During the recent Olympic Games, sports presenter Jake Humphrey posted an interesting tweet. It was not about Usain Bolt or Team GB’s medal haul: it was about role models and Joey Essex.

Humphrey was maligning the fact Britain’s (new) most-successful Olympian, cyclist Jason Kenny had a paltry 77,000 followers on Twitter. This was compared to 3.55m for TV ‘celebrity’ Joey Essex. Humphrey effectively said what many of us have been thinking: are these ‘celebrities’ the role models we want for our young people?

Role models in 21st century Great Britain

Comparing role models in modern Britain

Jake Humphrey makes a good point

The extensive use of celebrity in inverted commas is for good reason. It is difficult to find much to ‘celebrate’ about shows like TOWIE, Geordie Shore and the one that started the rot, Big Brother. Junk celebrity is all around us.

By comparison, the achievements of Jason Kenny – and his fellow Team GB athletes – are to be applauded and celebrated. As Rio gold medallist Sir Bradley Wiggins put it: ‘It is nice to be recognised for actually achieving something in life as opposed to spending seven weeks in a house on TV’.

For the sports that receive minimal media attention outside the Olympic Games it is unsurprising their stars are not role models to many beyond their respective sports. The likes of Laura Trott and gymnast Max Whitlock get trotted out (pardon the pun) every couple of years. Then they are packed away until the next Olympics. Whitlock’s teammate Louis Smith achieved greater exposure post-London 2012. But that was as a result of  Strictly Come Dancing and tabloid interest in his love-life.

The ‘Tweet-o-meter’

It is hardly any surprise that children look up to reality TV stars as role models. Youngsters are exposed to these ‘celebrities’ to the point of saturation. Whilst true role models like our Olympians get a 2-week slot every 4 years. Using Mr Humphrey’s ‘Tweet-o-meter’ the theory rings true. Adam Peaty is Olympic, World, European and Commonwealth champ but has only 66,000 followers. Cyclist Becky James – a multiple World Champion who came back from a cancer scare and career-threatening injuries to medal in Rio – only 43,000.

We don’t pick our role models, the media does

Role models - Joey Essex?

Joey Essex: famous for being…Joey Essex

So is the media to blame? Partially. They supply as much gossip and detail about these celebrities as they can find. Then they publish, broadcast, post and tweet it as if their lives depended on it. Of course commercially their lives do and unfortunately this is where the difficult part comes in: they only supply what we choose to consume.

We have allowed – consciously or unconsciously – these types of celebrities to morph into role models in our society. We consume their ‘product’ – from Instagram feeds to workout DVDs – and aspire to it. In doing so we block out those who are quietly going about the business of winning Olympic and World titles with grit and determination. If we did not consume reality TV and the ‘characters’ it creates, the media in general would have no desire to inundate us with their latest minutiae for commercial gain.

The difference between celebrities and role models

Part of the process is going to involve educating our kids on the difference between role models and the contemporary definition of celebrity. Arguably we have done little to re-establish the boundaries between the two as the cult of celebrity has gained momentum.

Keep in mind that in our earliest years of childhood, our parents are our role models. Everything a child does is observed, copied and learned from mum and dad. Considering the antics of our junk celebrity stars, would we be comfortable allowing them to be role models for young children? Assuming the answer to be a resounding ‘no’, why do we do little to challenge them being role models for those entering their teens and early-twenties?

Positive role models

Team GB - proper role models

Team GB – positive role models

Every interview with a Team GB medallist was punctuated by similar recollections: early morning starts; time away from loved ones; hour upon hour of training; loving and selfless parents and nothing but 100% commitment.

By contrast our breed of celebrity stars appear to be worth celebrating for no other reason than their ability to wear nice clothes, party hard and take thousands of selfies.

To make our role models examples of discipline, bravery and commitment we need to commit to being a bit braver and lot more disciplined about kicking our junk celebrity habit.

Anecdote, Children And Young People, Families, Parenting, Society