The Attention Factor Applies to Kids, Celebrities, Spouses

attention-bookcover.jpgAlice Aspen March was my “celebrity commercial break” in my  Shaping Youth workshop about using the power of media for positive change at last week’s CCFC summit, honoring Morgan Spurlock for his hilariously poignant documentary work.

I used the entertainment analogy of shifting from ‘the dark side’ to the bright side (in Darth Vader light-saber style) to address the need for healthier creative content and role models for kids, championing change in this arena to improve the physical and emotional lives of youth in positive ways.

I’m no Yoda, here, but it only makes sense that media’s power should be used with accountability and responsibility, rather than wield the saber to make a quick buck despite verifiable harm.

As I mentioned in my post about nurturing kids’ resiliency, Alice Aspen March has shined a spotlight on some interesting coping skills and corollaries with the celebrity scene, worth unpacking on the ‘kids and attention’ front.

aliceheadshot.jpgAlice Aspen March has been doing work in the childrens’ media field for eons, creating and producing the Emmy nominated documentary, Latch-Key Kids, narrated by Christopher Reeve, and serving on state senate commissions and boards out the wazoo to focus on the correlation between passive media intake (TV) and behavioral cues.

Now, Alice’s focus is on “the attention factor,” quite appropo for our whirlwind digital world of sound-bites and media morsels.

I’ve found her notion distills behavioral phenomenon into a simple data nugget applicable to kids, adults, educators, and human beings universally…

Essentially, she’s shouting, ‘yo! wake up people!’ across the board to rattle us from our busy, scattered, often fragmented ‘partial attention to everything’ modus operandi.

“Research has proven that attention is a core need for every human being. Our earliest experiences that seek to satisfy that need stay with us for the rest of our lives. Early patterns and responses tend to show up over and over again in all our relationships – at home and at work, with our old and new families, and with our lovers and ourselves.”

Alice will be coming aboard periodically as a Shaping Youth guest correspondent, to share her latest news and views in how the attention factor plays into virtually all of our human interactions…

My first question to her though, is this…If actions are an outcry to satiate the core need for attention, (either acting out from not getting enough of it, feeling invisible, or to attract attention in either positive or negative manners) how does this apply to celebrity mega-moguls and their self-destructive spirals in crash-n-burn role model form who are getting TOO much attention?

How are kids using attention getting mechanisms via media’s ‘virtual stage,’ from social media identities to video personas…and what does that signify in terms of attention outreach?

Isn’t some of the kid-created content more about ‘fun’ than filling up an empty vessel or missing intimacy piece from childhood?

These are all topics we’ll explore further with Alice, but for now, without further ado, here’s her first guest editorial for Shaping Youth.

Attention-Getting Celebrities: Why & What Is This All About?

— by Alice Aspen March

While Britney Spears’ “attention getting behavior” is becoming more and more difficult to watch, we really have to begin to wonder what she is trying to tell us.

Is she suffering from a personality disorder? Has she gotten too much, too little, not enough appropriate attention? While she’s the current celebrity who everyone is focusing on right now, Keifer Sutherland and Owen Wilson have also been in the news along with Michael Vick, Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan.

These are people who our media tell us “have it all!

They’ve all made lots of money, have been on the covers of numerous magazines, been in movies and on lots of television, played big-time sports, written up in abundant blogs, followed around by lots of paparazzi. They certainly are examples of the current young, rich and famous, and (for better or for worse) they’re serving as role models for the young and impressionable in our culture.

If they “have it all,” why are they acting out now in such self-destructive ways? They have exhibited attempted suicide, driving drunk without licenses, breaking parole from other incidents, irresponsible parenting.

Michael Vick, who has been engaged in gambling games where dogs have been trained to kill each other, has just been mandated to learn about compassion, a positive and caring form of attention.

Paris Hilton has served jail time, has done some community service and has returned home to her five pet dogs, making movies and is back to her life of partying and traveling. And I just saw that Paris’ younger brother, Baron, has also been driving while intoxicated without a license. Lindsay Lohan is doing community service, and has been in and out of rehab. Kiefer Sutherland has served jail time for another DUI and a broken probation problem. And Owen Wilson is back partying but thinking about moving out of Hollywood to a less stressful life.

What makes people act out in such destructive ways?

Why have these young successful people been drinking, drugging and driving?

Something seems to be missing, some personal control, some internal boundaries, some basic instincts.

All this behavior is certainly a call for attention…But it’s a call for a different kind of attention than they’ve been getting; it’s the kind that comes from within. And that kind of attention starts in childhood, in the original family, in the earliest family interactions and memories.

Extensive research has shown that everyone’s primary need is for attention, the kind that feels good, is supportive, and is different for everyone.

For the past two decades, I’ve been researching the impact of attention on all of us, the famous and the not so famous. My archives are full of old and new celebrity stories.

Actress Drew Barrymore, a child alcoholic, once tried to commit suicide. “I just wanted what would get me the most attention at that point,” she said, “I didn’t want to die.”

Griffin O’Neal, the son of Ryan O’Neal, often felt overshadowed by his Oscar-winning sister, Tatum. He said that he felt insignificant and unnoticed in a family in which fame seemed to belong to everyone but him. He compared himself to a “puppy that wasn’t petted. So I’d do things (including using drugs) that would bring attention to me.”

