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Are we raising a generation of narcissists?

There are more narcissistic young people in this generation than ever before. That’s the finding of a long-running study by US psychology professor Jean Twenge, who was in Australia recently. She gave 16,000 university students across the United States psychological testing and found that 30 per cent were narcissistic. This is a doubling in the number of narcissists in just three decades.

Naturally her findings created a bit of a stir in the media, and I went on Mornings with Kerri-anne for an in-depth discussion about it:

The research potentially has major implications for this generation’s future, because narcissism isn’t just spending too much time in front of the mirror or being a bit “up yourself”, which is the way we often use the term in everyday language. A person is classified as narcissistic if they:

  • have an inflated sense of self
  • are arrogant
  • think they’re unique and special
  • believe they are entitled to be treated better than others
  • take the credit for others’ achievements
  • lack warmth and empathy
  • can’t form lasting relationships
  • are highly materialistic
  • continually seek attention and are very vain about their appearance
  • get angry or even violent when things don’t go their way.

Often, things initially do go the narcissist’s way, because they show great confidence and charm. But because their sense of self is built on a shaky foundation, the honeymoon—whether it’s in a new job, a relationship or a friendship—may end quickly and dramatically.

So then, what does Twenge’s research mean for our kids? How alarmed do we need to be?

First, let me say that while giving workshops in schools all over the country, I see far more under-confidence in girls than overconfidence, especially about their looks. I see less vanity and more anxiety. Rather than lack of empathy, I am usually overwhelmed by girls hugging me and saying “I love you” at the end of my session. In my experience, girls are often very keen to get involved in their community and help other people by doing volunteer work.  And even if girls are more focused on having the newest and best of everything than earlier generations were, let’s not forget that they are also the most marketed-to generation: they see between 400 and 600 ads per day.

Twenge’s research in fact backs up my observation that the majority of girls aren’t all that much more narcissistic than earlier generations. She points out on her website that “the average person is only moderately more narcissistic now than 15 years ago.” It’s at the far end of the scale, where a person could be diagnosed with clinical Narcissistic Personality Disorder, that there is an alarming jump: “There are three times as many young people vs. older people with the disorder. That means there are many more highly narcissistic people now than just a decade or two ago.”

There are things we can do to stop the trend. It comes down to modelling the behaviour we’d like our children to show; as I always say, girls cannot be what they cannot see. If the culture around them is all about having the newest and best of everything, getting plastic surgery and being famous for doing nothing, can we blame kids for being focused on those things, too?

Young people are bombarded with images of celebrities who make narcissism look like a desirable lifestyle choice. (I’m sorry to say that Charlie Sheen’s approval rating has gone through the roof with young men recently, according to a poll in The Australian.) They are bombarded with advertising and marketing for products that will make them look richer, thinner, hotter (and more like a celebrity!). You will never be able to stem that tide—but you can talk to them about the media they consume and support them in forming their own judgments and values.

Protecting the next generation from rising narcissism also means making sure that when we praise our kids it really means something. There has been a trend over recent decades to repeat to children that they are special and unique. Increasingly, medals are awarded just for turning up. Of course, this has been done with love and the best of intentions to boost children’s self-esteem. But to create self-esteem that has a solid foundation, we need to:

  • acknowledge real achievement
  • encourage children to be involved in their community
  • encourage them to explore which skills they are good at and identify those they need to work on
  • help them understand that while they see instant successes on reality TV, for most people achievement is the result of hard work and discipline; a good way to do this is to encourage teens to take a starter job.

Finally, here is a great piece of advice from Jean Twenge, who is herself the mother of two young children. When she was asked on Melbourne radio what parents should do instead of telling their kids that they’re special, she answered:

What most parents mean when they say that to their children is “I love you”, so say that instead. That’s a much better message.

It occurred to me that perhaps if the research had been done on Australian or New Zealand young people the result may have been different. What do you think? I would love to hear your perspectives, and your stories about the girls in your life and how they’re developing their own sense of self.

Published inAdvertisingBeauty IndustryBody ImageFashion IndustryMagazinesMediaParentsPlastic SurgeryPower of Words

3 Comments

  1. I think that the point you make about today’s youth being the most marketed to of all time is particularly valid. If everywhere they turn they are bombarded with advertisements for things they “need”, it is no wonder we are raising a generation of “materialistic” people. As the mother of a two year old I am particularly aware of the marketing peddalled at preschoolers and take active steps to avoid it. (No TV, no clothes that make him a walking advertisement for some multinational company, no toys that already have their own ‘personality’ already created for him). This marketing to preschoolers is relatively new – it’s only in the last decade that marketers have clicked on to the fact that this is an audience with huge (parental) spending power. I find it really sad when such young children are already demanding to have the latest “cool stuff” – Ben 10, Wiggles etc. I wonder (and worry) at the number of advertisements that generation will be exposed to over their lifetime…

    I echo your observations about teens with empathy. Observing a group of girls participating in an Enlighten day the last word that comes to mind is narcissm. I would love for that research to be replicated in NZ or Australia – I would hope the results would not be the same. But if they were, it wouldn’t be a time for hand-wringing and despair, because as parents, aunties, uncles and friends, there is a LOT we can do. As Twenge suggests – just say “I love you”.

  2. I agree Rachel and Danni, our girls are far from narcissistic. When I witness a girl acting (so called) narcissistically, I imagine it as a cover up for all the damage done by our society that tells girls they are not good enough just as they are. Scratch the surface and you will see a sadness that can only be cured by love.

  3. […] Danni Miller recently wrote about the rise of narcissism in young people and draws conclusions between the presentation of celebrity as a worthy pursuit: If the culture around them is all about having the newest and best of everything, getting plastic surgery and being famous for doing nothing, can we blame kids for being focused on those things, too? Young people are bombarded with images of celebrities who make narcissism look like a desirable lifestyle choice. […]

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