Are Media Creating a Generation of Narcissists?

October 23rd, 2012

By Dr. Jim Taylor

narcissist_childThe externalization of children’s self-identities caused by the omnipresence of popular culture and social media today, that I discussed in my last post, has resulted in an unhealthy internal focus on the self among young people these days.

Do you recall the story of Narcissus? The handsome fellow in Greek mythology who, because of his indifference and disdain toward others, was punished by the gods by falling in love with his own image. He was so enrapted by his beauty that he was unable to pull himself away from his own reflection in a pool of water and wasted away and died.

Just so we are all on the same wavelength, narcissism is a personality characteristic associated with self-absorption, egocentrism, an overestimation of one’s own importance and abilities, a sense of entitlement, and a disregard for others. According to recent research, Narcissus has spawned many offspring in our current generation and narcissism is alive and well and living in America.  One study found that 30 percent of young people were classified as narcissistic according to a widely used psychological test. That number has doubled in the last 30 years. Another study reported a 40 percent decline in empathy among young people, a personality attribute inversely related to narcissism, since the 1980s. These findings aren’t surprising to anyone who pays attention to the “it’s all about me” culture that we currently live in. So what has caused this rise in narcissism and what impact will it have on our children and our society as a whole?

One obvious place where young people are learning about narcissism is from popular culture. A study by the celebrity psychiatrist Dr. Drew Pinsky, in which 200 “celebrities” (I put the word in quotes because the bar for being considered a celebrity is set very low these days) completed the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, found that they were significantly more narcissistic than the general population. Interestingly, the celebrities who actually had a talent, such as musicians, tended to be less narcissistic. Guess who were the most self-absorbed celebrities? Female reality TV stars! Not surprising that those celebrities who were famous for being famous were the most narcissistic; their narcissism drove them to become celebrities.

Another fascinating study explored the changes in music lyrics over the past three decades. The researchers found a significant shift toward lyrics that reflect narcissism (“I” and “me” appear more often “we” and “us”) and hostility (change from positive to angry words and emotions). These findings aren’t just due to the increased popularity and influence of hip-hop music (which is known for its self-absorption, aggrandizement of the artists and the venom of its messages), but rather are evident across musical genres. You don’t need to go far to collect your own data on narcissism. Do these names ring a bell: Charlie Sheen, Terrell Owens, and Kanye West?

It’s not surprising to see a rise in narcissism in this generation given that young people are being bombarded by these messages through every form of media including recent technological advancements such as celebrity web sites and social networking sites. Other research suggests that social media web sites, such as Facebook, are receptacles of narcissism because it gives young people outlets for sharing the trivial and gaining attention. Additionally, simply the time spent immersed in technology has likely done its part to promote narcissism. All of the time absorbed in screens has reduced the amount of actual human (i.e., face-to-face) contact that children have, thus depriving them of the experiences needed to develop essential social skills, such as empathy, compassion, and consideration for others, which counter narcissism.

Here’s the truly disturbing part: How can children these days avoid being infected with this “disease” when, thanks to the wired world they live in, the majority of messages they receive venerate and encourage narcissism?

The self-esteem movement and the recent shift toward “hyper-parenting” have also likely contributed to this increase in self-adoration. Though the specific causes of narcissism have not been confirmed, researchers have identified a number of child-rearing risk factors including: 1) being praised for innate qualities such as physical appearance, intelligence, or other abilities; 2) praise that is inconsistent with reality; 3) extreme rewards for good behavior and undue criticism or punishment for bad behavior; 4) being spoiled and excessively indulged by parents; and 5) parents whose self-esteem is overly invested in their children’s achievements. Additionally, children who are born with a sensitive temperament are more vulnerable to these parenting approaches.

In addition to the unsettling rise in narcissism among our children, perhaps a greater concern is that our culture now seems to not only accept, but also promote narcissism as the norm. Certainly, the shift in societal values away from collectivism and toward individualism, away from civic responsibility and toward self-gratification, and away from meaningful contributions to society and toward personal success (as defined by wealth, power, celebrity, and status) have also contributed to the cultural messages of narcissism in which children are presently immersed.

There is no doubt that narcissists in popular culture are worshipped (narcissism = cool) and the new technology is used to a great extent to feed that narcissism to the masses (how else to explain why the actor Ashton Kutcher would have over seven million followers!). Additionally, the indifference, egotism, disrespect, and lack of consideration that are central to narcissism are also reflective of the increasingly polarized and vitriolic tone of our current body politic, recent unethical corporate behavior, the rise in cheating among students in school, and the gamut of bad behavior among professional athletes. Not surprisingly, children who are continuously exposed to these messages will likely fall prey to these messages.

The discussion to this point leads me to ask two questions that I find downright scary. First, what effect will this increasingly normalized culture of narcissism have on our children’s development including their self-identities, self-esteem, values, and aspirations? Think of all the qualities that enable your children to become healthy and contributing members of our society — hard work, respect, compassion, tolerance, selflessness — and you will see that they don’t exist in the narcissistic personality or the culture in which it is fostered.

Second, what will be the influence of future generations of narcissistic children turned adults on the direction of popular culture and our society as a whole? Think about it. The current generation of parents were at least raised in a time that was less narcissistic and more grounded in healthy values and attitudes (even if many adults have now gone to the “dark side”). Imagine a society comprised of the current generation of children soon to be adults who know of no other world other the present, “it’s all about me,” one dominated popular culture and technology.

I don’t have a crystal ball, so I can’t look into the future and see what the answers to these questions are. But if what is happening now to our children and in our society is any indication, it’s difficult to hold out much hope for the future.

(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)

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