“Oh my gosh. Look!”
“Oh, oh! It’s him.”
At the sound of the high-pitched squeals, I turned to see elementary-aged girls rushing toward shelves of Justin Bieber memorabilia in a music store.
“Oh my!” one cried as she hugged a heart-shaped Bieber pillow.
“Oh, oh, oh,” was all another could get out as she threw herself against a Bieber poster. Girls ran from display to display, pulling down stickers, sending key chains swaying, holding up T-shirts, almost knocking over a life-sized Bieber cut-out as their screams filled the music store.
Though my tween daughter and I had just emerged from watching “Never Say Never,” nothing had prepared me for Bieber fever in real life.
“Bieber fever,” according to the teen idol himself, “is an epidemic.” He goes on to clarify in Parade’s March 13, 2011 issue, “I’m just kidding. I’m not the one who made it up.” But he may very well be correct about the epidemic-like proportions of Bieber fever.
With Twitter followers of a little over 8.5 million the last time I checked, this Canadian-born 17-year-old is the latest heartthrob on the pop culture scene. His meteoric rise to fame over a mere three years, chronicled in “Never Say Never,” can be attributed to talent, sheer determination, hard work, and his ability to work social networking to its best. Add to that his good looks, romantic songs, and ability to make girls feel like they’re the only ones he’s singing to, make him an instant hit.
An eighth grader gushed, “He makes me feel like I know him personally because of the lyrics in his songs, even though I’ve never met him. That’s Bieber fever for you. It just happens…. It’s a love sickness…it’s the best thing ever.”
Recently locks of his hair auctioned on eBay for a little more than U.S. $40,000. Safely housed in an autographed, acrylic case, and watched over by a bodyguard, Bieber’s hair was on display in Miami. Fans posed with his locks after donating to the Japanese tsunami disaster victims.
Currently on a world tour, Bieber leaves frantic fans in his wake, chalking up more to his already 4 million plus fan-base. And his movie continues to make “Beliebers” out of many a dubious unBelieber.
Bieber Fever’s Impact on Faith
So what do Christian girls and parents think? Does Bieber fever impact faith in any way? KidGlue.com, a parenting site that helps “adults engage their kids in popular culture,” recently listed its “Top 10 Role Models for Your Kids 2011.” Beiber ranked third for “great image and responsibility” and being “scandal-free.” His fans certainly agree. “I think he's a great role model for tweens/teens,” a fifteen-year old stated.
Though KidGlue.com describes him as “openly Christian,” it’s precisely on this point that some Christian parents and teens/tweens whom I asked about Bieber fever disagree. Many found his movie to be rather “inspirational” than showing his faith.
A favorite Bieber song among Christian fans is “Pray.” “He believes there’s hope for the hurting people in the world and that God will answer his prayers and help them. It makes me want to do something to help, even if it’s saying a simple prayer,” a teen explained.
A mom of a teen Bieber fan added, “My first thought was that Bieber fever doesn't have any influence [on faith]. But then I realized it could have some effect…. I think his openness about his faith could encourage other youth to strengthen their own faith or, if they're not Christian, to consider being open to it.”
Others, however, beg to differ. One mom stated, “If he is promoting faith in Jesus, I'm unaware of it." Another said, “I’m not sure that he has any influence on faith. If anything, he could be a distraction.”
For some teens, the issue of his influence on their faith is a no-brainer: “Well, Justin Bieber and God are separate. I mean, I don't think of my faith when I think of Justin Bieber."
While it’s not for us to judge whether Bieber is a Christian or not, we do know his mother is a born-again believer. The movie portrays his team praying before each performance. According to Christian tweens, though Bieber’s songs deal with boy-girl relationships, they “aren’t over the top.” The lyrics don’t use curse words, nor do they communicate mistreating girls-“his music is pretty innocent.”
Bieber has taken a stand against abortion, and recently banned alcohol from his hotel room in Ireland. Yet recent images of him kissing Selena Gomez and photos of his 2010 shoot with Kim Kadarshian for Elle have given cause for questions. When asked about abstinence until marriage in Rolling Stone (February 16, 2011), Bieber’s answer only raised more questions: “I think you should just wait for the person you're...in love with.”
“That’s just not what the Bible teaches,” one upset mother commented.
Some parents view Bieber fever as “idol worship” and are adamant about not allowing their kids to participate in it. Others attribute Bieber fever to normal tween/teen crushes. A pastor’s wife whose daughter is an avid Bieber fan commented, “Justin Bieber is very cute and talented. I can see why girls would have a crush on him! My advice to girls is to have fun, but know that he's just a regular boy thrown into extraordinary circumstances.”
Another mom added, “Girls' hearts are naturally drawn to the latest cute boy/teen idol.” All parents agreed without doubt that if their girls engaged in obsessive behavior that would be dangerous, and cause concern.
As one teen said, “If you have an obsession with wanting to know what he is doing constantly and he becomes more important than God or going to church or anything then it’s a problem.”
