I remember, as a child, watching the Jackson Five perform on television. Young Michael Jackson's stage presence, voice and talent were mesmerizing. Years later, as I watched his "Thriller" music video, a full-blown movie production with Hollywood special effects turning Michael into a monster, it was clear to me that his persona was very different from the earlier child sensation belting out puppy love lyrics to bubblegum rock.
He seemed to have it all—fame, money, adoring fans. We also know a little of the other Michael Jackson—strange disfigurement, broken marriages and self-destructive behavior. Whether it was his performing genius or bizarre lifestyle, love him or hate him, the public could not get enough. He remains very popular well after his untimely death in June 2009.
Michael Jackson was both messenger and victim of a celebrity culture defining the spirit of an age. People envy the fame and money of celebrities and imitate them as role models. At the grocery store checkout, people grab the latest celeb magazine to revel in their sexual exploits and bad-boy or bad-girl experimentation with drugs and alcohol.
Many hold them up as glimmering stars until they come crashing down in the latest Internet sex video scandal or announcement that they have just entered a rehab center. Fans worship celebrities until they become parodies of themselves, and then the media turns them into cartoon characters.
In reality, many celebrities live emotionally and spiritually destructive lives. With 24/7 media coverage and the need for young people to have role models, the celebrity lifestyle of glamour and thrills seems attractive to many children, teens and young adults.
A culture of narcissism
Drs. Drew Pinsky and Mark Young describe a societal trend towards narcissism in their book The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism Is Seducing America.
The term narcissism comes from ancient Greek mythology. The tale is of a handsome young man named Narcissus, who is so consumed by his own desires that he is unable to love others. Narcissus sees his own reflection in a pool of water and falls hopelessly and madly in love with himself. Of course, every time he tries to touch the watery image it dissolves. He eventually dies of a broken heart.
Pinsky, a TV personality himself who is better known as Dr. Drew, explains: "For the narcissist, the whole world is a mirror; life is spent in constant pursuit of a gratifying reflection, a beautiful self-image to stave off feelings of internal emptiness. The modern narcissist seeks those reflections in the pages of glossy magazines, and on the screens of their TVs and computers. The celebrity-media looking glass responds with images of a privileged life where participants are beautiful, charismatic, powerful and free to act as they choose.
"The mirror of celebrity reinforces every narcissist's belief that a world of constant admiring attention is possible. All you need to do is to act sexy, play the diva, demand privileges, and party with abandon" (2009, p. 88).
This dysfunctional view of life leads to dangerous behavior. In spite of public emotional meltdowns, drug addiction and broken relationships, millions of young people see celebrities as quintessential images of the good life. Therefore, "all you need to do is act sexy, play the diva, demand privileges, and party with abandon" and you will find true happiness.
It's true that people have always been enamored with the lives of the rich and the famous, but never before has society been bombarded with an endless stream of information about celebrities.
Tabloids and tabloid TV, celebrity magazines and Internet sites, and even mainstream news to an unwarranted degree have become "mirrors" for celebrities living dysfunctional lives. And they have to continue perpetrating sordid behavior in order to maintain fame and thereby keep these mirrors in operation.
The drugs, raw sexuality, broken and cyclical relationships, bouts in rehab and emotional meltdowns are eagerly watched by impressionable young people—along with many who are not so young—who are led to believe that those moving images and glossy, airbrushed pictures reflect success and happiness. Desiring this for themselves, many of those watching end up modeling their own lives accordingly, becoming mirrors themselves of those they essentially idolize.
Hence "the mirror effect." Everyone, it seems, is narcissistically preoccupied with modeling himself or herself into the image of other narcissists who will do anything to maintain fame. People throughout society have become so in love with themselves that they are losing the ability to love others.
Helping children navigate the celebrity culture
Being mildly fascinated with celebrities, especially as a teen, is not necessarily harmful, but parents have to help their children navigate the traps of the dysfunctional celebrity culture.
The following are some symptoms your child may exhibit if he or she is adversely affected by the celebrity culture:
• Excessive fascination with celebrities.
