautiful breasts or other parts of her body. He convinced her that it was appropriate because they had been dating for such a long time. Encouraged by the positive reinforcement, however, Stephanie took off her clothes and danced for him in front of the camera. She found out later that her performances were recorded. Her admirer, who it turned out was an older man residing in Belgium, threatened her that he would post the video on Facebook (“FB”) and send it out to her family and friends, if she didn’t do what he asked her to do. Stephanie started cutting herself. Police found the abuser who apparently had a long list of young victims, who had fallen into this same trap. Unfortunately, they were unable to do anything about the situation.
Positive feelings related to being appreciated and accepted increase our self-confidence because the more our choices and behaviors are praised, the more we want to repeat them. The need for this type of positive reinforcement may become addictive. When we receive praise, even clearly false praise, our brain secretes hormones such as serotonin and endorphins that make us feel good. When somebody tells us that we are beautiful or that we are great at some activity, we will want to adopt this opinion for ourselves, especially if there are other social or emotional advantages associated with this way of thinking. It is not surprising that children will surround themselves with those people who laugh at their jokes and accept or ignore their weaknesses. In other words, they feel loved and accepted and begin to believe in a vision of themselves that is better than one they might have created on their own. Instead of thinking that “people love me for who I am,” they believe that “people love me for who they say I am.” Unfortunately, high self-esteem built on external praise will not necessarily increase one’s self-confidence. In fact, those who rely on these artificial images may become potential victims. In their race to become this person that others have created for them, they are forced constantly to compare themselves with others and seek continuous feedback. Although outwardly they may exude success, importance and power, their self-image is very fragile and can be destroyed anytime by a single negative comment, so much so that a shrug of someone’s shoulders at a public gathering can throw them into despair. In other words, high self-esteem based on external input doesn’t guarantee high self-confidence. Real self-confidence is built internally through childhood experiences wherein the child tests himself and his limits through a process of socialization based on reciprocal rather than one-way interactions.
We now believe that crystallization of a person’s identity happens during the teen years. Fostering self-awareness at that time is crucial. At age 12, children usually start to compare themselves with others. They form beliefs about themselves based on the feedback they get from their peers. In this respect, some of the statistics are very concerning. Among high school students, over 70% of girls avoid attending school, when they feel bad about their looks or believe that they are not good enough in some way, and 75% of girls with low self-esteem engage in cutting, bullying, smoking, drinking, or suffer from eating disorders. More than 40% of boys regularly exercise, but only with the primary goal of getting stronger or looking better. In fact, 20% of teens will experience significant depression before they reach adulthood.
16-year-old Amada, like many other young people, spends all her day in front of the Internet. The positive and negative responses she receives from her Facebook friends alter her mood from extreme happiness to extreme despair. Amanda stopped attending her school because some girls following her on FB disliked her hairstyle. Amanda indicated that she knew this because she didn’t get any “likes” under the picture she posted. Sometime later, Amanda was involved in a fight with these girls in front of Tim Horton’s, a fight that was recorded by some boys who enjoyed watching the conflict and posted and shared it on FB. The video clip went viral on the Internet. Amanda now hates her life and talks about killing herself.
Parents who are experiencing difficulties with teenagers need to understand that by this time, they can have only a minimal impact on the way their children think or behave. It is too late to discipline them, tell them how to behave or shape their beliefs about themselves. These are skills that need to have been developed much earlier in life, because in early childhood, a child’s identity is more malleable and the child is more inclined to trust his parents and rely on them for guidance.
Parents and educators can build self-confidence in a child by accepting his or her strengths and weaknesses. If there is too much emphasis placed on results, on comparisons with other children, or the children are constantly forced to meet high-demands, the child will only experience high self-esteem when he is able to meet the expectations of his parents and teachers. These children will work even harder, constantly comparing themselves with others, and only feeling happy when they achieve the goals others have set for them, but also constantly living in fear of being defeated or rejected. They feel that they are only loved when they meet the expectations and goals set by others. Of course, at the other extreme, praising the child for minimal efforts, or setting low standards also creates low self-confidence. We can achieve much better outcomes when we compliment children for effort, progress, and attitude, or even more important, by teaching children, even at a early age, to set their own goals and succeed in fulfilling them.
When working with children and young adults I often ask them about their future plans. What strikes me is that many of them have unrealistic or idealistic expectations for their future. Girls often want to become a model or reality TV star, a celebrity and boys, a famous athlete. They are motivated by the rewards that seem to attach themselves to celebrity, like easy gain, luxury and fame. They live entirely within the fantasy that they can become whoever they want and that this will make them happy. This isn’t surprising as it has become something they hear every day from media, parents and teachers: “You can achieve anything you want to.” The real world, and real world disappointment, can be a very bitter experience for many of these children.
As they grow older, some of them are in denial and try to prove that the world didn’t recognize them appropriately. They are even likely to develop mental health issues like Narcissistic Personality Disorder where they are inclined to punish others for their own faults and imperfections. More seriously, some become confused, discouraged and suicidal. Their moods swing dramatically. One minute they are laughing and in another they explode with rage and are likely to be suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder. Finally, most of us will adjust to reality and become productive and hardworking individuals and some of us may even become famous and rich. These are people who develop their talents by pursuing goals they have set for themselves and by a willingness to discipline themselves and work hard. While everyone may need some favorable circumstances or a bit of luck, they are much more likely to be successful than those who are waiting for some stroke of good fortune, like playing a lottery. The people who tend to succeed strive for excellence not celebrity. This final distinction is very important because it seems that in society today we are also losing touch with the idea of purpose, the value that an individual pursues for his own sake, like the desire to do something well and benefit others.
When pursuing happiness if we focus on celebrity or success we can get trapped because the purpose of life is to be useful, honorable, productive, and make a positive difference, and it is these things that lead to happiness.
In the process of chasing the false idol of celebrity, people often sacrifice their own dignity and self-worth. They will do anything to become popular and adored. They will try to surround themselves with influential or famous people believing that another’s fame can reflect itself onto them. They are easily manipulated and taken advantage of because they want to believe, like Disney’s Pinocchio, in the quickest possible realization of their dreams. In fact, they will always lack self-respect, because they only yearn for something outside themselves or rather for something that is not really within them.
Our children will grow up to become adults who will often raise another generation just like themselves. Today, if we want to build a better future and a better society, we can do this by making certain of the mindset we are teaching our children. What we, as parents, educators, politicians, artists, professionals, teach young people today, will determine not only our world’s future, but also the future happiness and self-esteem of each child. The most successful child will understand that celebrity is a hollow goal, based entirely on the adulation of others and that they must set their own goals and then work throughout their lives to achieve them. It is that achievement that brings happiness.
Dr. Ewa J. Antczak, Psychologist
Martin Kabat, CEO at Canadian Cancer Society