Family under the microscope Celebrities are disastrous role models for vulnerable children

It’s the season for the children to clamour on Saturday night to watch one or other of the reality TV “entertainment” talent shows, culminating in the Christmas final and anointment of yet another “star”. Is it harmless fun or should you be trying to get them to watch something more wholesome? Should you also be refusing to fork out for the celebritymagazines and other commercial exploitations of the modern idols who clutter our media?

The good news is that the studies suggest that most young people do not engage in celebrity worship. Three kinds have been identified. About 15% of young people have an “entertainment-social” interest, just chatting with friends about their celebrity and enjoying what they offer. This does not seem to do any harm, or be a sign of any.

The 5% who feel that they have an “intense-personal” relationship to the celebrity may see them as their soul-mate and have frequent unwanted thoughts about them that border on the compulsive. They are at heightened risk of depression and anxiety. In the case of mid-teenage girls, they are also more liable to be unhappy with their bodies (often idolising a woman with a “better” one).

The 2% with a “borderline-pathological” interest are liable to say they would spend several thousand pounds on a napkin or paper plate the celebrity used, or are willing to do something illegal if the celebrity told them to. This group are most likely to be seriously disturbed.

On the whole, celebrity worship seems to be more an effect of prior difficulties than a cause of them. Perhaps more significantly, a remarkable study of the narcissism of celebrities themselves strongly suggests that our role models are far from desirable as people for our children to emulate. Although done in America, the study almost certainly would apply here.

Full-blown narcissism is a state of “me-me-me” attention-seeking grandiosity. Feelings of worthlessness and invisibility are reversed and compensated for by exhibiting their opposite. The study measured narcissism in 200 celebrities, and in 200 young adults with MBAs. These results were compared with a nationally representative sample using the same questionnaire.

Sure enough, the celebrities were significantly more narcissistic than the MBAs and the general population. There were four kinds of celebrity included in the sample. The most narcissistic were the ones who had become famous through a reality TV show (particularly high on “exploitativeness” and “vanity”), next came comedians (highest on “exhibitionism” and “superiority”), then actors and, least of all, musicians.

Interestingly, the narcissism was not correlated with how long the celebrity had been famous, strongly suggesting that becoming famous was not making them narcissistic – it was already the case beforehand. The celebrities were significantly more narcissistic than the MBAs. These latter were chosen for comparison as a group known already to be that way inclined. Sure enough, in turn, the MBAs were significantly more narcissistic than the general population.

People who get to the top or into the public eye tend to be narcissists. It is most unfortunate that they are the very ones who the young are strongly encouraged and inclined to emulate. Watching them cavorting about on TV (or, indeed, being bossed about by MBAs at your workplace) is a disastrous role model for the vulnerable.

The sort of people who are ruthless, self-seeking and workaholic also tend to be desperate and lonely. If your child reads about their idols, they will have noticed how miserable or messy their lives often are. It can’t hurt to point this out.


Narcissism and celebrity study: Young, SM and Pinsky, D, 2006, Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 5, 463-71.