My Super Sweet 16 – Child abuse on television?

5 02 2012

Whilst indulging myself in the student past time of trash television, I stumbled upon MTV’s hit series ‘My Super Sweet 16’. The premise of the show is fairly simple. A child whom has been given near enough everything they’ve ever wanted in their life by wealthy parents, see the excuse of their 16th birthday to make even more outrageous demands. Over a 30-minute episode, viewers are given the chance to observe the party preparations, which are generally accompanied by one or two ‘catastrophic events’, which supposedly downgrades the potential of the party from perfect to only near perfect. However, like clockwork, a parental figure adheres to the cries of their offspring, due to some potentially disastrous error in which they discover Michael Jackson isn’t actually alive anymore, so they’re going to have to settle for a personal performance by Jay-Z instead.

Watching this television show from the perspective of a psychology undergraduate, I began to wonder, surely this level of pampering is asking for a DSM diagnosis of dysfunction to some description. It turned out that being a spoilt brat is not a recognised mental disorder in any medical manual. However, research into this area of psychology does exist. In 1989 McIntosh coined the term ‘Spoiled child syndrome’, the description of which reads like a criteria checklist for any young individual seriously considering applying for the television show. Spoiled child syndrome is fundamentally characterised by; excessive, self-centered and immature behaviour. It also includes a lack of consideration for other people, recurrent temper tantrums, the inability to handle the delay of gratification and manipulation.

Individuals whom have spent a lot of time around children would argue that almost all children will display these characteristics in one form or another. Indeed, a child’s theory of mind is thought to develop adequately at around the age of 7, so up until then self-centered behaviour can be expected without any worry that a child may later be considered spoilt. However, extreme cases of spoiled child syndrome will involve frequent temper tantrums, physical aggression, defiance, destructive behaviour, and refusal to comply with even the simple demands of daily living.

Whilst the research on spoiled children is relatively narrow, a similar condition has also arisen. Little Emperor syndrome is a growing phenomenon in China ever since the one-child policy was implemented in 1978. The Chinese government created the policy as they sought to relieve pressure on social, economic and environmental issues. However, with China’s booming economy, families in urban areas found themselves ensuring that their only child received all the benefits that they were denied. It ensured that a generation of sibling-less children in China grew up relatively over indulged, as the single recipient of their parents and grandparents affection. One piece of research proposed by Shao, suggested it was not uncommon for families in China to spend half of its income on their only child. This trend has not gone unnoticed in the global market. Platinum jewellery sales have doubled in China, which has been attributed to the ‘spoilt brat generation’. The psychological implications suggest extreme pampering may result in a stunting of social and emotional growth. However, the research by Chinese psychologists on Little Emperor syndrome seems to offer unconfirmed mixed results.

Indeed, there does seem to be a comparable link between participants on My Super Sweet 16, individuals with Spoiled child syndrome and those of the little emperor generation of China. Beyond the obvious fact that they are very fortunate to receive most material goods they desire, they all exhibit emotional dysfunction to some degree, whether it’s throwing a temper tantrum when they don’t get their way, or perhaps more seriously, a stunting of emotional growth.




14 responses

7 02 2012

Let me first start by saying I loved this blog, it really made me laugh and I was so interested that I went to look for more information on similar research. The first thing I came across was a seminar costing $175 to learn about ‘Overindulged Children and Conduct Disorder’ the description goes on to say that overindulged children create complex society disorders as they start to display symptoms of different disorders. Take a look –

I even found a website of some guy called ‘Dr Phil’ who believes overindulging your children is actually a form of child abuse!

Alfred Addler’s ‘Only Child’ theory suggested that only children are more likely to be spoilt and develop interpersonal problems from this. Although there was a study carried out in 1987 that contradicted this, finding that only children are just the same as children with siblings.

