Searching for the Magic Johnson Effect: AIDS, Adolescents, and Celebrity Disclosure

Article excerpt

Efforts at AIDS prevention have included adolescents as a particularly vulnerable group. Since as many as 20% of HIV-positive adults (Hein, 1989a) are estimated to have contracted the virus in adolescence, this effort seems to be appropriately focused. Research has attempted to identify the teens at risk (Hingson, Strunin, & Berlin, 1990; Sugerman, Hergenroeder, Chacko, & Parcel, 1991; Zimet et al., 1992), characterize those behaviors or attitudes which define risk (Goodman & Cohall, 1989; Nader, Wexler, Patterson, McKusick, & Coates, 1989), and develop prevention programs which modify high-risk behaviors (Centers for Disease Control, 1988; DiClemente, Boyer, & Mills, 1987; Nader et al., 1989; Zimet et al., 1992). Although there have been modest improvements in information (Hingson et al., 1990), a decrease in substance use (Johnston, O'Malley, & Backman, 1992), and an increase in condom use (Hernandez, 1990; Rotherdam-Borus, Koopman, Haignere, & Davies, 1991), adolescents as a subpopulation continue to remain at great risk for contracting HIV through sexual contact and needle sharing (Hein, 1989a; Sugerman et al., 1991). To many observers, adolescents appear immune to the messages intended to modify those behaviors which place them at risk for contracting the virus.

It was within this public health context that the events of November 7, 1991 came to offer promise to the youth of the nation. On that date, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, a premier professional basketball player with the Los Angeles Lakers, announced that he had contracted the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). His announcement was reported widely in the print, radio, and television media and generated an immediate reaction from many adolescents (Shen, 1991; Specter, 1991). This coverage was accompanied by a flood of hopeful speculation in the lay press that this personal tragedy might modify the rate at which adolescents contract the virus (Gerstenzang & Cimons, 1991; Litvin, 1991). It was predicted that males generally and black males in particular would be positively affected by Magic's announcement. The lay press was not without dissenting opinions, however (Rabinowitz, 1991; Raeburn, 1992). Speaking of inner-city youth, one commentator groused: "Lets be realistic. . . . Those are the kids that'll kill you for a dime. . . . Wear condoms? Forget it!" (Berkow, 1991).

Both the medical (Hein, 1991; Shafer & Boyer, 1991) and the social science (Andre & Bormann, 1991; Metzler, Noell, & Biglan, 1992) literature have proposed methods of measuring AIDS risk in teens. These include a quantitation of recent and remote sexual behavior, focusing on anal or vaginal intercourse and condom use, as well as determining the frequency and sterility of intravenous drug abuse. Using these variables, it has been possible to separate teens into low-risk and at-risk groups (Hein, 1989b; Novello, Wise, Willoughby, & Pizzo, 1989). In addition, attitudes and beliefs have been assessed (Goodman & Cohall, 1989; Joffe & Radius, 1993; Nader et al., 1989; Strunin, 1991; Sugerman et al., 1991; Walter & Vaughn, 1993; Zimet et al., 1991,1992), especially those which involve self-perceived risk for contracting HIV, resistance to peer pressure with respect to activities which would place the teen at increased risk, and self-efficacy, the teen's ability to insist on condom use during sexual intercourse.

In designing this study it was felt that if Magic Johnson's announcement did influence teens' thoughts or behavior about AIDS, then specific subgroups of adolescents might be identifiable based on the presence of AIDS-related behaviors. In addition, it was anticipated that the impact of his announcement would be measurable by assessing current perceived risk, resistance to peer pressure, and self-efficacy.

The present study explored adolescents' perceptions of the influence of Magic Johnson by examining the following questions:

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