To parents whose teens seem to be obsessed with a particular band, TV show, book/movie series, or character, it may be surprising to learn that this apparent ‘obsession’ is something that may be beneficial for their mental health. Fandoms—a portmanteau of the words ‘fanatic’ and ‘kingdom’—have been recently recognized by psychologists at Columbia University and elsewhere to produce a variety of positive effects.
BUILDING A SENSE OF PERSONAL IDENTITY
The teenage years are one in which individuals are experiencing a wide variety of changes. Mentally, physically, sexually, and emotionally, their bodies are transforming in ways they have never experienced before, and because of this, the teenage years can be some very confusing times. Many teens struggle to establish a sense of personal identity because, frankly, the person they see in the mirror is someone entirely different than the one they knew a month ago, and even more different than the one they knew a year ago.
Who is this person that I see in the mirror? What are their likes and dislikes? What are their hobbies and interests? Who are their friends?
Many teens are scared by the fact that these questions are something they cannot immediately answer. But, by being a part of a fandom, they can at least begin to answer these questions and generate a tangible sense of who they are as an individual. Fandoms create a tangible identity that teenagers can enthusiastically adopt on their own accord.
EMPOWERING A SENSE OF SELF-DETERMINATION
Prior to coming of age, many children and teenagers have established their identity through choices that were not their own, but choices that were their parents’. A young person whose identification may be “musical” or “athletic” might really just mean “my parents signed me up to be in the church choir” or “my parents signed me up to play soccer”. While parents signing their children up for extracurricular activities is certainly not a bad thing, it is important to take notice that they are, in fact, playing a crucial role in the formation of their child’s identity.
With fandoms, on the other hand, teenagers can access a unique opportunity to establish an ongoing interest in something that is a product of their own free will. They can say to themselves, “I am interested in this thing because it is MY choice to do so.” Establishing a sense of self-determination as a teenager can improve their self-esteem, develop a more positive outlook on their life, and be able to pursue interests that are genuinely their own.
FEELING OF BELONGING TO A COLLECTIVE COMMUNITY
Fandoms are more than just an invested interest in something; they are the gateway to a community of individuals with similar interests as well. This is particularly important for teenagers who—in their ongoing struggle to form an identity—benefit greatly by seeing that there are other people in the world who are like them, and they are not alone.
In a fandom centered on a TV show or a music group, for example, every time there is a major development in the plotline or a new album is released, the fandoms behind them are able to experience these things together. This helps build self-esteem through avenues of personal validation; when teenagers can have their interests confirmed as meaningful by others, they then can be better assured in their own sense of self-worth.
Of course, anything on the brink of obsession is something that can be taken too far, and the primary danger presented by fandoms is the graying of the lines between fantasy and reality. But in moderation—or even moderate excess—fandoms are a healthy and normal way for teenagers to express themselves, improve their self-esteem, and further establish their lifelong sense of self.