What started as a minute trend in social behavior has grown and mutated into two generations that are riddled with callous–unemotional, Machiavellian, and narcissistic traits.In the book by Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell titled The Narcissism Epidemic, they discuss how western parenting is producing children with extreme status anxiety and, more importantly, narcissism. Similarly related is an article by Amy Chua titled Why Chinese Mothers are Superior in which she chronicles her and many Asian mothers’ approach to parenting a child, with fangs and an iron fist. So why are there so many selfish and emotionally weak individuals compared to 50 years ago? In short because we instill in our kids an extremely inflated sense of self-importance and reward them for simply being—when we shouldn't.
Starting around the 1970s when baby boomers began having children, they attempted to recreate the “Leave it to Beaver” atmosphere that they grew up in, but with some tweaks that were nails in the coffin. Those tweaks were instilling self-confidence and helicopter parenting.
As a result of 40 years of this common practice, “American culture encourages self-admiration with the belief that it will improve our lives.”(Campbell 13) And it didn’t’t used to. Amy Chua states that while Chinese mothers “Order their kids to get straight A’s, western parents can only ask their kids to try their best.”(Chua 2). This massively different approach to parenting is reflected in China’s youth who do not show trends of narcissism remotely close to that in America.
In the graph shown above a rapid increase in the average Narcissistic Personality Inventory scores of American college students starting in 1985-89 is depicted. The Narcissistic Personality Inventory is a test that was designed to measure the level of narcissism in any given individuals psychology. It is referred by Lau as the “gold standard for assessing psychopathic traits in adults” (Lau 2). A high scorer is categorized as having a strong sense of self-importance, status anxiety and a lack of empathy. Fox states that “they seek to satisfy their own needs with little regard for morals…” (Fox 1) and that they are extremely destructive. Judy Rollins cites a study she conducted saying that “A meta-analysis of American college students found a 48% decrease in empathic concern and 34% decrease in perspective taking since 1979.” (Rollins 1)
In 2015, we have the highest recorded rates of narcissistic personality disorder and border line sociopathic tendencies of any country in the world on record. This issue is so all encompassing that the Supreme Court and congress had to rewrite the entire corporate fraud guidelines to make it far stricter, because cases of white collar crime have increased 1000% in the last 30 years (Campbell 15). So what is to be done? We need to ground our children in reality, teaching them that they aren’t great singers or all-star pitchers. But they can be.
If I was to choose one thing to solve the problem it would be work. We need to make our kids work, not in coal mines or sweatshops but in life in general. We are far too “careful not to make our children feel inadequate or insecure” (Chua 4) to the point that they block out the reality of being just like everyone else and walking off into the vat of the American individualism. But rather than addressing or even realizing that we live in this culture we are too busy “forcing children’s sports leagues to not keep scores, and hand out participation medals.”(Campbell 79).
The Death of Empathy
A major shift in the upbringing of kids, particularly in regards to education of the twenty- first century, is the war on bullying, harassment and intimidation. Following the shooting at Columbine High School, a nationwide crackdown on bullying began. Starting in the late 1990’s, organizations like Standup Against Bullying, Teens Against Bullying and the Stop Bullying Now were founded. Judy Rollins, Editor-In-Chief of the Journal of Pediatric Nursing, in her article “Some thoughts on Empathy” discloses some frightening statistics regarding an increase in adolescents who lack empathy and the repercussions that can have on a school environment and a home environment.
Judy Rollins states that the main reasons for this lack of empathy in children are
- Changes in family settings and practices, such as smaller families and parenting styles.
- Changes in economic conditions and education environments, such as the rise of the self-esteem movement in the 1980s.
- Changes in the media/social environment seen in the 1980s with increased TV watching, video- games, computers, and in the 2000s, the rise of social networking.
Which is almost exactly what Twenge and Campbell agree are the three causes. In regards to the connection of different narcissistic personality traits Lau states that “The results of our study indicated that the three personality traits (callous–unemotional traits, narcissistic traits, and Machiavellian traits) were highly correlated with each other in this sample of community youth, which is consistent with prior research”(Lau). So all of the authors cited (excluding Chua) agree that both the causes of this trend in narcissism and its relation to other faults in character are well understood.
In Social Media
One of the largest changes in culture of the the last 20 years has been the introduction of digital media into social environments (social media). Just when our narcissistic generations were developing a hankering for self-expression, Myspace was invented. What could be more appealing to a narcissistic generation than a site literally called “My-Space”. Myspace was the first site to collect an inordinate amount of users, although not nearly as many as Facebook and Twitter would amass in the years to come. By 2006 social media would “become an integral channel for communication and self-expression in the lives of many” (Fox) yet the figures of social media use in 2006 are far shadowed by figures of Facebook users, which are in excess of 1,700,000,000(one point seven billion). This is more than one-seventh of the entire earth (seven billion rough). “Social networking sites reinforce narcissism in a never ending loop.”(Campbell 110) because it allows narcissists to drown themselves in self-promotion and specifically selected photos of themselves that they deem to be flattering enough to show others. A graduate student cited by Campbell and Twenge named Laura Buffardi states that in her research regard social media and narcissism found that “college students who scored high on narcissism were masters at promoting themselves, gathering friends on the site, and highlighting their best qualities” (Twenge on Buffardi). Within the realm of social media and ego a relatively new practice on social media sited like Instagram and Facebook is editing one’s photos to make them (the individual) look better. In a study conducted by Jesse Fox, he asked men if they take part in self editing photos and “Participants reported on three methods of improving one’s appearance: cropping or cutting parts of yourself out of pictures; using photographic filters; and using Photoshop or other picture editing software or applications”(Fox 3).
The problem with treating this epidemic is that it’s not a disease and it’s not a medical condition in any way so there is no method or book on how to go about this cultural reformation that we need. The only information I could find on treating it was the last chapter of The Narcissism Epidemic. All the other authors were grimmer in their presentation, simply giving the data and information without any sort of “light at the end of the tunnel,” which is to be expected because my sources were mostly comprised of academic journals. Campbell and Twenge state that we should take a course of action similar to that of the United Nations (excluding China) when SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) was noticed in a massive amount of the Asian populous as a result of air pollution. Identification, quarantine and the wearing of masks to prevent transmission. Though the authors state that they comically “don't recommend narcissism internment-camps” (Twenge 281) they think the scale of this global course of action should be replicated when addressing the narcissism epidemic.
Politically (which is unfortunately a perspective that will ultimately need to be addressed if a social change is desired) both the left and right side of the isle would ultimately be opposed because they massively promote two things that are often miss-connected with a society where self-esteem is the enemy. Those two things are equality on the left and self-reliance on the right. So if we were to attempt to take a stand at the ground level by promoting alternative parenting styles which encourage growth and achievement and not hollow praise we could avoid the political sphere until the practice of raising children with an anti-narcissistic approach becomes a movement.
If the issue of cultural narcissism is not corrected one would be wise to fear for the future. We can expect to see, increases in plastic surgery, drunk driving, school shootings and rape. Of all the authors’ proposed solutions to this problem, Judy Rollins put it best. She said we need to “strike a balance in promoting the development of truly caring, as well as confident children” (Rollins 2). It is important to remember that we are responsible for our culture and our parenting styles and it’s side effects. We have the power to change these disgusting statistics and improve the next generation as long as we take action.
Feature Image: "Hey Kids! Can you Spot The Narcissist Hiding In The Picture?" Cartoon courtesy: Doug Savage