Reality Check: Is social networking connected with the rise of teen narcissism? I’ve written a number of articles about Teen Arrogance but now I want to dig deeper into troubling research reports that show a rise in teen narcissism and decrease in empathy. Here are the facts that every parent and educator must know. Remember, the key is not just what your teen is plugging into, but plugging out of. If it’s family, social connections and learning the seeds of morality (empathy!) then it’s time to worry!
Teen Narcissism Is Increasing-But Just What is Narcissism?
A growing number of researchers are finding a link between social media web-sites like “Facebook” and “My Space” and anti-social narcissistic behavior among certain users. So we can be on the same page as the researchers, narcissism is defined as “self-centered, arrogant, and entitled.”
It’s not just attention-getting or wanting to be liked, but a “pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration—an exaggerated sense of self-importance where the person believes they are special and require excessive admiration from others.”
The phrase, “so-and so is such a narcissist,” is often used in our culture and generally means just a self-centered person. But there is a clear difference when narcissism rises to the level of being a true psychological problem.
The worry is that too hefty a dose of narcissism and an unhealthy overriding belief and exaggerated view that “I’m better than all” can turn into a personality disorder robbing a person’s psychological and emotional well being. So there are two big dangers for our children:
First, the narcissist generally has an inability to form healthy, long-term relationships because narcissists are so focused on themselves.
Second is that narcissism diminishes and even shuts down a person’s capacity to empathize or feel for others.
That last danger is the crux of why many child development expert and parents alike are on edge and it’s why I’m very concerned. The Kaiser Family Foundation found that the average American kid aged eight to seventeen is “hooked into some kind of media device –or combination” about seven and a half hours a day. And let’s be real, it’s a rare parent who wants a kid who feels entitled (I’ve yet to find one anyway). It’s why we all–parents, mental health professions, educators, and medical professions–need to dig deeper and review these results carefully and then take an honest look at our children’s needs. Here are facts you need to know:
Study Ties Social Networking to Narcissism…Or Does It?
One study, published by Mary Ann Liebert suggests there is a link between narcissism (and, in this case Facebook). The researcher concluded that Facebook users with narcissistic behaviors could be clearly identified by contents on their Facebook pages.
The research received quite a buzz in the news. I was asked to comment on this study by the TODAY show producers. Here is my take:
While it’s an interesting study and worth discussing, more data is needed before drawing conclusions. The research used in the analysis was only a small sample size (only 100 students were involved), all students were from the same university, and the researcher herself compiled the ratings so results could be biased.
But the results come on the tail of two previous studies that also found a connection between narcissistic behavior and social media and those results should clearly raise our parenting radar.
Study 1: College Students Agree their Generation Is More Self-Centered
Jean Twenge, an associate professor of psychology from San Diego State University and author of Generation Me, has conducted fascinating research about kids’ narcissistic behaviors both on and off line. Tracking over 37,000 college students’ personality profiles, Twenge finds a most troubling trend.
REALITY CHECK: Young people’s narcissistic personality traits are steadily rising from the 1980s to the present. By 2006, one out of four college students agreed with the majority of the items on a standard measure of narcissistic traits; in 1985 that number was only one in seven.
Twenge’s national survey of 1068 college students also had interesting results. Results found:
REALITY CHECK: 57 percent of college students admitting that social networking makes them more narcissistic and that their peers used social networking sites for self-promotion, narcissism and attention-seeking.
What’s more, over two-thirds of those adolescents surveyed said their generation was “more self-promoting, narcissistic, overconfident and attention-seeking” than others in the past.
Study 2: College Students Are Less Empathic Than Previous Generations
Twenge’s results come on the tails of yet another troubling report. A University of Michigan study of 14000 college students released recently found these results:
REALITY CHECK: College students today show 40 percent less empathy toward others than college students in 1980s and 1990s The researcher hypothesized that because there are fewer face-to face interactions (largely due to the rise of net connection) empathy is also declining.
Put all of those studies together. Results from three large scale, longitudinal studies lead by major researchers at major universities are finding a decrease in kids’ empathy and an increase in narcissistic, self-centered-like behavior. Now it is time to be concerned…very concerned.
Don’t Put the Blame All On Social Networking….Just Yet
If there is a growing narcissistic streak among teens and young adults, let’s not put all the blame of social networking sites. After all, there are 150 million plus Facebook and Myspace users and not all are narcissists (or so I hope not). A social network is a great place for a teen prone who feels a bit more entitled to draw attention to himself, self-promote, and show the world just how great he is.
But let’s not put all the blame on Facebook for how our kids are turning out. In that regard, I fear we have only ourselves to blame.
The more probable causes to the dawn of the “Self-Annointed Kid” is a parental style that pushes too much entitlement, too many trophies too soon, too much “ME-ME-ME”, too much “center stage” and not enough good ‘ol “NOs” and focusing on “THEM.”
Researchers also point out that a celebrity saturated culture that emphasizes the rich and famous, is another culprit along with the breakdown of face-to-face connection, and a society that seems too often to be under-stressing those good old home-spun virtues like kindness, cooperation and helpfulness.
So what’s a parent to do? What do you do if you think you are the proud owner of a budding little narcissistic–or at least a kid who feels entitled-on your hands?
Your first step is to recognize the problem.
