Are today’s youth even more self-absorbed (and less caring) than generations before?

Have kids today stopped caring about others?

Posted Jun 05, 2010

 these college kids have just donated the clothing off
Earlier this week, Sara Konrath, a researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, released her results on a study analyzing and comparing empathy among college students over the last 30 years. The results? The "biggest drop in empathy" in recent history. She writes, "College kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago."

In related survey research, psychologist Jean Twenge has labeled the current generation of young people the "iGeneration," or "Generation Me". In her books she describes how young people today "take it for granted that the self comes first," and has labeled this time a "narcissism epidemic," stating that we are "living in the age of entitlement." Konrath and O'Brien link the self-absorption and lack of empathy together, calling the current generation "one of the most self-centered, narcissistic, competitive, confident and individualistic in recent history... It's not surprising that this growing emphasis on the self is accompanied by a corresponding devaluing of others."

There are some who argue that this description fits most teens and young adults and is appropriate to some degree for everyone in this developmental phase of life. However, both researchers compare similarly aged kids from other generations and the difference is striking.

This difference raises the question of why? Researchers Konrath and O'Brien hazard a few guesses, most related to the increase in exposure to and use of media. For example, many in this current generation have had repeated lifetime exposure to violent video games and films, and there is a growing body of research suggesting that violent video games (and perhaps films) are a cause of increased aggressive behavior, thoughts, and feelings, and a decrease in empathy and prosocial behavior across both gender and culture. Additionally, the researchers surmise that the ease of having (and ignoring or dumping) online "friends" may make it easy to tune out when they don't feel like responding to the distress of others, and may carry over offline as well. They also add that the inflated expectations of success fueled by "reality shows" creates a social environment that encourages self-focus and works against slowing down and listening to someone who needs a bit of sympathy.

Obviously, any statements about an entire generation are not true of every person in that generation. Clearly there are young people today who are deeply empathic and caring. But the general trends and statistics are alarming, and it would behoove those of us in a position to influence today's youth to pay attention and be proactive about it while we can. Paying attention to the forces that influence children and young people so that they can grow up to be empathic is not only better for them, but ultimately better for us all.

 

photo: Maybe they aren't all bad: these college kids have just donated the clothing off their back. (Erich Schlegel/AP Images for AXE)