Q. It seems that every famous young person has a criminal record, sexual history or some other form of scandal in their brief past. My husband and I are exasperated by people in the media and their irresponsible sponsors building up unworthy objects of attention. Who can our teenagers look up to as role models and how can we encourage them to emulate the right ones?
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A. People have a fascination with celebrities, and a particular fascination with their scandals. I agree that we seem to be in a particularly bleak period of heightened bad behavior, along with the glamorization of this behavior. So it’s not surprising you are concerned that this has an impact on teenagers.
Adolescents are in a time of identity formation, and when there is media attention and excitement around the bad behavior of supposed role models, it desensitizes them to the actual dangers and risks.
For example, studies show that the oversexualization of girls, which is heralded on magazine covers and TV shows, correlates with increased depression, eating disorders and low self-esteem. So this media attention does have real negative consequences.
I suggest you limit exposure as much as you can to these portrayals. And when they are unavoidable, add your value system to discussions about them. Make it clear to your kids that you don’t respect those young celebrities who are behaving in negative ways, driving drunk, partying until dawn, posing for explicit photos, etc.
But there are young people — not necessarily celebrities — who do behave well. They could be politicians, entrepreneurs, sports figures, book authors or people in your town doing some kind of public service. These people won’t be as in-your-face as the Paris Hilton and Britney Spears crowd, so you will have to seek out mentions of them, but there certainly are young people doing interesting and admirable things.
I think its particularly valuable to present role models who are not celebs. Sadly, recent polls show that if you ask teens today what they most want out of life ... they will say fame. This is a very concerning trend. What happened to great relationships? Love? To make a difference in the community? This is why it's important to discuss admiration for other idols like a Nobel Prize winner who changed the face of science or economics, an astronaut, an Olympian, a doctor. There are many Olympic men and women who are young and very exciting figures to be a role model.
In addition, there are a few celebs who are not on the path to self-destruction. Some of the kids' shows have teens who are portrayed as funny and smart with heart. For instance, Raven of "That's So Raven," Drake and Josh, the Jonas Brothers, iCarly. The sad fact remains that being a child celebrity is very difficult, and without a lot of parental supervision and effort to keep them out of the spotlight (which makes success harder), they are at risk for following the celebrity pack into high-risk behavior at a young age. So which of the current child stars will end up making a huge mistake is hard to know.
You should also discuss how it takes all kinds in this world. There are people who make mistakes and who learn from those mistakes, who are losing their battle with their inner demons, who will regret the long-lasting consequences of their actions. These are all-important messages for your growing teen.
Give your kids logical reasons for why they shouldn’t emulate bad behavior. Don’t merely condemn these celebrities, but point out consequences of their poor judgment. Show your kids articles about studies backing up your viewpoint, too. That way, your argument is stronger than merely “because I said so.”
Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: Positive role models for young people do exist. You just have to dig to find them.
Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to TODAY. Her latest book is “Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie.” She is also the author of “Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts,” which helps parents deal with preschoolers’ questions about sex and reproduction. Her first book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was published in 2004 by Riverhead Books. It is now available in a paperback version. For more information, you can visit her Web site, www.drgailsaltz.com.
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