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Relationships in the digital age

Are We Raising a Nation of Narcissists?

Looking at the new challenges to parenting in 2012.

“Am I still somebody if no one’s watching?” That was the question fourteen-year-old “Madison” asked  “Jen,” her best friend, on the way to the mall.  What prompted Madison’s question was the video she produced over the summer—choosing the backdrop and location, planning her outfit and hair, even writing down dialogue ahead of time—and uploaded to YouTube the first day of  high school.  She’d hoped that the video would go viral and make her famous but—to her chagrin—only 54 people had watched it.  Given that she had 350 friends on Facebook and 400 contacts in her phone, she was fretting. Why weren’t people watching? Jen’s mother listened and then asked, “Madison, why do you want to be famous?” “So I could be rich and everyone would know me,” Madison replied.

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Dreams of fame aren’t unique to the youngest cohort of Millennials, of course; young moviegoers in the 1930s dreamed of being Shirley Temple while, in the 1950s,  the first generation exposed to television watched The Mickey Mouse Club, wearing their Mouseketeer hats, wanting to be Annette or Darlene, Bobby or Cubby.  But today, the cult of celebrity permeates every domain and medium and, moreover, preadolescents and adolescents have the technological means to try to make themselves famous beyond their immediate circle of friends through YouTube—“Broadcast yourself!”—and other social media sites which other generations didn’t.

Dr. Patricia Greenfield has argued that there’s been a cultural shift, one which she and Yalda Uhls have explored in several studies.  One  study examined the cultural context of fame, by looking at television shows from  1967 to 2007, and seeing what values these shows promoted by example and message to tween viewers, ages 10-to-12. In 1977, shows such as  “Laverne and Shirley” and “Happy Days” promoted a sense of community first (fame was the 13th ranked value); in contrast, by 2007, “Hannah Montana” and “American Idol” promoted fame first and foremost.  Indeed, by 2007, the value of belonging or community had dropped to number thirteen—meaning that the values had literally switched places over the course of thirty years.  Another of their studies demonstrated how technology and a celebrity-driven culture collude to convince preadolescents that the achievement of fame—along with personal achievement and financial success— s a primary life goal.  Uhls and  Dr. Greenfield  posit that this cultural shift is due, in part, to the powerful influence of television on both aspirations and behaviors—along with fame-centric shows like “Hannah Montana” and “American Idol.”  And, of course, they also note that achieving “fame” seems possible by both YouTube and the social networking sites. (A disclaimer though: their sample was small and conducted in Los Angeles—home to Hollywood—so that in their words “we cannot conclude that our findings are representative of American youth.”)

But anecdotally at least, it seems clear that the proliferation of reality shows—where fame isn’t a function of talent or ability but of just being on television—underscores the notion that anyone can become famous, and it seems that many, if not all,  tweens and teenagers are taking that to heart.   Not all of them are posting on YouTube, although many of them are watching. According to YouTube’s demographics, 55% of teens watch, some 21.6 million strong.  In addition, many are working hard on Facebook and elsewhere to become stars—wannabee Kardashians—in dramas of their own making.

The larger question, which I’ve raised before, is what happens to the formation of the self when it’s so bound up with an audience and attention?  Here again, not all of this is precisely new; adolescents have always needed an audience and its reactions—traditionally made up of parents, teachers, mentors and other adults; siblings and cousins; and, of course, most importantly, friends—to come up with answers to the question “Who am I now and who will I become?”  The boundaries of the emerging self have always been limned dynamically.  But aspiring to fame wasn’t a part of it unless you had a specific and precocious talent and, in times past, you actually knew the people who helped you define yourself. That’s still true for some kids who limit their connections to  kids they know but not everyone.

Take, for example, the widely reported-on flurry of “Am I ugly?” videos posted on YouTube by young tween and teen girls (and, it turns out, one 21-year-old artist who was trying to make a point about being an adolescent girl in the digital age.)  What’s key to YouTube is how it validates the presence or absence of your audience—you can see both the number of views and read the comments left by viewers. That’s why the “Am I Ugly?” videos kicked up a storm; both laypeople and experts worried about why young girls (and some boys) would put themselves out there and leave themselves so vulnerable to cruelty.

