Why Child Stars Melt Down: Bieber's Character Split

The heady psychological implications of early fame
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Justin Bieber waves to fans as he leaves a jail after being released on bail in Miami. (Reuters)

The eggs! The drugs! The drunk-driving! The uncanny-valley Tweetdeck screenshots!

Why, Justin Bieber? How could you so rashly destroy our belieb in you?

“Why is one of the most affluent stars throwing eggs at his neighbor’s house?” asks Conan O’Brien.

“Cause he’ a “f*cking idiot,” Joel McHale responds.

Possibly, but that’s not the full story. The child-star meltdown is a trope: Lindsay Lohan went from portraying a set of precocious campers in 1998 to becoming synonymous with the word “tantrum.” Amanda Bynes has had her own share of psychological turmoil, some of which included “janky wigs.” For more examples, Buzzfeed helpfully provides a listicle of 16 Disney stars who have been arrested.

A closer look at the psychology of early acclaim helps explain some of these implosions. There aren’t that many studies of child stars—it would be tricky to corral them all into some university lab to fill out questionnaires—but psychologists who have studied the effects of young stardom say strict parental limits are key to preventing post-adolescent disasters.

"If the parents are able to keep every other aspect of the child's life controlled and normal and there are continued boundaries and rules, those are the kids that do well," psychologist Ginger Clark, an associate professor of clinical education at the University of Southern California, told USA Today’s Donna Freydkin. "If you don't have a really stable parental unit that's setting limits ahead of time, then the roles get flipped easily and the child becomes the parent. They're not ready for the responsibility. And you see kids spin out a little bit."

Childhood is about learning boundaries and figuring out how to cooperate, but famous youngsters are shuttled around by adults who tend to their every need. Meanwhile, the success of multi-million-dollar concerts and movies rests squarely on their performances. The stars are often aware of this loss of innocence even as they’re living through it—Bieber has a tendency to Instagram photos of himself as a child.

Screenshot: Instagram

"Childhood is about finding out who you are and being able to relate to others, and those things are harder to learn when you're famous. That amount of public scrutiny makes it hard on kids to do that. They can't mess up. So they have to adopt a very self-assured, precocious identity very quickly," New Jersey-based clinical psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore told Freydkin.

Many celebrities say fame dawned on them “overnight,” rather than gradually, and this is especially true for Bieber, who was discovered by a producer on YouTube in 2007 and quickly signed to a major label. In her research paper, “Ready for the Close-up: Celebrity experience and the phenomenology of fame,” psychologist Donna Rockwell writes that many stars feel a sudden crush of “isolation, mistrust, and lack of personal privacy … the person develops a kind of character-splitting between the ‘celebrity self’ and the ‘authentic self.’” After leaving jail this week, Bieber sat on the hood of a Cadillac and waved to his fans.

Reuters

Rockwell adds that actors and singers have described themselves as, “an animal in a cage; a toy in a shop window; a Barbie doll; a public façade; a clay figure; or, that guy on TV.”

Mara Wilson, who acted as a child in films like Mrs. Doubtfire, wrote a piece for the humor site Cracked earlier this year explaining why young notables often make headlines for behaving badly.

“[Acting] was generally a good experience,” she wrote, “but every day I'm glad I wasn't Olsen twins famous.”

Bieber, meanwhile, has the notoriety of an entire litter of Olsens.

At their worst, parents can foist fame on their children in pursuit of achievement by proxy. But Wilson writes that even well-meaning parents, along with the media, often fail to treat the young stars like children first and celebrities second. A red-carpet reporter allegedly once asked a 7-year-old Wilson what she thought of Hugh Grant’s recent arrest for prostitution.

Meanwhile, many stars amass accolades while they’re adorable pre-teens and then suffer a jarring loss of celebrity once they reach their more awkward teen years. Bieber was discovered when he was 13, and while he’s enjoyed fairly consistent renown ever since, at 20, he’s starting to age out of his fan base. And according to the theory of the hedonic treadmill, he’s unlikely to just sit quietly and enjoy his cash: People tend to adapt to having more money or status, so we never really reach a point of satisfaction.

Wilson also points out that most adolescents and young adults go through a rebellious phase. Unlike their peers, though, actors and singers can’t act out because their handlers profit from their squeaky-clean—or at least minimally reckless—images. So, they keep it all pent up until they're asking a Miami Beach police officer, "What the f*** did I do? Why did you stop me?"

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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