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Tag: Jean Twenge

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.

Girls in Trouble in a Post-Feminist World

Parents, teachers and all of us at Enlighten Education know in our hearts that girls and young women are in trouble and need our support. And the evidence is mounting to prove that we are right to be concerned.

A 19-year-long Scottish study published recently in the journal of Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology showed that teenage girls are now the most depressed section of the population. The study, by Helen Sweeting, showed that girls were reporting mental disorders at a rate of 44%. More than a third felt “constantly under strain”. More than a quarter “felt they could not overcome their difficulties”. Between 1987 and 2006, the number of girls who “thought of themselves as worthless” trebled to 16%. Those who were so distressed they might need to be hospitalised rose threefold, to 18%.

And recent UK government research into 42,073 children between the ages of 10 and 15 concluded that:

The choices being made by teenage girls regarding diet, lifestyle and other health-related issues were so consistently damaging that they had become ‘a standalone group of the population’ requiring immediate intervention.

Amelia Hill, of London newspaper The Observer, reported on the research in her superb article After feminism: what are girls supposed to do? which I urge everyone to read.

Helen Sweeting, the author of the Scottish research, found it significant that her disturbing results came at a time of major upheavals in society — in Hill’s words, “the period in which girls began to outperform boys academically, and the obsession with celebrity culture and the pressure on younger and younger girls to become sexualised”.

Girls’ problems are caused by a combination of very modern problems, including the breakdown of the family, and the pressures of rampant consumerism and of educational expectations – the need, in short, to have things, look good and succeed all at the same time. Add to that the spread across society of increasingly cynical, individualistic values and beliefs, and you have a pretty toxic mix. — Helen Sweeting

For explanations, Hill turned to a number of experts, including Natasha Walter, author of the new book Living Dolls, The Return of Sexism:

Feminism’s own language of empowerment has been turned against it. The language of empowerment has been harnessed to confuse sexual liberation with sexual objectification. — Natasha Walter

I agree with Hill that girls are “growing up in an atmosphere of unapologetic crudity”. Stripping, she noted, “is widely cited as a method of empowerment”.

Girls feel pressured now in a way they never have been before to be thin, hyper-sexy, smart, glamorous, rich. And these expectations have created a “narcissism epidemic”. Respected American psychologist Jean Twenge studied almost 60 years’ worth of data on 37,000 American teenagers and found a staggering rise in the number of teens who score high on the narcissism personality index. And it is females who suffer the most from the depression and anxiety linked to narcissism, Hill noted.

The narcissist has huge expectations of themselves and their lives. Typically, they make predictions about what they can achieve that are unrealistic, for example in terms of academic grades and employment. They seek fame and status, and the achievement of the latter leads to materialism – money enables the brand labels and lavish lifestyle that are status symbols. — Jean Twenge

Other UK findings uncovered by Hill that make it impossible to deny that girls are in trouble include:

  • Hospital admissions for anorexia nervosa among teen girls have risen 80% in the last decade.
  • In the past year alone there has been a 50% rise in violent crime committed by young women.
  • One in three girls, and one in two boys, believe there are times when it is okay to hit a woman or force her to have sex.

It is clear that the pressure girls feel to be more and to have more has grown to the point that they are struggling to cope. They need our support and understanding right now. 

Thank you to Sarah Casey for bringing Amelia Hill’s article to my attention.

Seeking positive alternatives for girls  

Enlighten Education is proud to be working with schools and communities who are seeking answers for girls. I have recently returned from working with a number of schools in Christchurch, NZ, and spoke about this positive initiative on New Zealand’s Breakfast program:

To watch this interview, click on this image. You will be directed to the URL.
To watch this interview, click on the link above. You will be directed to the URL.

Wilderness College Adelaide is to be applauded for launching their “Raising Amazing Girls” program:

As part of the growing momentum around Australia to address the problems caused by unrealistic media and marketing images of women and the pressure for girls to grow up early, an extensive program will be launched today by Wilderness School to equip girls, and their parents, with the tools to help them navigate the ‘tweenie’ years.

This will include a series of practical seminars, open to all parents, as well as an intensive program working directly with the students at the school on issues such as the sexualisation of girls, digital citizenship and cyber-bullying. I am thrilled to be leading this for Wilderness and will be presenting to all the girls in the school, and to their parent community, later this month.

In Sydney, I will be offering parents practical strategies on raising happy, confident teen girls at a workshop on 16 March at Castle Hill Library. Tickets can be purchased online.  

I’d love to hear how you are providing the girls you care for with the urgent help they need. Let’s share our ideas and turn things around for girls in Australia and New Zealand . . . and set an example for the rest of the world to follow.

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