Actress Demi Moore shared those same childhood yearnings. “To grow to puberty and not have anybody pay attention to me meant that my feelings were unimportant, nonexistent, ” she said. ” I shut off. I became very distant. Otherwise, I would have been overwhelmed by my emotions. Lacking the attention I needed, I shifted into survival mode. Just before I turned 16, after we had moved 48 times, I finally ran away from home.”

I am sure that most of us could resonate with much of what those stars have felt. These are significant stories.

I know that Britney and Lindsay were both members of the Mickey Mouse club, which brought them fame, fortune and lots of media attention. I wonder if those lessons and auditions, which got them into that venue, were really for them or for their parents. I know that Owen is the middle of three sons, which puts him in the special family position of not being the oldest nor the youngest. There’s been much research done on family birth order and positioning; specific studies have even been done on “middle child syndrome.”

I know that Donald Sutherland, a fine actor, is Kiefer’s father; I wonder how much attention his son got for just being himself in his childhood.

Another son of an actor, Rob Reiner, shared once that he developed his sense of humor and began acting as a desperate way to connect with his father, Carl. ” What drove me to perform in the first place was to get my father’s attention. As a kid, I developed the funny part of me in hopes of getting my father to recognize me, to notice that I was there. That was what I really wanted more than anything.”

This is what we all want from our parents, to be recognized and supported by them. When we don’t get that, we actually feel the pain of emptiness, shame and grief. Hundreds of alcoholic and drug users have shared their need to drug or anesthetize themselves to cover up those negative internal feelings.

The only real attention paid to attention has been in the medical, psychological, educational, and pharmaceutical worlds which have been focusing on Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) to describe frantic behavior and limited attention spans.

Billions have been spent on drugs to alleviate these behaviors. Amazingly enough, when kids get the specific, personalized kind of attention they need, their symptoms often disappear or become much easier to handle. Research has now proven that medication is neither magic nor necessary for all. (Editorial note from AJ: we’ve also found the converse, in cases like teen Blake Taylor’s experience in ADHD & Me)

I know now that we need to put the letter “S” in front of ADD which creates: SADD, for social attention deficit disorder. This is a much broader condition, a social condition, which is pervasive, evident, and is wreaking havoc in our work worlds and in families today.

It happens when people don’t get the kind of positive attention they need, so they have to act out to get any. They’ve gotten only what their parents could or they themselves needed to give them. Time and time again, stories tell us that supposed “have it all” celebrities failed to get the early kind of attention they really needed.

Let’s pay attention to what their behavior is telling us.

Good attention is essential of all of us, no matter how old or how young. The kind of attention we get is the root cause of our behavior and our feelings.

Only when we’re treated well, do we feel good, do we thrive and are we healthy.

When we don’t receive any attention or less than we need, we feel empty and have to do anything to fill up that hole. We simply are not whole.

That’s why we go the addictive route with food, drugs, shopping, gambling and other self-destructive behavior.

Let’s begin a world-wide conversation about the impact of childhood attention, which follows all of us forever.

We’ve got to talk about and acknowledge our Social Attention Deficit Disorder, SADD, that is costing us so much everyday, everywhere.

—Alice Aspen March, The Attention Factor

SADD…hmn. Interesting catch phrase with a poignant double meaning.

Alice has already inspired me to look in the mirror and ask myself, what behaviors do YOU use to attract and to give attention? And does it need transforming?

What about your interactions with youth? Parents? Kids? Educators?

Are you ‘paying attention’ to the nuances of how things are landing on others?

As Arnold Glasow said, “An idea not coupled with action will never get any bigger than the brain cell it occupied.”

So…um…excuse me while I ‘pay attention’ and make a phone call to a loved one to ensure I’m not perceived as SADD. 😉 —Amy J.

Recent Related Articles by Alice Aspen March on The Attention Factor

The Scarlet Letter: From Valerie Bertinelli to Eliot Spitzer, Mar. 20, ’08

The Attention Factor Guide for Working Mothers, Mar. 3, ’08

Heath Ledger Didn’t Have to Die, Feb. ’08

Per Alice Aspen March originally published in American Chronicle, Feb. ’08



  1. Can someone send this to VH1 so they can please take down that wretched show “I know my kids a star”???

  2. Done.

    Point well taken, we need to get an ‘activist division’ for youth goin’—-I’m seeking interns ready to be muckrakers on this kind of crud. Bring ’em on! (I left a bunch of cards at the universities and w/collegiate types at CCFC)

    For those of you who don’t know what Izzy’s talking about (or wondered where the Partridge Family’s child actor Danny Bonaduce ended up) one peek will horrify.

    Don’t be surprised if you’re as ill as this little girl being applauded for ‘throwing up in star-style’ ugh. Toxic, toxic cues. Need a shower just running the clip for a jiff. Bleh.

  3. Great post, this is full of information!!!

    I couldn’t agree with Izzy more, that show is wretched!

    I love what your blog has to offer, I will definitely be frequenting.

  4. Thank you so much for recommending this on my site. I had a feeling my daughter’s need for attention wasn’t really about her brother – but was about her own need for more attention.

    I find it difficult to stay present and make clear boundaries around my work sometimes – but she tells me “hey, I need more attention” and I give it to her when she does.

    I think it’s true – we’re live in a 30 second world with hours of needs.

  5. The more I’m being asked by movie stars and politicians to forgive, the less sure I am forgiveness is the appropriate response. I prefer people show me they’ve changed, rather than tell me they’re sorry.

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