In the new Billie Eilish documentary “The World’s a Little Blurry,” 17-year-old Billie—now a global superstar herself—talks about the over-the-top crush she had on Justin Bieber just a few years earlier. Her obsession was so intense that she cried in her room for hours, to the point that her parents considered taking her to therapy. When Eilish actually meets her idol at the Coachella music festival, in a moment captured by the filmmakers, she is overcome with emotion and sobs in his arms.
Eilish got to spend time with the object of her adoration and even developed a friendship with him. But for most teenage fans, so-called celebrity worship syndrome can cause extreme distress and exacerbate mental health issues, without ever culminating in an actual connection. Moreover, the time and energy teens spend on their celebrity crush can keep them from engaging in real-life friendships and activities.
Idolizing celebrities isn’t new, of course—remember that classic 1960s footage of shrieking Beatles fans? But the internet and social media have taken celebrity worship culture to new levels by providing constant access to content about their favorite pop stars and movie stars. And because they’re scrolling celebrities’ “personal” social media feeds, fans can more easily get overly invested in their idols’ personal lives. The crowds of screaming, crying superfans depicted in the Billie Eilish documentary illustrate the heightened emotions celebrity worship can elicit. Moreover, teens may be at greater risk of developing celebrity worship syndrome during social isolation, as their obsession becomes a way to cope with loneliness and a lack of external stimulation.
What Is Celebrity Worship Syndrome?
Celebrity worship syndrome is defined as an obsessive-addictive disorder in which an individual becomes excessively focused on the details of a celebrity, typically a TV, movie, or pop star. The term “celebrity worship” was first coined by researchers Lynn E. McCutcheon and John Maltby. Their 2003 study, a clinical interpretation of the attitudes and behaviors associated with celebrity worship, used the Celebrity
Attitude Scale and the Revised Eysenck Personality Questionnaire to categorize celebrity worship syndrome.
The research team acknowledged that idolizing celebrities is a normal part of adolescent identity development. After all, just about everyone has a celebrity crush as a teen. It’s a way to safely experience what it means to have romantic and sexual feelings for someone, without having to deal with the ramifications of a real relationship. But when fandom crosses over into celebrity worship syndrome, the researchers found, it can be an indicator of a teen mental health issue.
The Three Types of Celebrity Worship
In the 2003 study, the team led by McCutcheon and Maltby identified three types of attitudes regarding celebrities, and three mental health profiles associated with these attitudes.
- Entertainment-Social: At the lowest level of celebrity worship, which the researchers called Entertainment-Social, were people who found it fun to follow their favorite stars and to talk about them with friends. This group’s personality profile was associated with extraversion, meaning they were more outgoing, lively, and optimistic.
- Intense-Personal: The intermediate level of celebrity worship, labeled Intense-Personal, was characterized by having intense and obsessive feelings about celebrities, such as believing that a particular pop star was their soulmate. This group exhibited personality traits associated with neuroticism, meaning they were more tense, moody, and emotional—like the young Billie in the Billie Eilish documentary. In a follow-up study, the researchers found that this level of celebrity worship was linked with poor mental health.
- Borderline-Pathological: Individuals who fit the highest level of celebrity worship, Borderline-Pathological, had extreme thoughts and fantasies regarding celebrities, such as being willing to spend thousands of dollars to buy a small personal item used by their idol. The researchers found that this level was associated with psychoticism traits—being impulsive, antisocial, and egocentric.
In addition, the researchers discovered that celebrity worship syndrome is not uncommon. In their study, about a third of participants, both adolescents and adults, scored on the Intense-Personal and Borderline-Pathological levels. Moreover, females are more likely than males to become obsessed with celebrities.
“Enthusiasm toward a famous person can be perceived as a continuum, ranging from healthy appreciation to an obsessive preoccupation with a celebrity that could interfere with several life aspects of a person, e.g., work- or education-related performance and interpersonal relationships.”
— Journal of Behavioral Addictions
The Positive and Negative Effects of Idolizing Celebrities
There’s no doubt that celebrities can serve as positive role models and inspiring examples of overcoming challenges and going on to achieve your dreams. Gay and trans teens in particular often benefit from encouraging examples of LGBTQ+ celebrities who achieved success after facing discrimination or struggles with self-worth.
However, excessive celebrity worship is associated with a wide range of mental health issues. Most likely these problems are not a result of celebrity worship syndrome—rather, experts believe that celebrity worship syndrome is more often a symptom or expression of existing mental health issues and tendencies. One study in college students found that participants with higher levels of celebrity worship also reported insecure attachments with their parents, suggesting that the obsessive behavior is a manifestation of underlying childhood trauma.
In addition, a teen’s constant focus on an imagined connection with a celebrity, and the time spent following their activities and social media feeds, means they spend less time having positive IRL experiences. Therefore, celebrity worship syndrome becomes a vicious circle, with the fixation taking over the teen’s life.
The Mental Health Implications of Celebrity Worship Syndrome
Celebrity obsession, in turn, exacerbates these psychological problems. Hence, research shows that celebrity worship syndrome is associated with:
- Symptoms of depression and anxiety
- Lower levels of critical thinking and other cognitive abilities
- Impaired social skills, e.g., attachment to peers
- Problematic Internet use
- Maladaptive daydreaming, defined as extensive fantasy activity that replaces interaction with other people and/or interferes with work, school, or relationships
- Desire for fame, which is often linked with a lack of self-acceptance
- Compulsive buying and materialism
- Difficulties with romantic relationships
- Poor interpersonal boundaries
- Being more prone to narcissism
- Higher risk of addictive and criminal behaviors.
In addition, teen body image is another area in which the negative effects of idolizing celebrities is evident. A follow-up study by McCutcheon and Maltby found that girls ages 14–16 who showed Intense-Personal levels of celebrity worship syndrome were more likely to have a poor body image. That’s no surprise, since teen girls spend much of their time on social media looking at highly curated images of celebrities, and comparing themselves unfavorably with celebrities’ “perfect” bodies. This social comparison can be extremely detrimental to teen body image. In fact, another study found that college students with high levels of celebrity worship were more likely to get cosmetic surgery.
Treatment for Celebrity Worship Syndrome
When a teen’s celebrity crush has escalated into celebrity worship syndrome, an underlying mental health condition may be the catalyst. Therefore, the first step is speaking with a mental healthcare professional to assess whether a teen is suffering from trauma, anxiety, depression, or another mood or co-occurring disorder. Subsequently, treatment may include therapy, an outpatient program, or residential treatment, depending on the diagnosis and severity of the issue. Evidence-based modalities, including both clinical and experiential approaches, are most effective in healing teen mental health issues. Contact us today to find out the options available for your loved one.
In addition, parents who are seeing signs that their teens are being drawn too far into the celebrity worship culture can support them to find other ways to invest their time and energy. By doing activities proven to boost well-being—such as spending time with friends and loves ones, physical exercise, being in nature, creative expression, and volunteering—teens learn how fulfilling it can be to create authentic IRL connections.
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