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Fame and fortune: the new focus of TV for kids

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"Every time I've entered, I fail to win. So I must have a really good chance this time!"

So says the Pirate Captain in the trailer for the children's animated film, "Pirates: Band of Misfits," arriving in theaters this month. He wants to be Pirate of the Year, for the glory and recognition of all his pirate peers.

But even from the trailer, it is easy to see he is not likely to win such an honor on merit. His cocky cluelessness is the crux of much hilarity. His desire for fame is not linked to any wily pirate skill.

The Pirate Captain is not alone. Desire for fame is increasingly present in the media landscape. In television, especially television geared toward the coveted pre-teenage demographic, many popular fictional characters are either already famous or actively seeking celebrity.

Researchers studying the phenomenon have noticed a parallel trend: as television shows depict fame as a value with increasing popularity, themes like community engagement are declining in prevalence. The change is obvious and abrupt, and comes in tandem with other research showing young people are increasingly focused on wealth and image.

The generation raised on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter looks up to people who attract an audience, fictional or otherwise. Some experts think the new television landscape, populated by celebrities in their own world and the outside one, is both reflecting and contributing to a larger shift in youth culture, where fame for fame's sake is the highest of aspirations, and success of the self is to be prized above all.

The rise of fame

Yalda Uhls, a former film executive and current doctoral student at the University of California Los Angeles, was watching television with her 9-year-old daughter not long ago when she noticed the trend: all of the fictional girls her daughter was watching were famous.

The Disney Channel juggernaut, "Hannah Montana," which debuted in 2006 and ran for four seasons, focuses on a teenage girl who is student by day and rock star by night. "Sonny With A Chance," another Disney offering, told the story from 2009-2011 of a teenage girl who snags a starring role on a comedy sketch show. Nickelodeon's "iCarly," on the air since 2007, features two teenage girls who launch a webcast that skyrockets them to fame. The stars of all three shows are regulars on the red carpet and in tabloids.

"I felt like (all the shows) were skewed toward this changed value system," Uhls said of the experience. She went to her colleague at the Children's Digital Media Center, Dr. Patricia Greenfield, to launch a project examining the phenomenon.

"We decided to look at the past as well as the present to see if there was a change," said Uhls.

She and Greenfield selected two popular television shows from a year in the past five decades — 1967, '77 '87 '97 and 2007. The year 1967, for example, was represented by "Andy Griffith" and "The Lucy Show." "Hannah Montana" and "American Idol" were selected for 2007. They crafted a survey asking participants to rate the importance of 17 different values the show's characters aspired to, among them "fame," "achievement," "image," "community feeling," and "benevolence."

Uhls and Greenfield's study, released last summer, found that as of 2007, fame ranked as the most popular value. In every decade studied before the 21st century, "community feeling," or feeling part of a group, was ranked either first or second. Before 2007, "fame" never got higher than 13 on the list. "Achievement" also jumped to number 2 that year.

Both researchers did a follow-up study in December, talking directly to tweens (age 9 to 12) the shows are targeted to. Twenty children were asked to write down one or two values that they thought were most important to their future, from a list of the most popular values from the last study: fame, benevolence, community feeling, achievement, financial success, self-acceptance, and image.

Eight of the twenty children, or 40 percent, listed fame as the top priority for their future, more than any other option.

What's more, said Uhls, the kids seemed to be interested in "fame for its own sake," rather than because they were interested in developing a particular skill. One girl described fame in a conversation with the study moderator as, "Um, fame, being famous to me means like the world kinda knows you, and you know, just like being on the red carpet, and with like cameras flashing."

The message many kids are receiving today, said Uhls, is that anyone can be famous, and at a very young age, with "no connection to any particular skill, or hard work."

Fame in the YouTube age

How did fame get so ingrained in the minds of young people so quickly? Uhls and others point to the digital revolution, and specifically the rise of social media.

"A lot of social media is really about a focus on the self," said Uhls. "The internet gives you access to this huge audience. So YouTube, for example, it even says 'you' in the name. It's all about how many people watch your (clip)."

Many of today's youngest and most visible celebrities, Justin Bieber and Rebecca Black included, catapulted to fame thanks to YouTube. And some of the popular tween shows, "iCarly" especially, use the notion of internet-as-platform as a central plot device, blurring the lines between attainable reality and fantasy.

Fame culture

The uptick in fame on television is both a portion and a mirror of a larger culture, according to Dr. Jean Twenge of San Diego State University. Twenge is the co-author of "The Narcissism Epidemic," a book examining the phenomenon.

According to Twenge and her collaborator, W. Keith Campbell, kids' interest in fame is just one example of a larger cultural trend that emphasizes the self and breeds narcissistic tendencies.

"Narcissists really want attention, they want to be the best, they want to be a winner, but they're not necessarily any more talented, any more smart, any more beautiful," said Twenge. "Their goal is to become famous even though they don't have anything they could become famous for."

Twenge has some hefty evidence to support her theory that narcissism is on the rise, and not just among tweens. She published a study last month examining the changes in life goals among young adults between 1966 and 2009. The Millenial generation, they found, "considered goals related to extrinsic values (money, image, fame) more important and those related to intrinsic values (self-acceptance, affiliation, community) less important."

Where parents come in

These generational trends, and their pervasiveness, present a conundrum for parents. No one sets out to breed a narcissist. But no parent plans to crush their children's dreams, or wants to discourage them from planning to live life big.

The fact that many narcissists, fictional and otherwise, are now on consistent display on television presents another debate: how much to expose children to the shows in the first place, or whether their pervasiveness is too big a battle to fight.

Rebecca Snow, a mother of four in Provo, Utah, said she has a policy against all Disney Channel productions. "I found those shows to be very materialistic and very sexist," she said. "Very early on we decided to eliminate that from our family culture."

Her first two daughters, she said, readily accepted their parents' cynicism about the value of the shows they disallowed. But Snow's third daughter, Annabelle, "is very interested in what's cool and what's not cool." Annabelle's ardent love for Justin Bieber filled Snow with dread, she said.

But her infatuation actually presented an opportunity for her to talk about fame in a more constructive way. "That gave us a platform for us to say … when you work really hard, you sharpen your talents … he didn't just arrive (at fame)."

Uhls also emphasizes discussing hard work with children, and watching their television alongside them. Not all television shows are created equal when it comes to presenting fame, she said. "If you're going to watch a reality show, try and watch one that reflects the work. The ones that show you behind-the-scenes hard work can teach kids."

Uhls also hopes parents will help to foster the 'community feeling' that has been largely lost in the television world. "I think being part of a group sort of teaches you it's not just about one person," she said.

"My daughter is on a volleyball team, and my son plays basketball." Both have learned not to hog the ball. "If there's one person trying to be a star, the team won't work."

On the Web: www.cdmc.ucla.edu

Email: lmarostica@desnews.com