Much has been written about the self-absorption of high school and college students today. Narcissism and self-esteem is on the rise, with 80 percent of middle-school students scoring higher in self-esteem in 2006 than the average middle-school student in 1988, according to one study (Review of General Psychology, Vol. 14, No. 3). Among college students, subclinical levels of narcissism have steadily risen since the 1970s, other studies suggest. And though the diagnosis may be dropped from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (see Narcissism and the DSM), young people are much more likely than older adults to have ever experienced Narcissistic Personality Disorder, according to a large-scale epidemiological study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry (Vol. 67, No. 7).
“You can look at individual scores of narcissism, you can look at data on lifetime prevalence of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, you can look at related cultural trends, and they all point to one thing,” says W. Keith Campbell, PhD, head of the University of Georgia psychology department. “Narcissism is on the rise.”
Monitor writer Sadie Dingfelder challenges us: Imagine a country where everyone acts like a reality show contestant — obsessed with power, status and appearance, and is comfortable manipulating others for their personal gain. “I’m here to win, not make friends,” would be the national motto.
“This society would have high crime rates — white collar and violent — as people take whatever they feel entitled to,” says Christopher Barry, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Southern Mississippi and lead editor of “Narcissism and Machiavellianism in Youth” (APA, 2010). Cosmetic surgery would be routine, materialism rampant, and everyone would seek fame or notoriety, he adds. It would also be a place with high rates of anxiety and depression. That’s because narcissists — people with an inflated sense of their importance and abilities — have trouble keeping friends, even though they are good at making them, Barry’s found.
“A narcissistic society would be a deeply lonely place,” Barry says. And according to some researchers, that is precisely where America is heading.
Perspectives We Must Avoid
If there’s even a kernel of truth in this research, what can adults do? This seems to be the question on the minds of faculty, coaches, youth workers and employers across the U.S. Is contemporary culture destined to move this direction?
I don’t think so—but let me offer two perspectives that won’t help:
1. “The Sky if Falling!” – Do you remember Chicken Little? She ran all over town screaming, “The sky is falling” until no one listened to her anymore. She was so plagued with fear that listeners didn’t know what to do with her. So they avoided her. When we assume a fear-based attitude—believing kids today are worse than ever and have no hope to grow up, work hard and see the big picture—they won’t. Those kids will live up (or down) to our expectations. Fear is contagious.
2. “Kids will be kids!” – This is the other extreme, where adults believe all kids are just into themselves; in fact, we were into ourselves when we were adolescents. Sadly, this assumption fosters complacency in us, believing somehow these kids will mature in the end, with or without our help. That things will be fine no matter what we do. I just don’t believe that, in light of our world of portable devices, pop culture and poor parenting in the home. Complacency is contagious.
I relay some disconcerting realities in my books Generation iY—Our Last Chance to Save Their Future and Artificial Maturity—Helping Kids Meet the Challenge of Becoming Authentic Adults. But in both of them, I clearly communicate I don’t believe we are destined for a dismal future with our kids moving back home after college, incurring debt, and refusing to grow up. I have hope. However, it will only happen if we adults re-think the way we lead, teach, coach, parent and manage this young generation. In the very least:
- We must be pro-active, not just reactive to their challenges.
- We must focus on relationship, not just results during the process.
- We must be about preparing, not jut protecting them from a tough world.
May I share a healthy perspective with you?
You are not leading or teaching a child. You are leading a future adult. Everything you do and say will either serve to prepare them or prevent them from being ready. The more you maintain that focus, the better choices you’ll make as a mentor.