Teen Role Models: Who They Are, Why They Matter, by David Kinnaman

Part of ongoing series: Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God: Servant Leadership in an Age of Self-Promotion. (Note please pray for David, Dan Allender and I as we speak to the National Student Leaders Network in Orlando later this month.)

David Kinnaman is President of the Barna Group and quickly becoming one of the most articulate voices for next generation faith in America. David has designed and analyzed a wide range of projects for a variety of churches, parachurch organizations and for-profit clients. As a spokesperson for the Barna’s research, he is frequently quoted in major media outlets. He also speaks and writes about new models of church experience, the profile of young leaders, and generational changes. In 2007, Kinnaman released his first book, unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity…and Why It Matters, co-authored with Gabe Lyons.

Teen Role Models: Who They Are, Why They Matter

A national study led by David Kinnaman, president  of the Barna Group, revealed that while celebrity plays a significant role in the preferences and tastes of teenagers, the greatest impact in students lives is made by those who invest relationally in their lives.

The Role Models

The nationwide sample of teenagers asked 13- to 17-year-olds to identify the person whom they admire most today as a role model.

Among the non-celebrities mentioned: “relatives—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 (parents were excluded from the study). After “family,” teens mention teachers and coaches (11%), friends (9%), and pastors or other religious leaders they know personally (6%).

Celebrity influencers included “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 “Why”

“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.”

What it Says

“Kinnaman 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.”

So… while celebrities exert significant influence, relational authority and genuine servant leadership are still key to providing role models for the next generation.


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