Analysed from a Child and Adolescent Behavioural Development Perspective

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Young people are portrayed in the media by journalists, who do not always have the best interests or welfare of the young people as their primary concern. The portrayals often fail to consider that many of the sensational remarks they make in demonising the young people to whom they refer are in fact regular aspects of normal adolescent behavioural development.

The article to be analytically reviewed here “Why Disney’s girl stars can’t grow up” falls into this category, focussing mainly on the unfortunate and aberrant behaviours of Disney’s child stars.

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Demi Lovato is the protagonist in the article, which begins by commending the Actor for her self-awareness in referencing the difficulties experienced by prior girl-stars Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, before listing the afflictions that Lovato has since acquired, and discussing her coping mechanisms.

Although the article hints at a discussion as to who might be responsible for the welfare of Disney starlets, it is useful for the wider community of adolescents, as many of the afflictions mentioned in the article are experienced by a wide spectrum of young people, and so this review will focus on evaluating the behaviours in the context of an analysis of adolescent behaviour that could be expected of any young person.

Demi Lovato is reported by the article to have experienced numerous addictions such as opioid, alcohol and cocaine along with bulimia, self-harm, bipolar and bullying during her adolescence.

During her early schooling, Lovato suffered quite severe bullying at the hands of her fellow students. Whilst the article does not specify a reason for this, we can assume that there were not terribly many students in the category of ‘child starlet’ at her school. In proposing an intervention or management program to address bullying in schools, Olweus (1993) cites “changing schools” as the last option on the list of measures suggested. Considering that Lovato was withdrawn from school as a result of bullying, it is possible that the interventions in place at her school prior to this were insufficient to address this issue in her case. This draws our attention to the possibility that, despite our intentions of eradicating all bullying entirely, the management procedures we put in place can still fail some students. Having this occurrence take place at the formative stage in her life, the beginning of her adolescence, might be viewed by some as causal of her later difficulties with eating disorders, substance use, and anxiety, but we should be clear that with a single case the statistical sample is too small, so we are only to chalk this coincidence up as being correlative.

Groundwater-Smith et al. (2007) explores the concept of diversity and acceptance in the classroom. A point that may be of relevance to Lovato is that the policies and methods engaged by schools “…regulate, mediate and influence the patterns of similarity and difference between students.” In this way, it is possible that the school influenced the conditions which led to her being bullied, although we might hope that the school had intentions to prevent it.

Whilst one of the formative moments in Lovato’s adolescence was her removal from school, to be homeschooled, with bullying mentioned as a primary cause, her entry into the arena of Hollywood stardom may not have been an advisable path of recovery. In the article, she is quoted as saying “I wouldn’t start that young if I could do it over again.” (Sydney Morning Herald, 2018). Bland et. al. (2015) discuss Recovery at length, pointing out that it is a complex and involved process that takes place within a person’s environment, and that the lived experience of the person who has experienced the factors that have caused the condition is key to the process. They also point out that “It is not about controlling symptoms but about enabling the individual to live the life they want to live, with or without the symptoms of illness.” (Bland et al., 2015). This would mean that, for Lovato to move from a circumstance of withdrawing from school due to bullying, to engaging in a Hollywood career, would have required a high level of support from family, relatives, friends and other supporters within the community.

One of the disorders that Lovato and other starlets developed during their Hollywood careers with Disney was the eating disorder, bulimia. Gowers (2006) investigates the use of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) to treat eating disorders experienced by adolescents. The article mentions that although young people suffering bulimia nervosa maintain a healthy weight, they are prone to craving and binging as a manifestation of their obsession with food. In order to maintain their healthy weight, they then ‘purge’, vomiting up the food they have consumed. The obsession with body image, which is relevant to many if not most adolescents, is a “dread of fatness”. The ‘ideal’ female ‘Barbie’ figure is widely documented, and it is possible that this placed some pressure on the female Disney Actors to conform to this image.

Cravings for food as comfort from stressful situations, as we can imagine might arise at the pinnacle of a Hollywood career, must be common. Denny & Earle (2005) discuss a range of health factors, and how they affect different social classes. Interestingly, it is noted that although many diseases, including mental disorders and learning disability are more likely to affect low socioeconomic groups, people from higher socioeconomic sector of the population are cited as being more likely to experience obesity. The relevance of this to those acting in Hollywood is the combined availability of food resulting from their extreme wealth, and the pressure of their public visibility and obligation to their employer to maintain an image can result in eating disorders.