7 02 2012

Your blog is really engaging, and an interesting and relevant topic which is very refreshing to read as one of our blogs! Gotta say…. I haven’t seen ‘My Super Sweet 16′ for ages but when I did see it a couple of years ago always found it hysterical :’) The study you mentioned and the example in China really demonstrates your point well, I hadn’t really thought about how this is actually a disorder but looking at what you say I have to agree with you! And the flip side of this spoiled child syndrome is the failure to thrive in the ‘neglected’ child (which pretty much explains itself with its name….) (Bullard et al. 1967). While spoiled brats get it all, ‘neglected’ children seem to fail to thrive, which is a shame….. Anyways! I really enjoyed your blog 🙂

7 02 2012
8 02 2012

I always thought, watching this show, that it was just what American teenagers were like. Until ‘My Super Sweet 16 UK’, and then I just lost faith in humanity. In relation to research on these bratty (for lack of a better word) kids, is it even ethical? McIntosh ( suggested the use of behaviour modification to get the spoiled children to change their bratty behaviour, but how do we know there isn’t a genetic component? Researching twins is always a favourite for researching genes – see if identical twins brought up separately were just as bratty as each other, or if there are more environmental influences. But, if there are environmental influences, how do we create that kind of environment to test it further? We can’t tell people to raise their kids terribly so they become bratty and selfish!
Regardless of the causes of the spoiled child syndrome, it’s an interesting blog topic! Ethics just has a way of seriously restricting the kind of research we can do, especially when it comes to children.

8 02 2012

Research has also looked into the effect parents cause by overindulging a child (Bredehoft, Mennicke, Potter & Clark, 1998). The study looked at 730 individuals 124 of which were identified as being ACO’s (Adult Children of Overindulgence). That means 17% of the children in the sample were overindulged, which is a substantial amount. What I found interesting was the fact that not all of these now adults reported the overindulgence as positive, some actually described the behaviour as being negative. Saying that the overindulgence mad them feel guilty,confused, bad or even sad. Worse this overindulgence was sometimes attributed to covering up the treatment of the child in other ways. For many of these individuals they reported that these negative effects stayed with them till adulthood and that they felt they had brought many problems associated with this overindulgence. Such problems where interpersonal boundaries, overeating, overspending and child rearing. Such effects to me suggest that classification may be required on the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM), in some cases for the child, examples of which are My Super Sweet Sixteen. But for the parent also as in cases where the parent is overindulging the child without prompting they are creating adverse effects that will stay with the child and potentially effect their child rearing capabilities. As well as it being a potentially cover for more serious matters, such as assault.

8 02 2012
Homework for My TA – 08.02.12 « lisamarieoliver

[…] 1.… […]

9 02 2012

We have a history of using people with mental health problems for our entertainment. Look at Big Brother for example in one season they had a person who suffered with tourettes, another who had threatened to kill themselves on television, someone who had Body dysmorphic disorder and a person who had person who had previously been sectioned under the mental health act.

I think it was Ricky Gervais who said that shows like this are akin to the Madhouses in Victorian times. Unfortunately these shows are still popular and unless stricter regulations are enforced they will continue being made.

9 02 2012
10 02 2012

Just from personal experience a case study by dave etal (not really sure what year it was) gave me a good real life example of Adler’s only child effect. At Christmas my Dad’s new girlfriend;s son would meet the family for the first time. This meant he would have to make friends with my 3 cousins. Unfortunately, Pedro (genius fake name right there) an only child didn’t really fancy sharing his cousins with this new stranger and proceeded to throw a few temper tantrums and general fussyness. Which is understandable until i realised that they were about 13-14 years old at the time. You will be happy to know that few years later they are now actually really good friends 😀

p.s. nice blog ali, starting to question if every one in tv has some sort of attention disorder. it was good the way you move across cultures to show that it wasnt just a western thing either.

10 02 2012
10 02 2012
11 02 2012

These programs are excellent, the boards of research ethics committees won’t allow it, but entertainment does. What happens to these girls when the real world hits them and daddy does’t pick up the pieces? Perhaps this is more evidence that pampering amounts to dysfunctional behaviour. Big brother is another excellent example of abuse in real time. We may as well lean what we can and observe like good scientists.

11 02 2012
14 03 2012

Really wicked blog, its great to read something funny aswell as thought provoking. I myself had a similar experience watching come dine with me, when one contestant was ridiculously vain and it seemed like more then arrogance, leading to a conversation as to whether this crazy level of arrogance is asking for a Dsm diagnosis.
The first thing i thought of was narcissistic personality disorder, but i never really looked into the cause. Groopman and cooper believed that there are childhood developmental factors that contribute to this outcome. One factor they brought up was “Overindulgence and overvaluation by parents” which obviously has happened to the brats on sweet 16. Another factor is ” Excessive admiration that is never balanced with realistic feedback”.
Unfortunately a lot of the factors seem to be due to the parents.

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