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Our star-struck kids: TV. Radio. Internet. They bombard our children with the latest news and gossip on their favorite celebrities. Experts question whether that's healthy.
[June 18, 2006]

Our star-struck kids: TV. Radio. Internet. They bombard our children with the latest news and gossip on their favorite celebrities. Experts question whether that's healthy.


(Chicago Tribune (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Jun. 18--HONOLULU -- Most people in the mosh pit were between the ages of 4 and 12. They had arrived at the concert hours early to sit on the hot concrete and save front-row spaces, completely ignoring the nearby cotton-candy stand and the hypnotic music emanating from the Fun House.



"We want Raven! We want Raven!" they began to chant, demanding the appearance of the central character in the Disney Channel's mega-hit "That's So Raven." Minutes later, Raven, the 20-year-old actress-singer phenom, launched into her high-energy 90-minute show, and the children began to sing along.

The scene this month at Hawaii's 50th State Fair was, on the surface, not so different from decades of concerts geared toward young, impressionable Americans. Elvis made teenage girls faint; the Beatles made them weep; posters of Britney Spears wallpapered boys' bedrooms from coast to coast.


But experts say much is remarkable today--in ways often troubling--about how youths respond to celebrity idols such as Hilary Duff and Miley Cyrus, names that may mean next to nothing to many adults but that are intimately familiar to most kids under 15.

Shaped by a Brangelina world, where people don overpriced T-shirts indicating whom they support in the Brad Pitt-Angelina Jolie-Jennifer Aniston love triangle, kids increasingly obsess over celebrities at younger ages, experts say.

They can worship their chosen stars nearly round-the-clock, with many youth-geared sitcoms aired nightly and offered for download onto iPods for mobile viewing. Fan clubs offer e-mail alerts that can be sent to children's cell phones should news about their favorite celebrity break. Elementary school kids log on to Web sites where debates center on issues such as whether Duff would ever accept a role that required nudity, whether heartthrob Zac Efron of the Disney TV movie "High School Musical" is gay, whether a Connecticut girl is truthful in her claims that she "made out with" Dylan Sprouse, one of the twin 13-year-olds who star in "The Suite Life of Zack and Cody."

Even the snarkiness that often accompanies celebrity gossip--an art form many adult gossip columnists take years to perfect--seems to come easily to school-age youngsters.

Over several hours on a recent school night, kids who identified themselves in one Internet chat room as being between 8 and 14 argued about who most adored Duff, the star of the Disney Channel's "Lizzie McGuire," a show no longer in production but still on the air.

"I love her more than any of you and she knows it too," bragged one girl whose screen name was Hil4Ever. "I have her personal e-mail and phone number but I wouldn't share it with any of you losers."

James Houran, a psychologist who has studied celebrity worship for years, cringes at such examples.

"When you reach the point where kids feel they have an intense personal connection with a celebrity, that's when they are beginning to cross into unhealthy obsession," he said. "Suddenly they are in a relationship with Hilary Duff when they don't know Hilary Duff."

Several years ago, while teaching at Southern Illinois University Medical School, Houran helped create the Celebrity Attitude Scale. He and several psychology and psychiatry colleagues used the scale to determine whether an individual had morphed from simply appreciating a celebrity's talents to becoming the kind of fanatic that inspired the term "fan."

Houran said he has seen scale results that show young kids who have completely crossed the line into celebrity fanaticism. Examples of attitudes that lead him to those findings include admissions that the respondent would be willing to break the law for their chosen star, that they think about the star constantly, that they believe the star is their best friend or soul mate.

"I often have joked that there is a celebrity stalker somewhere inside all of us," he said. "But in a 5-year-old?"

Celebrities as friends

But what makes kids' obsession with Dylan and Cole Sprouse so different from their parents' now-cooled lust for David Cassidy, the idol from "The Partridge Family"? The answers, experts say, can be summed up in two words: tangibility and saturation.

Cassidy was worshiped because he seemed an impossible-to-meet superstar. But with kids' favorite stars frequently offering live, interactive chat groups with their fans, today's children have come to think of perfect-stranger celebrities as close friends.

In worst-case scenarios, experts say, those are the kinds of delusions of intimacy that can fuel unhealthy celebrity worship; in most kids, however, they simply blur the line between fact and fantasy that confuses children in even the best of circumstances.

Kaylee Browder, 7, of Berwyn, watches "That's So Raven" virtually every night. When asked whether she feels about Raven the way she feels about girls in her suburban neighborhood or at school, Kaylee sighs.

"It's a lot the same," she said. "It feels like she's really my friend."

Kaylee is hardly a Raven fanatic; she jokingly says that sometimes the thing she most enjoys about the show is how much it annoys one of her older sisters, who hates it. But it's statements like that that concern Houran, the celebrity-obsession researcher.

"The more a child has invested in a relationship--be it real or not--when that goes away or doesn't come to fruition, you expect that child to have a much more emotional and negative reaction to that loss," he said.

Also, kids are estimated to get more than six hours of media exposure every day, according to Dr. Michael Rich, the director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children's Hospital Boston. Where "The Partridge Family" was on once a week, "That's So Raven" routinely airs up to seven times per day.

That kind of constant saturation is something the Disney Channel has honed. Take, for example, the network's "High School Musical." Described as "Romeo and Juliet" meets "Grease," the movie has been rebroadcast a dozen times since its debut Jan. 20 and has been seen by an extraordinary 36 million unduplicated viewers.

