Don’t just blame the boys
Hot on the heels of Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber the boys of One Direction have hit the headlines with shocking tales of smoking drugs, adult relationships and erotic pictures, and using the ‘n-word’, chased by a phalanx of angry parents wanting to protect the innocence of their ‘tweenagers’ and crying that with all the wealth that comes from their fame and popularity should come responsibility. The same cries that went up about Miley and Justin.
But let’s take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Are the boys to blame for their behaviour and are they responsible for their young fans? Dare I answer both yes and no to both parts of that question?
In 2010 they were fresh faced teenagers at the start of a meteoric career in the entertainment industry. I find it hard to believe that none of them had experimented or come into contact with, or at least thought about, smoking, drinking, drugs or sex by that age, as innocent as they looked on X-Factor. It’s not for nothing fathers of teenage girls fear teenage boys, remembering their own youthful obsessions and intentions.
But four years have passed and today these boys have turned into young men in their early 20’s. Developmentally they are coming to the end of their adolescent years: years we know are about experimentation, breaking away from parental controls, testing new ideas and finding what will become your own adult identity. The influences that caused them and their peers to think about or try drugs, alcohol, smoking and sex four years ago have not gone away. At their age a proportion of their peers will be at university themselves experimenting with relationships, alcohol and drugs to varying degrees. The only difference is that the boys of One Direction have a lot more money to indulge in these activities than their peers.
Like it or not, their behaviour is within the bounds of normal for their age. That’s not to let them off the hook regarding their behaviour. It would be nice to think that in return for the fame and adulation, not to mention the money, they have received the boys of One Direction would feel a sense of responsibility towards their young fans. But although one of the learning curves in adolescence and early adulthood is in making decisions and taking responsibility for your choices, to be aware of the impact of your actions in the wider world, it’s a lesson that’s usually learned by experimentation and making mistakes!
I can fully appreciate the concerns of parents on the influences on their young children, their role is after all to protect and nurture these young lives. But is it realistic to throw all the blame at the boys of One Direction for being a bad influence?
Take a moment instead to look at how five hormonally and developmentally normal young men in their early 20’s have found themselves living in a time warp that presents them to the world as if they were still slightly naive 16 or 17 year olds.
What about the responsibility of the image makers behind stars such as Miley Cyrus, Justin Beiber and One Direction, artificially presenting young adults in an unnatural way. They take fresh faced youngsters, vulnerable in their youth, enthusiasm and idealism, and straightjacket them in the appearance of delayed development because it makes more money for everyone. And they have been doing it is as long as at least the history of movies: Shirley Temple and Judy Garland from the pre-war years, the Disney girls Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus alongside other child stars such as Macaulay Culkin, who is still referred to as a “former child star” at the age of 33. But the pop music industry has not been immune either. I personally recall my teenage discovery that the squeaky-clean non-smoking members of the 1970’s band “The Sweet” were smoking and taking drugs. It was an early lesson as I realised their whole image had been a media creation; including their music which was chosen for its commercial properties designed to draw the pounds from the pockets of their teen fan base rather than the “heavy metal” they reverted to when their earlier contract ended. The parents of today’s “tweenagers” no doubt have their own memories of bands or singers whose real lives behind the scenes turned out different to the media spin. There’s no reason to think it will be any different today.
So, are the boys of One Direction to blame for their behaviour and are they responsible for their young fans?
They are doing a job (entertainment) and they get well paid for it. They have a responsibility to do that job well and ‘earn’ their income. They have a responsibility to themselves to complete their normal development, grow up and take care of themselves.
Ideally they should have some thought for their young fans but there are many others they share that responsibility with: the lion’s share of responsibility and the blame for misleading the public should go to the management companies behind the bands, the ones who decide on the public image and promote it. Their decisions affect first the vulnerable young starlets who have a talent and are dazzled by the prospect of fame, tying them into contracts at a time in their lives when they should be breaking free and developing their own identity. They know their young starlets will ‘grow up’ and that the straightjacket can’t last. It’s happened so many times before that they already know that the young fans will be disappointed and hurt when the truth cracks through the media spin (aka lies). The high income may be relatively short term, four years so far in the case of One Direction, but it must be worth it. They know that One Direction (and others) will get over this: maybe they will apologise enough to seem contrite and keep the machine turning perhaps with a more grown up audience, maybe they’ll split and go on to separate careers. Either way, the public will forget and move on to love the next squeaky clean star(s) they are presented with. Which leads to the final area of responsibility.
As members of the public and parents we also have a responsibility for the young fans. Cyrus, Bieber and One Direction are not a modern phenomenon. But as a society we have short memories and don’t seem to learn the lessons; each time another young star breaks free of the commercially profitable straightjacket many react with shock and horror as if we too believed the media image. We should know better. And we should be telling those behind the deceit that their practices are unacceptable.
Further information on all the stars mentioned can be easily found with a simple internet search. Similarly there is also plenty of evidence online regarding brain development in late teens and early twenties, some of which can be found in the following links: