Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Teenagers' narcissism may be all on the surface

Jacey Eckhart,
The Virginian-Pilot
© August 14, 2007

I THOUGHT MY STICKY floors were the result of Popsicle chunks dropped from mouth to floor. Or orange juice trailed from fridge to family room. Instead I just found out that the whole sticky mess appeared when one of my high school senior's friends mentioned college applications. Suddenly a giant pool of self-esteem was melting right out there in the open.

What was this? I thought these teens were part of the generation we'd filled with an overflow of self-esteem. We sat 'em down for years of I-believe-in-me lessons delivered on "Sesame Street" and the Disney Channel. We dutifully read the you-can-do-anything-if-you-try exhortations on the pages of "Superman" and the "American Girl Doll" series. We dusted tiny golden trophies for gymnastics and T-ball and swim team and that one afternoon they went bowling in preschool. We even paid for the juice and the hardware that delivers hours of fun on YouTube and Facebook and MySpace.

In fact, we have done such a good job raising a generation of kids with high self-esteem that a study was released last winter that said today's college students were the most narcissistic generation ever.

That's not a compliment. The term narcissism means love of oneself. It refers to character traits like self-admiration, self-centeredness and self-regard. While we are all supposed to be narcissistic to some degree, this generation's growing sense of special-ness worried these researchers.

The team of five psychologists examined the responses of college students to the standardized Narcissistic Personality Inventory between 1982 and 2006. The 16,475 students responded to statements like "I am a special person," "I am a born leader," "I will be a success," "The world would be a better place if I were in charge."

The growing number of affirmative responses from the students was enough to make the authors of the study worry about the self-centeredness, self-promotion and lack of empathy evinced by this younger generation.

But it made me wonder. If these young people are so narcissistic, so full of themselves, how come their self-esteem oozes all over my kitchen floor like arterial blood? I listen to these guys and hear that no matter how high their GPA is, it isn't high enough. No matter what they got on the SAT, the stupidest person they know scored higher. Teachers reportedly gather in empty classrooms to scoff over essay questions written on a test in 2004. And the letters UVA apparently stand for Unavailable to Virtually All.

The more I hear, the more I think that somehow this great self-esteem and its accompanying narcissism are all on the surface for this generation. Our kids don't really believe in their abilities that much. Instead they are spitting back the ideas we have taught them with such care. They know they are supposed to think they are special. They know they are supposed to say they will be successful. They know if they show any doubt, someone will send them to remedial I-Love-Me lessons.

It turns out their individual selves are as fragile as our individual selves. It's no wonder that a teen or young adult who must compete on the open market feels about as strong as an adult who has just been laid off.

I would never tell my job-seeking girlfriend to believe in herself. I would never assure my laid-off neighbor that he was "special." The same is true for my teenagers. They also have entered the realm where the important thing is to keep filling out the form. To aim in the direction. To put their heads down and keep mopping up the mess that self-esteem leaves behind.