Your second step is to use research-based parenting solutions to curb your child’s self-centeredness, and do so pronto.
Tell-Tale Signs of a Budding Kid Narcissist
Researchers say there are a few indicators that could indicate narcissism in youth who are social networking.
Keep in mind, it’s not one sign but a combination of behaviors your should watch for in your teen. You should see these same narcissistic behaviors both off screen as well as on. Here are ways to start observing:
~ Be Where Your Teen Is. Your first step is to make sure you have an account on the same social network as your teen and that you have befriended him or her so you can follow your teen’s presence. You do NOT have to post on your teen’s account (usually a HUGE turn off, but you do have to be where your teen is online so you can monitor your teen’s presence.
This isn’t spying (get over it!), this is parental monitoring. You announce ahead to your teen that you will be monitoring. It’s part of being a parent. See the Internet as virtual extension of your child’s playground. You monitor there, right? So monitor your teen online!
~ View Online Presence Together. A great exercise to do with your teen is to view his or her online presence together. Ask: “What does this say about you to someone else who may not know you?” “Why did you choose that photo?” etc. Don’t be judgmental (you’ll get nowhere) but just inquisitive. It might be a great eye-opener.
4 Possible Signs of Teen Narcissism
- All About Me: Tune into your teen’s primary motive for using a social network. Is it primarily for connection to be with others or a place to self-promote? Young narcissists are all self-promoting and not to use Facebook or Myspace as an opportunity to commiserate with peers.
- Read and listen to those pronouns: Is the teen using those “Me, I and My” pronouns so every entry is about how “I’m doing” and rarely about “What are you up to?” Does she always refer to herself and her needs and delete the other population? (Teens are egocentric so expect some Me-Me-Me verbage. Be concerned when it’s exclusively Me-Me-Me and little Her-Him-Them.”
- Self Promotion: Narcissists are more likely to choose glamorous, self-promoting pictures for their main profile photos, while those who are not so inclined are more likely to use simple snapshots. But also check your teen’s offline presence. Look at those screensavers and ask yourself what they tell about your teen.
- Competition: Researchers say a key sign is the teen who constantly (multiple times daily) checks into the network to count his FB friends and then announce that number. The studies found that the more teens checked in and the more they announced their FB friends the higher the narcissism. But off-line is your kid doing the same (checking or comparing her abilities verses others).
Countering the Teen Narcissism Epidemic
If you suspect your child is a budding little narcissist, the cure isn’t pulling their Facebook account. Chances are high that your teen earned that “entitlement” image before logging onto a social network. Center your parenting efforts on these strategies instead:
~ Refocus Your Praise
Temper those oohs and ahhs that focus only on your kid. Watch out for lavish sugar-coated, undeserved praise and giving out a trophy for every little thing.
Instead stress your child’s inside qualities like kindness, cooperation and reinforce “selfless” acts so your child starts to become aware of the rights, feelings, and needs of others. Sigh!
~ Lower the Curtain
Ask yourself if you always single out your teen’s performance in a group activity over the other participants. If so, watch your focus and start emphasizing your teen’s teammates.
~ Nurture Empathy
Narcissistic, entitled kids shut down their capacity to understand where other people are coming. Because they only focus on “ME,” it’s hard to put themselves into someone else’s shoes and feel how they feel. So nurture your teen’s empathy. Point out other people’s feelings. Ask, “How does the other person feel?” The best antidote for selfishness and entitlement is to boost empathy. If you’re looking for research-based solutions, check out my latest book: UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed In Our All-About-Me World. It was a ten-year writing and research journey to find proven ways we can raise caring, empathetic kids — despite our plugged-in world.
~ Boost Face-to-Face Interaction
Boost face to face interaction opportunities to help him see beyond himself. Help him focus on the views of others. You don’t learn empathy by facing a screen. Keep in mind that this is the generation who prefers to text than talk and all that screen time doesn”t develop those key skills for emotional intelligence, social competence, empathy and moral development. Set up sacred “unplugged” family times. Hold family dinners! And grab those cell phones and put them on hold during key times your family is together.
The best way to learn benevolence and selflessness is not lecturing about it but providing kids with real opportunities to do for others. So find ways your family – and particularly your teen – can do community service and emphasize others not themselves: Work at a shelter. Give part of their allowance to kids in Haiti. Deliver gently-used possessions to charity. Pitch in to help the elderly neighbor rake her leaves. Find real and meaningful opportunities tailored to your child’s passions!
The real parenting goal is for our children to learn one wonderful life lesson: Doing good for others is one of the greatest ways to feel good about who you are as a person. And doing good for others is also has a hidden benefit: it’s one of the simplest and best ways to boost happiness.
For more parenting advice follow me on twitter at Michele Borba or on my daily blog, Dr. Michele Borba’s Reality Check.
For specific parenting advice on how to decrease narcissism also refer to my publication: The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries
Resources For This Report
Ypulse survey of 1068 college students was done with Jean Twenge, associate professor of psychology at San Diego State when asked about narcissism in a poll on social networking sites in June by Ypulse, August 2009.
University of Michigan study culled 72 studies that gauged empathy among 14,000 students over 30 years. They found college students today have 40% less empathy than students in the 1980s and 1990s. The researcher suggested its because there are fewer face-to face interactions. “Empathy is best activated when you can see another person signal for help.”