• Obsession with wanting to dress or model the behavior of a celebrity.
• Dangerous behavior like drug or alcohol abuse.
• Acting out wrong behavior on the Internet.
As noted, not just young children or teens are entranced with celebrities. According to one poll, 51 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds said that being famous was their generation's most important or second most important life goal.
According to Dr. Drew, young people first begin to feed their curiosity and emotional needs with a constant diet of celebrity media, and then they begin to see the celebrity narcissistic, dysfunctional behavior as normal and desirable. The next step is mimicking the celebrity behavior in daily life. Eventually, the young person may begin to mirror the celebrity behavior by broadcasting his or her own wrong behavior on the Internet.
Countering the negative influences
You, as a parent, grandparent or concerned adult, must take positive steps in helping children develop a strong sense of healthy identity, a positive set of internal values and a sense of belonging to family and community.
The place to start is to help them understand that there is a Creator God. You must personally get involved in teaching your children the stories and messages of the Bible. When children understand the people of the Bible as real human beings, with feelings just like them, the biblical stories become personal. Positive biblical characters become heroes worth imitating.
The most powerful, life-changing message for any human being is the understanding that:
• He or she is made in the image of God.
• God loves him or her and has a purpose for his or her life.
• The problems in life are a result of people not living the way God intended them to live.
• There is real good and evil, and there are terrible consequences for choosing evil.
• Jesus Christ is the Savior who died for our sins and helps us to live as God directs.
You must also limit the time your children spend surfing the Internet, watching television and reading celebrity magazines. This may be a real battle at the beginning. The rags-to-fame-to-riches-to-partying-to-meltdown story has a strong appeal to young people who have bought into the idea that uninhibited spending of money, partying, sex with a myriad of glamorous people, and fame are the measures of success.
You are competing for your child's mind with media programmers who know how to manipulate that appeal. Here is just part of a casting call put out by MTV: "Do you long to strut into the world's most elite hotspots without a care in the world except how fabulous you are? Ever wish the velvet ropes didn't exclude you from the social circle of the A-list? How about the fantasy of jet setting around the world with the ultimate BFF [best friend forever], whose fierce style, charisma and star power is only matched by your own?" (quoted by Pinsky and Young, p. 135.)
Reality shows are designed to attract young people to the make-believe world of social stardom. It's like a mind drug, and withdrawal can be difficult. That is why, if you limit TV and Internet time without replacing it with other activities, you'll have bored and angry children.
The solutions to the pulls of the celebrity culture on children are developing healthy relationships with parents, positive experiences with personal growth and achievement, and knowing that there is something more important in life than the immediate gratification of selfish desires.
Here are some actions parents can take to help children avoid the dangers of imitating celebrity culture:
• Eat meals together and talk to each other.
• Play games with your children.
• Organize regular family experiences: Learn to play a musical instrument together, go camping or take up a hobby that fits the interests of your child.
• Get involved with service projects like volunteering your family to serve at a nursing home once a week.
• Have them participate in a church youth group that does service projects.
• Help them develop positive relationships with grandparents and other adults.
• Give them regular chores so that they develop a sense of accomplishment in work.
We have to help children learn that happiness is more than acting sexy, demanding privileges and partying with abandon.
A much better life is possible
We excuse professional athletes who use illegal steroids as long as they perform. When they can no longer thrill us with hitting the baseball out of the park, we turn on them in hypocritical condemnation. People like to hitch their wagons to the latest rising teenage singing star. When he or she predictably has a breakdown, they shake their heads in disgust.
At the same time, all too many young people see the celebrity lifestyle of fast money, easy sex and fame as the ultimate measure of success and happiness. The results are empty and many times tragic.
God has a purpose for you and your children. Real success is rooted in a strong sense of identity as a child of God and living by His rules of life. Ask God to come into your life and forgive you for living a way based on a wrong viewpoint of how life works. The teachings of Jesus Christ will show you the real, eternal ways to happiness and success. GN