This story first appeared on AboutKidsHealth.ca, the website for the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.
The house lights dim and the curtains draw open. Making his way to centre stage, a sea of adoring fans, overcome with excitement, emotion, and genuine adoration, celebrate his entrance with a collective cacophony of shrieks and roars. Love letters and marriage proposals are tossed and shouted from the audience below. Near pandemonium breaks out as he launches into his repertoire of hits.
A typical Justin Bieber show at a big city sports arena circa 2011? No. Instead, it’s a scene that aptly depicts a typical performance by Franz Liszt at the Italian Opera House in Berlin circa 1842. The 19th century Hungarian piano virtuoso has two ‘firsts’ to claim: first pop star, and the first to have the word ‘mania’ added as a suffix to his name.
Since Liszt, there have been many just like him: Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Leif Garrett, Menudo, and, now, Justin Bieber. Each in their time were cultural phenomena, capable of capturing imaginations and, inadvertently, breaking hearts.
For many, all it takes is a lyric or one song before they are hooked. Nine-year-old Dominique Greyvenstein is certainly no exception to this. She, along with millions of other young girls and some boys, is a “Belieber” —devout fan of Canadian pop sensation, Justin Bieber.
“I love him,” says Dominique. “I’m his number one fan.”
When she’s not listening to his records or watching his videos on TV, Dominique and her friends regularly meet to talk about one thing: Justin.
“We have our own Justin Bieber club,” she says. “But they don’t like him as much as I do.”
Recently, she reached the pinnacle of fandom by watching the star perform live. The evening, from what she can recall, rendered her “amazed” and “speechless.” Her mother, however, remained coherent enough to relay her daughter’s reaction.
“When I took Dominique to see the concert, it was a total surprise for her,” says Helena. “Just to see the excitement on her face when we got there was a priceless moment.”
But is it really? Is there a price to pay for this kind of devotion?
Idolatry and early adolescence
“As kids individualize themselves from their parents, which is a natural part of development and growing up, they try to establish psychological and emotional independence,” says Dr. Alan Ravitz. “No matter the culture, they need somebody to look to, aside from their parents, for guidance and a model for becoming an adult. In our culture, this is often a sports figure, an actor, or a pop star.”
Child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Child Mind Institute in New York City, Dr. Ravitz notes children have “rich” fantasy lives, and when fantasy is coupled with the drive for independence, the end result of seemingly irrational adoration is predictable.
“Adults may find it puzzling, even irritating, but it’s not trivial,” he explains. “We call it ‘child’s play,’ but it’s actually part of the work necessary for healthy development.”
This phenomenon has been the impetus behind many studies that have set out to understand why adolescents are prone to idolatry. One in particular, Adolescent Idolization of Pop Singers: Causes, Expressions, and Reliance, concluded that idolization is, in fact, a required element of youth culture: “Idolization of pop stars has unique characteristics for adolescents. It provides a basis for self-expression, the construction of self-identity, and the achievement of independence.”
Common? Yes. Harmless? Perhaps not.
Although she believes idolatry plays a “salient role” during adolescence, Dr. Lin Fang, an assistant professor in the faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto, cautions parents of adolescent children, especially girls, about its darker side.
“Research shows that girls who strongly idolize celebrities tend to buy into other aspects of commercial culture and may become overly materialistic,” she says. “The pressure coming from celebrities with perfect bodies may lead to an unrealistic body image and possibly nurture eating disorders, which can consume a child’s life.”
The potential harm associated with a child’s propensity to “obsess” over their chosen idol doesn’t end there.
“Idolizing and worshipping pop stars may also consume a child’s life to the point where they neglect real-life relationships and isolate themselves from friends,” she adds. “The entertainment pages of newspapers and websites are often filled with stories about celebrities who are in trouble with the law … children may think it is acceptable to get drunk and black out, drink and drive, or engage in violent behaviour.”
Practical advice for parents
Each case is different, according to Dr. Ravitz. But it’s important for parents to remember that the idolization of celebrities, especially pop stars, is to be expected.
“These sorts of crushes are necessary for, and directed by, a young person’s development,” he says. “By definition, they have nothing to do with parents—they are about getting away from parents. So don’t encourage, do keep track, and be prepared to intervene if your child has a major change in mood or behaviour.”
Intervening can be as simple as sitting down with your child and showing a genuine interest in the artists and music they like. Not only will this process provide a parent with the opportunity to get to know their child a little better, it may even strengthen a much needed bond at such a pivotal time in their child’s life.
Finally, parents need to weigh these sorts of pop obsessions against accepted behaviours in the home and in the culture we live in, says Dr. Ravitz. “I can say that if a young person becomes seriously despondent over a pop crush, she can sustain emotional damage. But if a child or teen becomes depressed, tries to hurt herself, or even tries to kill herself over a pop star, it’s likely because there is an underlying emotional problem that has more to do with genetics or environment than with, say, Justin Bieber,” he adds.
“Monitor your child. Know your child. And love your child. Even though this part of development is about separation, you are still a parent—it’s all about being there for your kid.”