Focus on ‘me’ is the order of the day, and now well-documented
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Focus on ‘me’ is the order of the day, and now well-documented

Midsummer is prime vacation time. Given the pent-up demand during the pandemic, it’s also a great time for outings, from now-resumed festivals to sporting events. That also means it’s prime selfie time, as we can’t simply go out and enjoy ourselves, we have to document it.

I use ‘we’ in the general sense, not including myself in the list, as I’ve never snapped a picture of myself for Facebook or Snapchat or Instagram. In fact, I don’t partake of such things at all. Yes, I admit to being something of a troglodyte in this area – I’ve never felt compelled to take a picture of my lunch, let alone post it for anyone who cares (i.e. nobody).

Compact digital cameras and smartphones make it much easier to snap pictures of ourselves than traditional cameras, and we’ve responded in droves.

The look-at-me aspect of social media is blamed largely on the millennial generation (those born roughly between 1980 and 2000), but the technology has in many ways simply indulged the indulgence that goes back to the baby boomers. That was the cohort dubbed the Me Generation, after all.

The boomers wrote the book on self-indulgence, though it was more along the lines of cultural shifts. That was the offshoot of the 1960s and its movements, including advances in civil rights, women’s liberation, the sexual revolution and anti-war protests. In the following decade came more focus on self-actualization and the self-help movement it spawned, leading to a departure from the previous generations’ loyalty to institutions such as the church and government.

It stands to reason that the offspring of the boomers would continue down that road. That we can decry their use of technology in the pursuit of self-promotion/narcissism is an accident of fate: had the boomers had such options, they would have done the same.

Still, there are some real numbers to back up the perception of Generation Me – the narcissistic tendencies aren’t imagined. And the doting parents attempting to instil self-esteem in their children – everyone is a precious snowflake – are in part to blame.

Expectations of the world have been heightened beyond what’s realistic by parents who told children they’re special and they can do, be and have whatever they want. That may have been fine for building them up, but it left many of the generation ill-prepared to deal with a world that was having none of it. The sense of entitlement goes beyond what’s typical of adolescents and young adults in years past.

The numbers bear that out, say the likes of Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and author of Generation Me and (with W. Keith Campbell) The Narcissism Epidemic. She’s used data from more than a million young people to show there are real differences today compared to previous generations. It’s not just a matter of “kids today …”

“Almost everyone over the age of 30 – or maybe even 25 – has complained at least once about the state of youth today. They’re selfish, they’re rude, they’re spoiled, and they get away with stuff no one would ever have put up with in my day,” she says in a piece for Psychology Today.

“But perhaps people have always been self-absorbed during adolescence and young adulthood, that glorious time when adult responsibilities have not yet begun.

“I heard this argument a lot when one of my studies found that narcissism is markedly higher among college students in the 2000s compared to those in the 1980s. But age can’t explain the results of these studies, because they compare people of the same age (18 to 22), but at different points in time. Maybe 18 to 22-year-olds have always been narcissistic, but 18 to 22-year-olds are now more narcissistic than 18 to 22-year-olds used to be,” notes Twenge.

Over time, researchers have used data from something called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI), which has been used for decades to look at tendencies towards narcissism in the general population, not just those labelled with an actual disorder. Of late, the number of people with such traits has grown twice as fast as in the past.

Researchers looking into data from Twenge and others find the “narcissism epidemic” began growing decades ago.

A 2018 paper by German researcher Dr. Aline Vater, for instance, found the the endorsement rate for the statement “I am an important person” has increased from 12 per cent in 1963 to 77–80 per cent in 1992 in adolescents.

“Recently published books feature more self-centered language compared with earlier publications. For instance, the personal pronouns I and me are used more frequently than we and us. Moreover, the use of narcissistic phrases such as ‘I am the greatest’ has increased between 1960 and 2008. The rise of narcissism is also reflected in more self-focused song lyrics and a stronger orientation towards fame in TV shows. These observations suggest that narcissistic expressions within individualistic cultures have become more frequent.”

This goes beyond self-esteem and assertiveness to include all of the negatives that we associate with the word narcissism. The numbers aren’t about those with actual clinical diagnoses, but about some unhealthy traits – young people, of course, aren’t alone in such behaviour, as witnessed by one Donald Trump, who is a long way from being a millennial but nonetheless epitomizes the problems with today’s self-absorption: a lack of empathy, an overly-inflated sense of self and the overstatement of talents, abilities and popularity.

It’s with such things in mind that we can judge much of what appears on social media. The selfie is part of the continuum of manufacturing an image or brand for the online world, one that in many cases matters more than the real world. In some cases, it is the reality of those posting a steady stream of information to various social media sites, all in the hope of positive feedback.

Such input elevates dopamine in your brains much like a hit from, say, drugs or drink. In that regard, it really is like an addiction. In extreme cases, it is an addiction whereby people can’t be away from their smartphones for an instant and where constant posting – with the hope of a “like” or acknowledgement – is needed to keep the good times going. It’s all about the next fix.

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