Seen in more than 87 million homes, the Disney Channel also has set the gold standard for cross-marketing. As "High School Musical" became a runaway success, the network went all out: during breaks in other Disney shows, videos of music from "High School Musical" aired. The soundtrack--published by Disney's record label--made history when one of its songs, "Breaking Free," became the fastest-rising single in the history of the Billboard charts, climbing 82 slots to No. 4.

There is a solid reason that Disney--and other networks such as Viacom's Nickelodeon--are working so hard to ensure young viewers are addicted to not just their shows but to their shows' stars. Marketing research indicates that the nation's 26 million children age 9 to 14 have a spending power of $39 billion to $59 billion, so when stars are found to be popular with kids, they are put in as many shows as possible.

Drake Bell and Josh Peck, for example, were cast members on Nickelodeon's "The Amanda Show." But when their popularity grew, Nickelodeon gave them their own show, "Drake & Josh."

Is there an unfilled need?

What worries many experts is that kids may be worshiping celebrities for reasons more disturbing than simply mirroring the society in which they live.

Linda Sonna, a psychologist who studies "tweens," kids who are not toddlers but not yet teens, says she has seen statistics that show the average parent spends only about 15 minutes a day talking with his or her kids, an estimate that does not include the time spent issuing orders and giving directions or specific guidance.

"Celebrity worship is not a new phenomenon," Sonna said. "What's new is the depth of emotion and energy these kids are putting into it at earlier and earlier ages. I worry that they are doing that in an effort to fill a deep sense of longing that exists somewhere in them."

Indeed, one study conducted in England shows that while youngsters a decade ago tended to describe parents or other family members as their heroes, today they are more likely to cite a teenage celebrity.

Kids, especially young ones, may not fully understand how different the celebrity they call their hero is from them.

Kendall Scruggs, 9, watches "That's So Raven" several nights a week. The South Loop girl says she feels very similar to her Hollywood idol even though Raven's TV character is nearly 18.

"That's only 9 years older than I am," she said.

Experts say there is good news in the burgeoning trend of celebrity worship among the very young. Where girls once almost exclusively idolized boys and young men, today they are devoting most of their attention and spending power toward female stars.

Already a cult favorite is "The Cheetah Girls," a TV movie starring Raven and three other actresses. Despite the fact the movie was by Disney, things weren't exactly Pollyanna among the four stars. "Catfights" were said to punctuate the filming earlier this year of the upcoming sequel--a juicy piece of dish much discussed among kids in entertainment chat rooms.

The stars aren't bad girls

Bickering aside, the stars idolized today are not the bad-girls types--like Spears and the Spice Girls--of a few years ago. Raven, a voluptuous young woman who has struggled with her weight, talks openly to girls about embracing their body type and not focusing too much on being thin.

Duff has vowed to turn down parts that require nudity. Cyrus, the 13-year-old star of the new show "Hannah Montana," talks of being best friends with her dad, country music singer Billy Ray Cyrus.

Emily Osment, who also stars in "Hannah Montana," feels all this celebrity adoration from the other side. Polite to a fault, she will acknowledge only that "it's a little odd sometimes" when strangers come up and say, "Oh, I've known you for so long."

But the 14-year-old, who is the sister of Haley Joel Osment, the star from "The Sixth Sense," finds it scary when people pretend to be her to liven up online chat rooms and bat around nasty celebrity gossip, either online or on the playground.

"It saddens me a little," she said during an interview, "that they're so young and debating things like that."

Regardless of any consequences of celebrity obsession, it is nearly impossible to reverse. And for some families, star watching has become a bond between parents and kids.

Kendall Scruggs' mom, Marilyn, admits to rushing out each week to buy magazines such as Us Weekly to keep current on the goings-on in Hollywood.

"When I'm done with them, Kendall looks through them for her favorite stars," Scruggs said.

Kendall often then clips pages about her favorite teen celebs and files them into a folder she keeps next to a mostly blank autograph book. She occasionally uses the information she finds to post questions or comments on various stars' Web sites. So far, no one has written back.

- - -

Tips for parents

REDUCE MEDIA EXPOSURE: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends only 1 to 2 hours of quality programming per day for children older than 2 and no screen media for kids younger than 2. Let your child help choose which shows to watch within a viewing "budget." In this way, kids learn to make active, informed media choices instead of just "seeing whatever is on."

CO-VIEWING: Watch what your kids are watching, visit the Web sites they're visiting. This allows for conversation about controversial topics and provides a chance for adults to help children understand and synthesize what they have seen in the context of a parent's perspective.

REMOVE MEDIA FROM KIDS' BEDROOMS: Research has shown that children who have television, video games or computers in their rooms get less sleep, read less and are more overweight.

RECOGNIZE THAT YOUR MEDIA USE INFLUENCES YOUR CHILDREN: Kids learn media use patterns from their parents, so use what you want them to use.

INSTILL CRITICAL VIEWING SKILLS: Help your kids learn to ask and answer five questions: Who created this message? What techniques are used to attract my attention? How might different people understand this message differently from me? What lifestyles, values and points of view are represented in or omitted from this message? Why was this message sent?

ENCOURAGE MEDIA PRODUCTION: Encourage your kids to use their imagination to invent plays, make collages from advertising or magazine images, take photographs or make videos to create the kinds of messages they would broadcast if they were in charge of the media.

SOURCE: Center on Media and Child Health

kscharnberg@tribune.com

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