Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Cheers to a Troubled Pop Star

Media figures exert a strong influence on children and teens.

In reading these two articles—one about the media glamorizing drinking through Rihanna’s pop song “Cheers,” and the other on Time magazine's website naming her one of the 100 most influential people in the world—I found myself reminded of a very serious reality that faces our teens and preteens every day: heavy immersion in the media almost certainly exposes him or her to extensive glamorization of drugs and alcohol.

As many studies have indicated, pervasive media exposure leads to earlier and heavier drinking as well as drug consumption by the average teen. This piece of scientific data seems an incontrovertible fact. Combine that with the reality that any product shrewdly marketed usually increases its sales. This certainly is true for alcoholic beverages—why else would beer makers spend millions every year producing and airing their eye-catching commercials on Super Bowl Sunday? Marketing works.

So how does the media industry bring about its seemingly magical effect on our teens? Through scientifically based marketing analyses, the industry reaches its audience subliminally. Teens see that beautiful people drink heavily at fun parties, so these two elements—beautiful people and alcohol—become linked in the teen’s mind. In the end, however, the attack reaches far beyond the subliminal level, as the media hire their own stable of well-trained experts to sell their products regardless of the human price.

The media perform this trick with Rihanna and alcohol through the phenomenon of the so-called "super peer." Social scientists first coined this term to describe how girls who matured early sexually turn to movies and TV to learn what is supposedly normal in the realm of sexuality. But the term suits the case of selling alcohol as well. In fact, Rihanna has merged the two in her role as super peer: the sexy woman who loves alcohol and raw partying. Who knows where the drinking may lead? The bedroom?

Why is the use of the super peer so effective? We live in a society saturated by pop culture, and our kids watch the media endlessly, searching for both entertainment and meaning. This is nothing new. In fact, the two experiences—being entertained and finding personal meaning—have been tightly linked in the human psyche for millenia. In ancient Greece, for instance, artists wove the two experiences together in tragic drama and epic poetry. In modern times, we speak in terms of the stimulation of certain pleasure centers in the brain. So when teens see attractive people like Rihanna having wild fun and drinking, all while they hear her high-energy lyrics, she is making drinking very, very attractive, in short, stupendously exciting. It’s hard to resist the urge to join in.

While some may scoff at this idea of Rihanna as super peer and say that she’s merely an entertainer, the teen who believes this is missing the point that entertaining is in itself a serious business. If we recognize that Rihanna the entertainer is in fact a product created by the media industry, it's clear that her value to the industry exists in her power to sell many other products. When I say products, I mean hit DVDs, sold-out rock concerts, and, in the case of her larger PR persona, a highly publicized lifestyle that her fans are meant to relish, find fascinating, daring, and provocative, and clamor to emulate themselves in one way or another. For it is not just her abusive relationship with her boyfriend that seems alluring; it's the whole package, including the out-of-control drinking and exuberant partying to which the young woman seems to invite us.

Read more about When the Media is the Parent at Dr. Drinka's website.