Monday, June 19, 2006

Disney's Teen Idols and Their Young Worshipers

Parents and youth workers should read this article by Kirsten Scharnberg in yesterday's Chicago Tribune (free registration required) while it's still available. It describes the increase of celebrity obsession among children 15 and younger. The objects of this "worship" (the word is used frequently throughout) are the stars of kids' programs like Disney's "That's So Raven," "Lizzie McGuire," and "The Suite Life of Zach and Cody."

Ms. Scharnberg notes that the existence of overzealous fans is nothing new (she points to the David Cassidy craze in the days of "The Partridge Family"). What
is new is a media saturation (Cassidy was only on once a week compared to up to seven daily airings of "That's So Raven") and related cross-marketing strategies that lead many youngsters to believe that they have an actual relationship with their onscreen heroes and heroines.
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 [Hillary] 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."

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.
The following fact is sorrowful anytime but reading it on Father's Day, as I did, was especially sad: " 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."

A sidebar to the article lists tips for parents from the Center on Media and Child Health:

  1. Reduce media exposure
  2. Co-viewing
  3. Remove media from kids' bedrooms
  4. Recognize that your media use influences your children
  5. Instill critical viewing skills
  6. Encourage media production

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