The modern obsession with celebrity, fueled by TV series such as Fame Academy, Pop Idol and Big Brother, is putting children at risk of depression.
A leading psychologist will present new research into childhood depression at the British Psychological Society's annual conference in Bournemouth this week. Dr Helen Street, of the University of Western Australia in Perth, believes Big Brother, Pop Idol and other similar shows encourage children to believe that only fame and wealth will make them happy - and they are prone to depression when their dreams are dashed.
In a study of 402 children aged between nine and 12 in Western Australia, from a range of backgrounds, Street found that youngsters who were depressed were significantly more likely to believe that happiness was about being rich, popular or beautiful.
"Those who believed happiness could be achieved through enjoying the pursuit of their goals were more likely to be contented.
"The more children tend to be motivated by money, the more they will choose life goals to have money and popularity above all else. Children such as these are also most likely to suffer with depression," Street said.
"Conversely, happier children are far more likely to believe that happiness is about process and enjoying the ongoing pursuit of goals.
"These happier children are most likely to be motivated by a desire to form loving relationships and to have fun. They are likely to value personal development above all else as a top life goal."
Recent studies in the UK, the US and Australia have all shown rising levels of depression among children and young people. Street claims that children today are 10 times as likely to suffer from depression during their lifetime as their grandparents were.
The British Mental Health Foundation says one in five children and young people experience psychological problems at any one time, while a recent Australian report found 4% of boys and 3% of girls aged six to 12 had experienced depression in the previous 12 months.
Of the children interviewed by Street and her colleagues, 4.5% were clinically depressed, while 22.1% had depressive symptoms beyond what was considered normal.
"That included feeling miserable and tearful often, losing interest in other people, loss of energy or appetite, being irritable or dissatisfied with themselves and what is going on around them," Street said. "These are all classic symptoms of depression in adults, too."
Of the children who were rated the most positive and cheerful, only 17.7% said popularity was the key to happiness, compared with 31.6% of those rated most depressed. While 11.9% of the most mentally "healthy" children said having a lot of money was a key goal, this rose to 32% among those reporting symptoms of depression.
Street said: "When asked what their top goals were, children used to say they wanted to be a vet, train driver, or hairdresser. Now they say 'I want to be famous'. This is reinforced by media images such as those presented on instant pop star shows.
"It doesn't matter what skills you gain and there is no emphasis on how you get there. There is no focus on intimacy, commitment or how you relate to those immediately around you.
"There are no magic changes we can make to society to address this, and there is enormous media interest in celebrity status and fame at the moment," said Street.
Parents could help, though, by not reinforcing such attitudes and endeavoring to interpret media images to present children with more positive models of happiness.
"What our study shows is that parents should be aware that if they allow their children to think celebrity is everything, they could be leaving them vulnerable to depression."
Street's recent book for adults on relieving depression, Standing Without Shoes, was endorsed by the Dalai Lama.
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