Is Bieber Fever Hazardous to Mental Health?

Filed under: Tweens, Teens, Celeb Kids, Media, Opinions, Tween Culture, Teen Culture, Development: Tweens, Social & Emotional Growth: Tweens, Development: Teens, Social & Emotional Growth: Teens, New In Pop Culture, Celeb News & Interviews

Justin Bieber picture

Do you have Bieber fever? Credit: Chris Polk/KCA2010/Getty Images for KC

Parents of tweenage girls, Twitterers, trend-watchers-and the rest of the world, probably-know all about Justin Bieber, the 16-year-old pop sensation who appears to have sprung fully-formed from the Canadian heartland to take America by storm. And those with more than a passing interest and access to the Internet likely know that the teen star has been linked to the latest in a string of young women, the singer Selena Gomez, who is 18. Recently, the Web was aflutter over pictures of the two on a Caribbean vacation, apparently locking lips. Innocent fun, right? Free of consequences? Not when the "Beliebers" get you in their sights.

In fact, the combination of "Bieber fever" and Twitter has turned lethal -- at least verbally, as some fans have actually issued death threats targeted at Gomez. And while the anonymity of the Internet cloaks the age of these posters, they are likely young girls and adolescents. Take your pick of shocking posts:

• "@selenagomez I'll kiII you I swear on GOD!!!!"
• "@selenagomez stay away from Justin ped0phile, retard wait i'm gonna kiII ya in the night underneath your smelly bed"
• "@selenagomez whore cancer whore..like i'mm kiII myself cuz i saw you and Justin kissing well thankyou Selena thankyou now i'm kiIILing myself"

Death threats? Slurs? Suicidal language? Why would our children type these things? Sadly, it's another side-effect of the culture of the Web: Just like teens bully their peers even more viciously online than in real life because the consequences aren't immediately apparent, children and adolescents in the virtual world are quicker and more outrageous in their anger or despair when faced with a setback. The stream-of-consciousness spewing of raw feeling has, unfortunately, become accepted as a form of authenticity. As if the immediacy of the emotion somehow excuses the virulence of what's being expressed.

Which leads to a another disturbing question: How did our kids get so deeply invested in Justin Bieber's love life? Don't they know he doesn't sing just for them?

Girls today can get incredibly wrapped up in relationships that in reality are nothing but fiction. This is nothing new, of course -- mention Sinatra, Elvis, the Beatles, David Cassidy, Michael Jackson, New Kids on the Block, the Backstreet Boys, and any number of women of every age will recall a youthful infatuation bordering on obsession. And yet today it is different -- young fans have a much stronger illusion of access to their idols, who communicate "directly" to them on their smartphones and iPads via social media. A youngster could be forgiven for thinking that Justin Bieber is, in this virtual universe, reciprocating her affections.

This is just what Bieber's media machine is after. An astute reader of the Huffington Post points out that in some countries in Asia, like South Korea, male pop stars are forbidden from having public romantic relationships to preserve the fiction for their young female fans -- and thus pad the bottom line. This fiction can be dangerous -- sure enough, at a Bieber concert in Australia last year, a number of young fans were crushed in the rush to be near the stage and their virtual beau in the flesh. But the more pervasive danger is emotional -- as evidenced by the virulent outpouring following the Gomez flap. And it's especially worrying because these obsessions are less and less visible to parents.

The days of posters, magazines, and massive CD collections are gone, all disappeared inside the computer, or even the device in a kid's pocket. Endless calls that used to tie up the phone are now silent text messages. And with this increased access -- that Bieber has to his fans, that they have to him, that our children have to the wider community on the Web -- the harmless, if hysterical, crushes of the past now spur open talk of murder and suicide. Another HuffPo commenter makes light of the phenomenon -- in the '80s and early '90s, she writes, "we didn't have 'THE INTERNET,' we had AOL! It was way too slow for us to be totally outraged on the Internet." This joke contains a fairly substantial kernel of truth: The Web is not just a forum, a new method of communication; it amplifies raw emotions, passing rages, and their consequences.

Bieber's mother is reportedly upset with him about the pictures. We don't need to be angry with our kids, but we need to teach them that the rules they know to follow don't magically disappear when they're in front of a keyboard and a screen. We understand that these Beliebers on Twitter probably don't truly feel murderous or suicidal; they're indulging in adolescent exaggeration, and if we heard them say it, we would probably hear it that way. But these kinds of remarks read very differently in print -- you just can't tell online. And remember that when 18-year-old Tyler Clementi killed himself last year, following a heartless prank, he left this message on Facebook: "jumping off the gw bridge sorry."

Knowing the difference between real pain and teen exaggeration is key to monitoring our kids' emotional lives in this digital age, and the only way to do that is to know your child. Be tuned in to her moods; talk to her about her music and her crushes. You want to understand how powerful her interest is, gauge how emotionally involved she is, and know when she's suffering -- even if the object of her affections is someone she's never met. It's not easy; not a lot of parenting in the 2.0 world is. But this is her life. You want to be there for her, even if it seems too silly to be serious. A broken heart is a broken heart, even on the Web.

Alan Ravitz, MD, MS, is a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Child Mind Institute. For more on parenting adolescents, go to childmind.org, which offers advice and a wealth of information on childhood psychiatric and learning disorders.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.