Caan (2002) stresses that “there is NO stereotypical ‘addict’”, and goes into some detail regarding the chemical and physiological basis of addiction. As evidenced by the number of Disney starlets experiencing difficulties with substance misuse, this can affect people indiscriminately of gender or social class.

In attempting to treat substance misuse issues, Hulse et al. (2004) draw the attention of the practitioner to the importance of a trusting relationship between health practitioner and patient, noting that if the patient feels the practitioner is being “judgemental” then they may withhold information that may be of relevance to their treatment. It is suggested that this can be avoided by the practitioner taking a supportive and understanding tone.

The US administration, within whose jurisdiction the Disney starlets live, has taken a zero tolerance approach to use of drugs. Dominelli (2009) identifies that British doctors prescribed heroin from the 1920’s to 1960’s, and states that this had a positive effect on reducing the extent of drug misuse. It would be interesting to see a comparison with the effects of early stardom in countries with a harm minimisation approach, to see if they are equally prone to substance misuse. Ryder et al. (2001) point out that use of drugs is widespread, and discuss the harm minimisation approach “is that it involves an attempt to ameliorate the adverse health, social or economic consequences of mood altering substances without necessarily requiring a reduction in the consumption of these substances.” And also pointing out that heroin was legally available in Australia until 1953.

If the Disney starlets are experiential children, then they will purely be dependent upon the apparatuses put in place to assist them in dealing with their environment, as they will be far from capable by intuition alone.

Whilst society as a whole would like our Disney Princesses to be feminine but non-sexualised, Freud has their sexual development early, and occuring in the limelight.

Adler on the other hand would contend that it is the drive of the starlet to compete with other teens for attention and dominance of the media platform, with their self esteem at stake.

Making a distinction between these children cum adults as to whether they are iniquitous or virtuous seems a trite exercise. While one may wonder as to their innocence in seeking to outcompete all others to reach the pinnacle of fame, yet we can also question their part in choosing to engage in the social evils of substance abuse. Surely, if in one instance we are giving them credit for having free will, then we also need to place responsibility for poor choices with them. If they have been led into the life of stardom by significant adult figures around them, be they parents, guardians, agents, or others, then a case could also be made that these role models and influencers are capable of misleading the young Talents down the treacherous path upon which they later find themselves.

Notions of good and evil are subjective and surely reveal more of the appraiser than the appraised. Of benefit to our view of the Disney starlets is the idea of the postmodern child who, in engaging with their world to the extent of their understanding derived from experience, is able to contribute to informed decision-making on their own behalf. It would be prudent for us to question whether this experience and understanding is sufficient to inform the decisions they are required to make, and whether the influential people guiding them are suitably qualified and equipped to give them the appropriate direction. These starlets are, after all, the role models followed by many millions of children and adolescents globally, and so the guidance they receive can be disseminated widely to their loyal fans.

The starlets could perhaps be viewed as the predecessors, in some way the canaries in the coal mine, for the wired generation. Their exposure to such severe influences and availability of such potent diversions heavily leveraging the impact of their decision-making. Compounding this, the availability of misleading reinforcement which can encourage potentially damaging behaviour could increase the likelihood of its occurrence. Punishments applied, such as media headlines denigrating the starlet if found to be indulging in socially stigmatised practices, may actually influence the starlet to further indulge.

The psychosocial aspect of development could be confusing for Disney starlets, as their lives are open to public view, and are the focus of global attention, whilst they are still only human, hence they may lack the ability to discern appropriate boundaries within their apparent environment.

Modern Western culture depends heavily, and increasingly, on the public personas of young people, feeding on them in one sense, whilst also elevating them to the status of being tomorrow’s leaders. If the past is an indicator of the future, subsequent generations will be increasingly ‘wired’ and thus exposed in terms of their public personas and also their personalities being open to scrutiny, and ridicule, by their peers. Moving forward these young people, regardless of where on the social tree they commence their journey, are going to require supportive guidance to assist them in making healthy and beneficial, informed choices. Crucial to their wellbeing will be an environment that is encouraging of healthy behaviours, rewarding these youths for behaviours that will benefit them in their lives and careers. Punishments for behaviours that are detrimental to the individual should be considered thoroughly, should be appropriate to context and guide young people toward more beneficial behaviours. Disney’s starlets are not models for young people when they are on-screen, but also when in their home lives. The more supportive we as a society can be of our starlets, be more beneficial those starlets will be able to be in providing a role model to our young people.

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