Pop Culture Role Models?

Every day I stand at the entrance to our church’s school and I greet the children and parents as they come in the door. As I stand there saying “good morning,” I am often struck by how many children are coming in with Hannah Montana backpacks, Twilight themed t-shirts or iCarly scarves and hats. Now, these items on their own aren’t dangerous or problematic; however, it does spark in me a concern shared by many parents.

Seeing how early and often children are exposed to celebrities, I worry about the role models they find in popular society. These teen celebrities can have excellent values and make good choices or they may not. We have all seen the negative examples in the media of teen actresses in rehab at 16 or the athlete who is accused of sexual assault. I pray for the well-being of those celebrities, but I also pray the teens I work with will not be drawn to follow in their footsteps.

The Barna Group recently did some interesting research about teenagers’ role models. Barna asked 13 through 17 year olds to identify the person they most admired as a role model, excluding their parents. They then followed up by asking for reasons why teens identified that person as their role model. Parents were excluded from the list because previous research showed that the majority of teens think very highly of their parents or feel compelled to list them as role models.

Yet, even when parents are left out of the equation, nearly two thirds of teens named the people closest to them, their friends and family, as their role models. 37% of teens named a person related to them, including grandparents, sisters, brothers, cousins, aunts, and uncles. Teachers and coaches come in at 11% while friends were listed at 9%. Pastors and other religious leaders teens knew personally were named 6% of the time. When teens named people who they did not know, entertainers were named by 6% of teens, followed by sports heroes (5%), political leaders (4%), faith leaders (4%), business leaders (1%), authors (1%), science and medical professionals (1%), other artists (1%), and members of the military (1%).

When asked why they chose that particular person as a role model a quarter of the teens listed personality traits such as caring about others, being loving and polite, courage, and being fun. 22% of teens said they were looking for someone to imitate and follow. Teens also said they chose role models based on who encouraged them to be a better person (11%), someone who accomplished his or her goals (13%), overcame adversity (9%), works hard (7%), is intelligent (7%), performs humanitarian effort and activism (6%), maintains strong faith (6%), has great talent (5%), and exudes self-confidence (1%).

This study gave me some much needed assurance that teens truly are looking first to those closest to them for good guidance and direction. When parents spend time and effort to surround their teens with people who model godly, positive values and choices, teens are watching. When youth leaders question if their influence could ever be as powerful an influence as our celebrity culture, we can see that teens are just as likely to look to their church’s leadership for role models as they are to look for the newest teen celebrity.

On the flip side, Barna did note that Christian teens picked virtually the same role models as non-Christian teens. It appears as though teens are not looking for spiritual role models as much as they are looking for role models who show them how to get ahead and accomplish goals for themselves. Teens very rarely considered faith when deciding who to look to for guidance. Perhaps that is a point at which we can open the discussion of who we look to for guidance. Our teens need to be looking towards people who will guide them spiritually as much as they do someone who will challenge them intellectually.

In the end, be encouraged as you model God pleasing lives to your teens. As you live honest lives showing your need for confession and filled with grace and forgiveness, you are making a difference in their lives. Thank you for being God’s light to them.

Published March 29, 2011

About the author

Julianna Shults is a DCE serving a Program Manager for LCMS Youth Ministry. With a BA in Psychology and a Masters in Community Development, Julianna served congregations in Florida and Chicago. She writes for the Youth E-Source, co-authored Relationships Count from CPH and co-hosts the podcast End Goals. Julianna is a self-proclaimed nerd, coffee snob and obsessive aunt.
View more from Julianna

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