Youth and Consequences

Adolescent mental health in the new millenium.

Mirror, mirror on the wall: Youth narcissism and us

Youth narcissism and us

We are home to an increasingly narcissistic generation, it is true. Increasingly prevalent empirical data, like that shared by Dr. Jean Twenge in her recent PT blog, back up what we all know and suspect: today's generation of kids are more narcissist than previous generations. Although the empirical validation is useful, such studies simply quantify the obvious. Like anyone who spends time in public or around youth, I see it daily: students whose faces are hidden by the screen to which they are slavishly devoted even in the presence of engaging real life life events; students whose papers chronicle their mental breakdown in response to the temporary "hospitalization" of the computer on which they believe they must depend to stay connected with others (and themselves); the recurrent sense of fear and dread experienced by interviewees in my study of non-suicidal self-injury that emerge in response to moments most of their elders cherish - free time alone with a book, a bedside lamp, and several hours of nothing else to do.

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Alongside the cultural commentaries which proliferate on the subject of the technological contributions to youth self-absorption come a series of other concerns, such as Harvard Psychiatrist Dr. John Ratey's contention that the modern obsession with technology may be physically rewiring youth brains into patterns consistent with what he calls "acquired attention deficit disorder." Dr. Elias Aboujaoude, director of Stanford University's Impulse Control Disorders Clinic at Stanford University, agrees. In a Nov 15 interview reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, Dr. Aboujaoude comments, "The more we become used to just sound bites and tweets, the less patient we will be with more complex, more meaningful information. And I do think we might lose the ability to analyze things with any depth and nuance. Like any skill, if you don't use it, you lose it."

All of this is true (and I am as much of a handwringer as my colleagues), except for this fact: the mirror into which our youth gaze reflects the dreams, innovations, and human agency of their elders. Adolescents and young adults are hardwired to observe, internalize, and capitalize upon the success narratives of the societies in which they live. Although serious consumers and users of technology, the technological advances that youth consume with such fervor were developed by adults and reflect the collective vision of their forbearers. It is also adults that have so successfully identified and created the adolescent market; some of the best adolescent development specialists in the world are employed by marketing companies. Since it is amidst the norms and values passed down, sculpted, and re-sculpted by adults that youth develop, they serve as perfect cultural mirrors - the narcissism we think we see in our youth is merely a reflection of us.

If for no other reason than this, study of contemporary youth pathology would be best served through empirical investigation of their elders. And yet, it is not enough to turn the microscope on ourselves, for that simply extends the "who is to blame" game began when Socrates wrote 400 years ago, "Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority, they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers."

We need hope. Here is where I find it: After a lecture on technology as a context for development last year, one of my students ended his lamentation on the dire implications of technology addiction with these thoughts, "Behind all my dark cynicism is a glowing optimism...Technology has made us accomplished in the textual and academic, but ignorant of the natural and spiritual. I believe that wires are strangling America's youth. But, air has always been free. All one needs to do is go outside, and breathe. I will do that now." In these words I see my student's agency, his free will, his capacity for the development of wisdom through the most uniquely human trait: the capacity for self-reflection. We may be infatuated with the two dimensional representation of self that is tweeted, IM'd, and facebooked back to us in lightning fast time, but we will inevitably tire of this too - for it will not satisfy the longing to connect with our deeper self, what my student identifies as the "natural and spiritual."

And, equipped with the consequent teachings of this age, we will discover, once again, that which brain scientist Bruce Perry and colleagues now espouse in place of the "use it or lose it" paradigm to which Dr. Aboujaoude refers. We will discover that human beings and brains are much more plastic than we thought. When our individual and collective success demands that we concentrate on something for longer than 4 seconds, our youth will be the first to lead us out of the tweeting age and into the next age - whatever it may be.

 

Janis Whitlock studies, writes, and teaches about adolescent mental, social, and emotional health and development at Cornell University.

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