the special generation

i woke up this morning to more social anxiety about youth — this time, NPR’s Day to Day was covering a recent study which claims that “[college] students today are more narcissistic and self-centered than a generation ago.” now, my mother assures me that she never told me i was special, so perhaps i escaped the worst of the “self-esteem movement.” but according to psychologists at San Diego State, this recent trend can be traced to the indiscriminate emphasis on self-esteem and praise popular in parenting during the 80s. of course, the researchers then went on to add that this growing narcisissism is “fueled by current technologies such as MySpace and YouTube.” ah, technological determinism.

at the risk of tooting the same tinny horn all the time, this just clamors “social anxiety! social anxiety!” the study purports to have relied on the “Narcissistic Personality Inventory,” in which over 16,000 college-age students were surveyed between 1982 and 2006 using this psychological evaluation survey. admittedly, i tend to be wary of this kind of quantitative data, largely due to my own investments in ethnography and qualitative methods. what does it really tell us that students are increasingly agreeing with statements like “I think I am a special person” and “I can live my life any way I want to?” could this represent a part of larger cultural shifts in how we conceive of ourselves in American society? does this index actually indicate anything about social and behavioral changes, and is it sufficient to assess such cognitive trends?

but now i’m confused, because only a few days ago, APA researchers were all worked up about the negative effects of media on girl’s self-esteem — so it self-esteem good, or bad? or are researchers just bandying the term about without careful definition? given the cultural specificity of Western conceptions of selfhood, some care and clarity would be welcomed here. still, lead author Jean Twenge seems to think that today’s youth are less empathic and more self-centered, and cautions that this shift could have damaging ramifications for society generally. as i’ve said before, youth are often a site where social anxieties are expressed concerning social reproduction, and youth are frequently and vaguely blamed for social changes that many find threatening. but are youth initiating these changes, or products of them?

the best part of this morning’s interview with Twenge was when she claimed to hold the media responsible first, then parents and schools. ah, of course. but which media? that’s right, magazines and television, in particular those that pander to youth. at no time did she point out that those media are generated for the sake of attracting advertising revenues, and that corporate interests tend to shape the media through which they promote their products. lastly, of course, Twenge includes MySpace and YouTube as proof that media are increasingly capitalizing on the narcissistic tendencies of today’s youth, sites which revolve around individual identity. but perhaps these websites embody the same kind of cultural shifts that lead students to respond differently to the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. before asserting that changing attitudes signal dangerous trends in personal relationships, clearly closer research is needed to investigate how young people conceive of themselves, how they relate to others, and how they use (and produce) media.

 
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