Adolescents are active media users. They do not simply soak up media content, but instead make sense of it from their own individual perspective and experience. For many adolescents, celebrities serve as social role models. This idea is linked with social comparison theory, in which people compare themselves to others and strive to achieve social rewards, like attention and popularity, by copying those who have achieved higher social status.
Adolescents use celebrities as social models to which they compare themselves. In fact, Giles (2004) claims that one of the most important psychological influences of media for adolescents is the forming of what he calls “parasocial” relationships with celebrities.
How much influence a celebrity has on an adolescent’s feelings, attitudes, and behaviors seem to depend on how attached that particular young person is to the culture of celebrity. Researchers (Maltby et al. 2005) have proposed a very useful way of understanding where a young fan is in terms of their ability to be influenced by celebrities. This could be useful in understanding which teens or tweens might be at risk for copying destructive celebrity behavior. In this framework, there are three levels of fandom.
1. The first level is Entertainment-Social, which is described as a low-level of celebrity worship. These types of fans enjoy hearing about and talking with friends about what a favorite celebrity has done. We might think of this as the casual fan and many children and adolescents fall into this category. They are interested in what their favorite celebrities are doing and tend to discuss them with friends, but that is about as far as their perceived relationship with the celebrity goes.
2. The second level of fandom is called Intense-Personal, and involves more intense and obsessive thinking about a celebrity and compulsive seeking of information even when the fan does not necessarily want to be focused on that celebrity. These are the fans that not only cover their rooms with images of their favorite celebrities, but also spend a fair amount of time thinking about and trying to learn more about them. These fans also begin to identify themselves with the celebrity, wanting to dress and behave in similar ways.
3. The last and most extreme form of celebrity worship is called Borderline-Pathological. This type of fandom involves being willing to spend large amounts of money to obtain celebrity items or to go to great difficulty to be near the celebrity.
This last type of celebrity worship has been associated with difficulties in mental well-being, such as anxiety and depression as well as with poor body image (Maltby et al, 2005) and disordered eating (Shorter, Brown, Quinton, & Hinton, 2008).
As adolescents are forming their own identity, their use of celebrities as comparison figures leads them to look to the celebrity for guidance on values, attitudes, and behaviors, including negative behaviors (Giles & Maltby, 2004; North, Sheridan, Maltby, & Gillett, 2007). Involvement with celebrities in general has been shown to influence adolescents in their purchasing behavior, attitudes, and behavioral choices (Chia & Poo, 2009).
The implications of this are clear, young people who are more likely to identify with celebrities put themselves at risk if the star that they choose to emulate is following a destructive pattern of behavior. Research tells us that when adolescents don’t see themselves as meeting the standard that their favorite celebrity has set, they can end up becoming depressed and developing disordered eating habits. Adolescents are especially likely to use celebrities as social models and copy the behaviors and attitudes that they see in the media. So, yes, media does matter.
Chia, S.C. & Poo, Y.L. (2009). Media, celebrities, and fans: An examination of adolescent media usage and involvement with entertainment culture. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, 86 (1), 23-44.
Giles, D.C. & Maltby, J. (2004). The role of media figures in adolescent development: relations between autonomy, attachment, and interest in celebrities. Personality and Individual Differences 36 (2004) 813–822.
Maltby, J., Giles, D.C., Barber, L., McCutcheon, L.E. (2005). Intense-personal celebrity worship and body image: Evidence of a link among female adolescents. British Journal of Healthy Psychology, 10, 17-32.
North, A.C., Sheridan, L., Maltby, J. & Gillett, R. (2007). Attributional style, self-esteem, and celebrity worship. Media Psychology, 9, 291-308.
Shorter, L., Brown, S.L., Quinton, S.J., & Hinton, L. (2008). Relationships between body-shape discrepancies with favored celebrities and disordered eating in young women. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 38 (5), pp. 1364–1377.