Is celebrity culture harming young people?

18 Mar 2018 |

In recent years what it means to be a celebrity has changed beyond all recognition, particularly as a result of social media. But, has it become worse than ever?

The Debate Chamber at the Global Education & Skills Forum 2018 argued just this.

The motion? This house believes that celebrity culture is harming young people. 

Arguments for the motion

  • Celebrity culture has changed for the worse

Sir Tony Little, Chief Academic Officer at GEMS Education, said that it wasn’t celebrity culture per se that was the problem, but how it has changed in recent years.

“Role models can be healthy, they enhance our personal lives and those of our community,” he argued.

“Just think of Stephen Hawking and how he focused our minds on his genius, but also on his resilience to overcome considerable odds.  

“But celebrity culture now is someone who gains mass recognition for being a caricature of themselves. It is the inflation of personal lives on a global scale, and is inherently linked to consumer culture.

His argument was that celebrity had become false: “It has become a commodity that is manufactured.”

  1. It’s making children unhappy

In addition, Sir Tony, the former Head Master of Eton College, said that he has seen a worrying rise in anxiety among young children as a direct result of celebrity culture.

“Among school children I have seen a spike in eating disorders, a spike in unhappiness because of their inability to match the images of perfection they see on social media, and a spike in students who will not accept that there has to be hard yards before anything meaningful is achieved.”

This, he added, leds to a loss of identity and self worth – and even suicide. It’s affected the vulnerable and poorly educated in particular.

Moreover, said Sir Tony’s debate partner, Asheesh Advani, President & CEO of JA Worldwide, young people spend much of their time “chasing likes” on social media, the consequence of which was an increase in depression among the young.

  1. Children can’t discriminate between good and bad role models

Sir Tony went on to argue that young people can’t seem to discriminate between the meaningful and the vacuous within celebrity culture.

“My job as a teacher is to help kids discriminate between right and wrong. But the world of culture admits no discrimination. It’s a grey sea of vacuity. 60% of kids in America believe they are going to be famous, only 1% envisage working in an office and 4% envisage working as teachers. It doesn’t matter what you do to achieve that fame.”

“Celebrity culture doesn’t cause young people to be fully well-rounded citizens,” he added.  

Dr Advani agreed, adding that children could not discriminate between good and bad role models.

“In the buffet table of life, they are going for the desserts,” he said, citing one of the most popular stars on YouTube, PewDiePie, as an example. “Some might say he is a role model but I would say not.” He also mentioned Logal Paul, an equally popular YouTube star, who regularly posts offensive and crass videos. 
“The reality is that, when my young kids go and see that on YouTube, it’s harmful,” he said.

The problem, he added, was that the economics of social media platforms were such that they are not driven by quality of content but by its popularity. “They need their Logan Pauls,” he said.

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Against

  • Today’s celebrities allow young people to be themselves

The other side of the Debate Chamber was getting it all wrong, believed Zayna Aston, Head of Communications and Public Affairs EMEA at YouTube.  

In her view,  we needn’t fear today’s celebrities, because they are actually enabling and empowering our youth.

“Social media channels have given rise to a plethora of positive role models, which allows a young person to find someone that they can identify with. This online celebrity culture has exposed our youth to a world beyond their own, they have role models that are diverse and authentic.”

“Compare this to the past,” she added, “when the only celebrities were film stars who were overwhelmingly American, white and male.”

Miss Aston’s message was that, unlike the golden Hollywood era, today we don’t celebrate people who are being someone else.

“Role models are diverse and representative regardless of gender or of sexuality. Online stars are not afraid of being weird or goofy,” she said.  

  1. Celebrities do a lot for good causes

Even proponents for the motion couldn’t deny that many celebrities use their status to promote good causes.  

Kim Kaupe argued that we are underestimating young people’s ability to discriminate, and that, ultimately, they don’t care what a celebrity does, but why they do it.

“In today’s world, we can get to know a lot about our celebrities, everything from their political persuasion to their sexual orientation.

The number one followed person on Instagram is Selena Gomez. She has been a Unicef ambassador, and has galvanised her fans to support the same cause.”

What we need is to take a glass half full approach, argued Miss Kaupe.

“We need to unpack how we frame celebrity. Instagram and Twitter are not going to go away, so how can we use the platforms to move messages forward in a direction we want?”

  1. A celebrity culture is nothing new

Ultimately, concluded Miss Kaupe, the notion of a celebrity culture is nothing new.

“We used to have a Roman Colosseum where there were popular fighters and everyone would follow them, desperate to get something that belonged to them.  

This is not a new issue, it’s a framing issue.”

Sir Tony had the last word:

“I really believe in young people. We just need to teach them critical thinking so that they can discern the culture for themselves.”

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