The Value of Fame – Kids and media

First published on HuffPost

“This is America, where everyone has the right to life, love and the pursuit of fame.”
— Ryan Seacrest, American Idol, 2010

In the new millennium, people face messages highlighting the significance of fame everywhere they look. Not only in reality television shows such as “Keeping up with the Kardashians” and “American Idol”, but also in popular fictional TV shows, even those targeted to children. After watching some of these shows with my then 9-year-old daughter, I grumbled about the drastic change in “values.” Worried that I was becoming one of those predictable adults who lament that things were much better in the past, I decided to test my hypothesis.

I conducted a study with Dr. Patricia Greenfield at the UCLA campus of the Children’s Digital Media Center@LA, which was published in Cyberpsychology last summer. We found that in 2007, fame was the number one value communicated to preteens on popular TV. In every other year, fame ranked towards the bottom of a list of 16 values, coming in at number 15 or 16. Interestingly enough, community feeling (to be part of a group) ranked number 11 in 2007, while in every other year it came in at number one or number two.

We next examined whether tweens were picking up on these messages, and that research was just published in Developmental Psychology. We wondered if the synergy between the fame-oriented content of popular TV shows and the opportunity to post online videos and status updates for “friends” and strangers created the perfect storm for a desire for fame. In our discussions, we asked preteens what they wanted in their future. Their number one choice? Fame.

“My friends and I are making a YouTube Channel… Our goal is to try and get a million subscribers.”

The above quote came from an 11-year-old boy who wasn’t interested in showcasing a talent — his only interest seemed to be in getting a huge number of YouTube subscribers. Given that these digital media invite you to broadcast yourself, share your life, and then hope for attention that is counted by number of views, likes, or comments, can you blame him?

These days, it’s easy to see the phenomenal success of teenagers who achieved fame, such as Justin Bieber, or infamy, such as Rebecca Black. Kids, already focused on popularity and status, crave the virtual audience that they see bring so much attention to others. And the inexperience to think that fame comes easily, without a connection to talent or hard work.

“First, I’m gonna take it seriously, play, um, travel basketball, and, um, I’m going (to) college for one year, see if I’m really good, and, I wanna be on a really bad team, so, I can be like the star.”

Anyone else see a flaw in this sixth grade boy’s logic? Of course, these kids will get older and realize fame is not that simple to achieve. But what will they have given up in the meantime? This same boy later told us he didn’t care about school. Psychological research has shown that a focus on extrinsic rewards, outside of oneself, can reduce achievement motivation. Fame may be the ultimate extrinsic reward.

In the 21st century, TV content socializes children more than at any other point in its history. Even though children today have a myriad of media choices, they still watch television an average of 4 1/2 hours a day. If the messages kids see on TV are about young people achieving great success and renown, it’s only natural for kids to start wanting this for themselves. Moreover with the rapid growth of digital media, children can now showcase themselves to an audience beyond their immediate community, using the tools at their fingertips to enact fame. Nevertheless, the pursuit of fame is embedded in the fabric of our society, in America — every person, no matter where they come from, is supposed to have the opportunity to become successful and achieve to their fullest extent. This is one of the strengths of our society, as long as it is connected to hard work, talent and persistence.

So, rather than throw up one’s hands and say “kids today,” parents can actively work towards helping children comprehend and navigate the messages embedded in television and social media.

First, model for your children hard work, effort and persistence. Teach them through your actions that success only comes from those who try, try and try again.

Second, watch shows with kids and narrate your values; you can even watch reality TV that demonstrate the incredibly difficult work and talent contestants must perform in order to impress the judges (e.g. Project Runway comes to mind).

And third, engage your children in some kind of community service or group activities. Even though many of our kids spend more time with media than they do with us (the latest estimates are nearly 8 hours a day), always remember that parents are still the most important influence in their lives.