Narcissism, characterized by self-absorption, grandiosity, a lack of empathy, and a potentially unconscious foundation of shame or poor self-valuation, is on the rise. A recent study found that 30 percent of college students now meet the criteria for narcissism, a number which has doubled in the last 30 years. A similar longitudinal study done between 1979 and 2006 reported that college students declined in scores on empathy by 40 percent since the 1980s.
Some researchers have dubbed Generation Y, or the Millennials (those young people born in the 1980s and 1990s) the “It’s All About Me” culture. One has only to consider the hipster, that Millennial mascot: an individual whose dress is often other-referential and costume-ish (a 1950s secretary, a hobo) in such a way as to grab attention but also, seemingly, to mock; someone who frequently pays homage to references in popular culture, but those from an era or a time in which he or she did not live; whose foundation of humor (which is their foundation) is irony, rather than sincerity. Or it would seem.
Music Lyrics and Entertainment Over the Decades
Another study revealing the rise of narcissism looked at lyrics in contemporary music relative to music in previous decades. The researchers looked for words such as “we” and “our” and also compared positive themes against negative themes. The 1960s was a time of “we” and positive, motivational themes. Since then, music in the popular culture has been quickly headed in a much more singularly self-centric as well as a more negative, even angry and violent direction. The rise of popularity in commercial rap expresses the example quite well. Although underground rap and hip hop have very different types of themes and therefore lyrics, it is still not as widely distributed, even in the age of music piracy and YouTube.
Perhaps most telling in the new age of narcissism is the popularity of reality television and celebrities who are famous simply for being celebrities. A study by Dr. Drew Pinsky, himself a celebrity psychiatrist, surveyed 200 such celebrities on a Narcissistic Personality Inventory. Of those who took the survey, the individuals who rated highest in narcissistic traits were those celebrities famous not for a talent, but simply by virtue of who they were. Those who ranked the lowest tended to be individuals famous for having a talent, such as musicians. It was surmised that the celebrities “famous just for being famous” had likely sought out celebrity because of their high trait of narcissism.
Social Media Influence
Social media platforms like Facebook are a method through which individuals can express and satisfy narcissistic needs easily. Creating superficial and attention-seeking status updates and posting photos of oneself is the pastime marked by a bored and naval-gazing culture of teenagers.
Our young people are growing to physical maturity in a world with the likes of Charlie Sheen, Paris Hilton, and the Kardashian sisters. They are inundated with the Tumblr and Tweet storms surrounding the alleged lives of Lindsay Lohan and Justin Bieber. Even if they disdain these characters, even if the young people we know grow handlebar mustaches and wear tiny shorts and Justin Bieber concert t-shirts ironically, we can be sure their world is one which is significantly more self-obsessed, not self-possessed, than our grandparents world was.
The children of parents with narcissistic personality disorder make a case for the particular hazards and vulnerabilities of growing up under the narcissistic threat. These children are raised inside the all-consuming maw of a mother or father who leaves them feeling, even through adulthood, that they are not good enough. Such emotional terrorism leaves a mark on children; how not on a culture of citizens?
After the baby boom generation, and the beginnings of self-focus under 1980s Reaganomics, then turning to the apathy and silent rage marked by their children, the Gen-Xers, one has to wonder if this growing narcissism isn’t simply cultural karma—what happens when a generation of narcissists begets another without wisely considering the consequences of its actions, its identity. Where can cultural empathy be found and how can we, as individuals, determine to bring it back carefully, singularly, and with determined sincerity?
Denial Then Sincere Realization
Facing the growing narcissism of our children can cause us to search for defense strategies: “They’re just going through that teenage phase.”; “Well, I was never like that!”; “What do you want me to do? I can’t get through to them!” But diverting or escaping or obfuscating the problem will never help to solve it. Perhaps the only thing that may help is beginning early. By looking at our own habits and lives and determining what can stay, what can go, what serves us, and what is simply self-serving. And too, by demonstrating sincerity toward, and empathy for, our children and for ourselves. By determining to act bravely and positively in a world that may feel dark and overwhelming at times, but which can only heal by a thousand million small acts of gentleness. And possibly by, most irony aside, hugging a hipster kid now and again.