Can Celebrity Problems Affect Your Family?

It’s not easy living in a fishbowl, especially when you’ve been swimming in the public eye since you were born. Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen have literally grown up on our television screens. But perhaps the most important role they have unwittingly assumed during their glamorous careers is that of virtual sibling and example for millions of young girls.

Fresh faced and usually portrayed in their direct-to-home videos as having all the necessities of life—holidays in private jets, cars for birthday presents, and parents who are only too happy to open their wallets—it’s no wonder these twins have reached idol status among their adoring fan base.

But in June 2004, two things took place. First, the sisters turned 18, allowing them to be much more accessible and susceptible to negative media coverage… which led to the second event. Mary-Kate Olsen made headlines when she checked into a treatment facility for what her publicist called a “health-related issue.”

However, celebrity newsmongers dug further, with magazines People and US Weekly reporting the young actress was dealing with an eating disorder. Even worse, some publications lower down the tabloid food chain suggested drug abuse was also a factor— a claim fervently denied by the Olsen camp.

So why should you, as a parent, concern yourself with gossip about Mary-Kate? Because the revelation has had some far reaching ripples—even where I live, far away from Hollywood’s splash.

When I spoke to Dr. Patrick Keelan, a chartered psychologist with the Calgary Counseling Centre in Alberta Canada, he explained, “After news broke about Mary-Kate getting treatment, there was a significant increase in the number of clients coming to our agency requesting treatment for eating disorders.”

The doctor, who works in a city of about a million people, noted, “Specifically we saw a 60% increase over the same time last year.” The surprising connection was further confirmed by the fact most of the new clients were female and at the younger end of the age spectrum (15 to 35 years-old) that typically suffers from eating disorders.

This appears to be yet another piece of evidence showing how media affects audiences. As the bond between children and young stars can be especially powerful, the chances of mimicked behavior are greater.

Dr. Keelan sees the increase in young women asking for help as a positive step. “People tend to imitate and model what is on the media. Mary-Kate’s experience combats the overwhelmingly large amount of media attention that encourages eating disorders, such as messages promoting thinness, dieting, and ideal body images.” The mental health professional also points out that many popular diets indirectly promote eating disorders.

While the efforts of so many young girls to amend a potentially fatal habit is a silver lining, the dark cloud remains. What other media messages are our young people emulating?

How are they reacting when a celebrity is shown using cigarettes? For instance, the teen flick Saved!, is headed up bythetwo sympathetically portrayed heavy smokers.

What about the countless movies intended for adolescent audiences that depict alcohol consumption as a right of passage? That stereotype has been recently reinforced at both ends of the targeted demographic, from the campus drinking in The Prince & Me, to the fourteen-year-olds of Sleepover trying to boost their popularity by sneaking into a bar.

And whose examples do our children choose to follow in the war on drugs—those shown in the government sponsored advertisements or the star of the many movies where substance abuse is trivialized? Films such as The Perfect Score, 50 First Dates and How to Deal, all feature characters using illegal drugs without any serious consequences.

For the Olsen family going through this difficult circumstance, I hope the increased awareness of a serious problem will bring them some consolation (although an “eating disorder” has never officially been admitted to).

For the rest of us, the most important lesson we may learn is not to underestimate media’s potential influence. As we work with our children to help them find worthy role models, we may need to remind them that being a celebrity is not necessarily the same thing as being a hero.

More details about the movies mentioned in this post…