Teenagers’ preferences and tastes greatly influence America’s cultural identity. The people teenagers look up to as their role models matter a great deal in determining the shape and substance of the next generation of churchgoers, consumers and citizens. A study conducted by Barna Group among a national sample of teenagers gives new insight into whom teens select as their role models and why those individuals captured their attention.
The nationwide sample of teenagers asked 13- to 17-year-olds to identify the person whom they admire most today as a role model, other than their parents. A follow-up question probed the reasons they define that person as a role model. (David Kinnaman, who directed the study, explained that parents were left out of the assessment because so many teenagers—particularly younger ones—have high regard for their parents or feel compelled to list their parents as role models. Previous research shows that mentioning parents is almost an automatic response for many.)
So who do teenagers name as their role models? Even while limiting the answers to non-parents, family members still comes out on top. The most commonly mentioned role model is a relative—37% of teens named a relation other than their parent as the person they admire most. This is typically a grandparent, but also includes sisters, brothers, cousins, aunts, and uncles.
After “family,” teens mention teachers and coaches (11%), friends (9%), and pastors or other religious leaders they know personally (6%).
Notice that a majority of teens indicated that the people they most admire and imitate are those with whom they maintain a personal connection, friendship, or interaction.
Beyond the realm of the people they know personally, entertainers (including musicians and actors) 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%).
The high-profile leaders most commonly named were President Obama (3%) and Jesus Christ (3%). Other “celebrities” mentioned by multiple teenagers in the study included entertainers Tyra Banks, Rob Dyrdrek, Lady Gaga, Demi Lovato, Paul McCartney, Taylor Swift, Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey. The only athletes who earned multiple mentions were LeBron James, Peyton Manning, Michael Phelps, Mike Tyson and David Wright. In the spiritual domain, besides Jesus, teens were most likely to admire Mahatma Gandhi and the Pope. Social and business leaders garnering teen attention included Walt Disney, Bill Gates, and Martin Luther King, Jr. The writers who captured the imagination of teens included Yumi Tamura (Japanese Manga artist) and Alan Moore (English comic book writer).
Respondents described a wide range of reasons why they named a particular role model. The most common rationale (26%) was the personality traits of that person (e.g., caring about others, being loving and polite, being courageous, and being fun were some of the characteristics mentioned most often). Another factor in teens’ thinking was finding someone to emulate (22%) or that the teen would like to “follow in the footsteps” of their chosen role model.
Encouragement is another reason for teens’ selections (11%), which included those who said the individual “helps me be a better person,” is someone who is “always there for me,” and is the person who is “most interested in my future.” Other reasons: the role model 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%). Although not listed often, some teens identified wealth (3%), self-sufficiency (1%), and fame (1%) as the reasons for preferring a specific leader or role model.
The study pointed out that relatives were most often esteemed because of goals accomplished, personality traits, and overcoming adversity, while friends were most highly regarded because of the encouragement and support they provide the teen. Faith leaders received recognition because of their strong spiritual convictions, their moral lifestyles, and because the teen hopes to pattern their lives like these leaders. Coaches and teachers also made the grade because teens hope to follow their lifestyles and because of the encouragement coaches and educators dole out.
Not surprisingly, entertainers and sports figures are recognized most often for their talent. However, the profiles of the two types of celebrities diverge from there. Entertainers earned teens’ attention not only with their humanitarian efforts but also with fashion and money. In contrast, sports stars scored points with teens based on their accomplishments as well as their ability to overcome adversity.
The most common reasons teens admired President Obama were his hard work and self-confidence. Jesus connects with teens because of his concern for others and being an example to follow.
What it Says
Kinnaman, who is president of the Barna Group, offered four insights about the current mindset of teenagers based on the findings:
1. For better and worse, teens are emulating the people they know best. More than two out of three teens identify people they know personally as their primary role model. Many parents and youthworkers fret about the role models of the next generation. Yet, one reason to remain hopeful about the development of young people is their reliance upon the people they know best: friends, relatives, teachers, pastors, and coaches. At the same time, that reality underscores the insistence of many parents that they influence the people with whom their child associates, in order to be sure that their kids are surrounded by people modeling positive values and life choices.
2. Teenagers’ role models reveal that teens want to get ahead, accomplish goals, overcome obstacles… and be encouraged along the way. For all the talk about the social consciousness of the next generation, their role models are rarely selected because of a person’s service or sacrifice for others. Young people, like most other Americans, choose their role models because those people are achievers and because they help teenagers feel better about themselves. None of these aspirations is necessarily misguided, but the focus tends to be uniquely American: on tasks and self, rather than on God and others.
3. Spirituality is only of modest concern to the aspirations of most teens. Teens rarely identified spiritual mentors. Moreover, few teens consider issues of faith, religion or morality when deciding whom they will try to emulate. Even among young Christians, their role models are virtually no different than other teenagers. (The only exception is an expected outcome: those teens actively involved in a church are slightly more likely to identify a spiritual or faith leader as one of their models.) While other Barna research shows that teens are active spiritually, that behavior generally does not influence the “who” and the “why” of teens’ role models.
4. Outside of their personal relationships, teen role models reflect a broadening mindset. The next generation selects its heroes from a wide spectrum of both people discovered through both the global stage and micro-niches. The menu of celebrities crosses multiple sectors, ranging from skateboarders and MTV hosts to international graphic novel artists, scholars, social innovators and historic leaders; from teen idols to celebrities who came of age in the 1960s. The eclectic nature of the role models they embrace is not new but the diversity of pools from which they choose those models is atypical. Their choices are substantially affected by media imagery and exposure.
About the Research
This report is based upon nationwide survey, conducted by Barna Group with random samples of teenagers, ages 13 to 17. The study, known as YouthPoll℠, is an annual tracking study, conducted online, using one of the nation’s only nationally representative online panels. The survey included interviews with 602 teens. The sample has a maximum margin of sampling error of ±4.1 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the sample to known population percentages in relation to demographic variables.
Barna Group (which includes its research division, the Barna Research Group) is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization that conducts primary research, produces media resources pertaining to spiritual development, and facilitates the healthy spiritual growth of leaders, children, families and Christian ministries. Located in Ventura, California, Barna has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
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© Barna Group 2011.
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