Nancy Rue, best-selling author of over 100 books for tween girls and adults commented, “It's normal for a girl that age to start to think boys are cute, but to also be uncertain what to do about that. So she latches onto a boy who is absolutely unattainable and loves him with abandon, knowing she doesn't have to think of what to say or how to act or what to do if he likes her back. Our job as parents is to make sure she isn't worshipping Justin as an idol. If she can carry on a conversation about something else, if after a couple of months his posters come down and somebody else's go up – she is a normal, healthy child.”
Nicole O’Dell, popular author of Scenarios for Girls and host of Teen Talk Radio added, “Tweens want to identify. It's not even with Justin Bieber that they seek to identify, it's with the others they share that interest with. Identity needs to be reined in, though. It should be honed and polished at home, at church, and by God. Not from a concert stage or teen magazine.”
The bottom line is that whether an artist claims to be a Christian or not, parents and tweens/teens need to exercise caution in how they engage in popular culture. Teen sensations ebb and flow in today’s culture as we’ve seen with Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers.
What Can Parents Do?
Ephesians 6:4 (The Message) provides the perfect answer, “Fathers, don't exasperate your children by coming down hard on them. Take them by the hand and lead them in the way of the Master.”
Parents are placed over kids as their guardians and are to show them how to guard their hearts. “Some engaging in culture is important for understanding and compassion towards peers. But this is where Christian parents need to really help their tweens/teens figure out what being "in the world but not of the world" looks like,” a mom of two teens and a tween explained.
Most of the parents I talked to agreed that their role is to help their kids navigate popular culture, taking into account the kind of popular culture and the maturity level of the child. According to Rue, “I think it's healthy for our kids to know what's going on in the culture so that they will know how to deal with it. We live in this world, and we are called to minister in it. We can't do that unless we have a clue to what it's about. It is absolutely essential for kids to be taught how to make decisions…. Yes, some of what goes on in the culture is not appropriate for anybody, much less an 8 to 12 year old. The parental responsibility is to look at and listen to what our kids are drawn to and explain to them why we do or don't approve. Some things should be taboo –but not without discussion.” To her, it has far more to do with “whether we behave in worldly ways or kingdom ways.”
Parents offered a few suggestions in dealing with Beiber fever, or for that matter any teen idol craze:
*Cultivate open communication with children where you can talk to them about priorities and the danger of being wrapped up in teen idols without the children feeling judged. Crucial to this is communicating respect.
Rue encourages parents to “ask questions in a casual, I'm-really-interested way before you express your opinion on the subject, because you may find that their opinions are very similar to yours…. If you discover that your tween daughter can't talk about anything else, cries when she finds out Bieber has a girlfriend, (which, really, doesn't apply to very many girls in my experience), it's time for a look at what might be lacking in her life. Dad's involvement in this is essential. He's the one she's going to believe when it comes to matters of the heart. As long as he doesn't belittle her "love" for Justin and make fun of her, she'll trust what he has to say on the subject. Respect is key – and that always works both ways.”
*Set boundaries on what they can or can’t listen to, and pray for discernment for them. One mother said, “The boundaries are very firm when the kids are younger, and as the kids grow and mature, more room for making their own decisions should be given. It’s better for the kids to make some mistakes at home where we can talk through it together and they can come home to a safe place.”
* Encourage daughters to read the lyrics and check them against Scripture. Mom of an avid Bieber fan commented, “Listen to the tracks with them, talk about them, watch the movie with them, and discuss it. Parents, get involved in the fun. Listen to the music with your daughter (we sometimes sit side by side with one iPod earbud in my ear, one in hers). Go to the movie or a concert with your daughter. It can be something to bond over, especially as kids hit middle school and think parents aren't quite so cool anymore.”
* Engage your children. Give them a biblical perspective and tools to navigate through life. Discuss things with them and work through their questions. According to one mother, “I think as Christian parents trying to raise children who will (hopefully) grow up to be strong in the Christian faith; we need to be aware of what's out there trying to vie for our kids' hearts. To say "no" to absolutely everything in popular culture is a bit naive and extreme in my opinion. Children are going to grow up and be in the world. They will have to live in it much longer than we are able to shelter them. It's important to show them our perspective.”
* O’Dell suggests using Bieber fever as a “good teaching point….Talk to them about what it means to hang a poster and stare at it – what's the goal? Help them build their own confidence and identity by admiring and emulating the Godly men and women in their lives.”
* Make sure what your children listen to/engage is age-appropriate. Bieber’s songs are definitely not for elementary-aged girls.
* Model good habits. “Communication and modeling is important. Our kids watch what we do and learn – for good or ill,” pointed out one mom.
*O’Dell challenges girls to “Be the one who rises above. Don't follow the crowd and fall at the feet of another human being. Serve and worship the one who is worthy of your admiration.
Tweens/Teens Advice for Peers:
*Be careful what you fill your mind with. “Try to limit your time with popular music, and try to listen to Christian music too because what goes into our minds influences our actions.”
*Pray for Bieber.
The words of a 12-year-old Belieber succinctly summarized everything, “Remember Bieber is just a 17-year-old still trying to find himself. So he’s not going to be perfect. That’s important to keep in mind when we are tempted to idolize him.”