For some, the answer appears to be fame.  Take for example the most viewed “Am I Pretty or Ugly?” video, uploaded in December 2010 by sga1901 who, according to her profile at least, is a 15-year-old girl named Kendal who plays softball and loves to sing and draw.  Her video—which begins with her wearing a hat with a Koala face and ears—has had a staggering 5,277,886 views as of this writing and some 129,000 comments! The comments range from supportive to absolutely disgusting and reprehensible.  As I watch the video—with the eyes of a parent and as the co-author of a book on adolescent girls who has interviewed many— ’m struck by how self-possessed  Kendal is.  She doesn’t seem hugely concerned whether a photo makes her look good and, frankly, seems to know the answer to whether she’s ugly or pretty to begin with. She knows how to act “girly” cute, forming her fingers into the shape of a heart and blowing kisses. So what is this about?  Well, a hint is contained in her profile where she lists her occupation as “Being awesome” and where she posts “If you subscribe to me, I’ll sub to yours” punctuated by a smiley face.  (As of now, she has 4,868 subscribers.)  In addition to “Am I pretty or ugy?” she has thirteen other videos on YouTube which include one of her singing (65,571 views and 1,1129 comments), two featuring a “dare” contest which apparently didn’t garner much attention, and one of a pillow fight with her brother.  I wonder whether her parents know about these videos since she mentions she’s using her mom’s camera.

It’s not hard to understand how tempting it is for tweens and adolescents—witness the success of Justin Bieber and model Kate Upton, among others—to think “this could be me” and how that thought alone might be enough to outweigh any sense of caution or concern about the risks. But the risks are very real, leaving a child vulnerable to cruelty and bullying, at a time in life when egos can be fragile and self-esteem a precious commodity. The “Am I pretty or ugly?” videos also underscore the culture’s obsession with physical beauty as the only way to define the self.  Does all of this acting out in public, this need for attention, signal something else?  In the discussion part of their study, Dr. Greenfield and Yalda Uhls write that “ Fame is an aspiration that narcissists fantasize about achieving; our results suggest that the documented historical increase in narcissistic personality in emerging adults begins in the preadolescent years with a desire for fame. A potential synergy exists between observing the fame-oriented content of TV shows and enacting the value of fame by participating in posting online videos.”

So, are we raising a nation of narcissists?  The question seems especially pertinent given the statistics released by Common Sense Media’s survey last fall which looked at media use by children from birth to age 8.  A stunning 10% of babies under the age of one have used a smartphone, iPod, iPad or other tablet.  39% of 2-to-4 four year olds have and 52% of 5-to-8 year olds.  Despite the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation of “no screens” under the age of two, 47% of babies age 0- to- 1 watch TV or videos for nearly two hours a day.  In contrast, they’re read to for an average 23 minutes.  66% of children under the age of 2 have watched television, and television overall remains the most watched medium.  Is it inevitable that “fame” will continue to impress even the youngest of children as being terribly important, particularly if their parents are posting pictures and videos themselves?  Why aren’t parents paying attention to the power of the screen?  Can technology really turn a child into a narcissist?

Not surprisingly, the answer is more nuanced than a simple “yes” or “no.”  I turn to Dr. Karyl McBride, an expert on narcissism and a blogger on this site, for her opinion.  She tells me that, “I do think we live in a very narcissistic culture today, with an ‘all about me’ mentality.  The new technology, the celebrity focus, and the on-going attention to ‘how we look’ and ‘what we do’ being strong messages.  But narcissism has been around forever and while the common understanding of narcissism is about arrogance and selfish behavior, that is only part of it.”

Dr. McBride explains that, on a deeper level, “Narcissism is the inability to tune in emotionally to other people. This is the lack of empathy, and what causes great damage in relationships. Can technology as in texting, email, Facebook, etc. feed into the lack of emotional connect?  I think so.  But if children are treated with empathy and taught empathic response and caring about other people, it doesn’t have to be either/or. We just have to be emotionally smarter than our technology.”

The technological revolution has happened so quickly and continues to evolve at an extraordinary pace, more like a cultural tsunami than anything else. We’ve all been swept up into it, with little or no time for reflection. We have to pay attention to the messages sent by all the media our children are exposed to and the effect they may be having on their behaviors.

 

RESOURCES

Uhls. Y/T. & Greenfield, P.M/ (2011) The Rise of Fame: An Historical Content Analysis. Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyperspace 5(1), article 1.  http:;;cyberpsychology,eu/view.php?cisloclanku=2011061601&article=1

 

Uhls, Y.T. & Greenfield, P.M. (2011, December 19) The Value of Fame: Preadolescent Perceptions of Popular Media and Their Relationship to Future Aspirations. Developmental Psychology,  Advance online publication. Dol:10.1037/a0026369

 

Common Sense Media: http://www.commonsensemedia.org/research/zero-eight-childrens-media-use-america

 

Dr. McBride’s blog: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-legacy-distorted-love

Websites: www.nevergoodenough.com and www.karylmcbridephd.com

Peg Streep, author or coauthor of nine books, is a New York City based writer currently working on a book about the Millennial generation.

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