Professor Jean Twenge defines narcissism as “an inflated sense of self-importance; a personality trait that has surpassed a clinical level of importance” (Twenge, 2011). She states that the youth in America, more specifically the contemporary college student, have become more narcissistic than ever before. Popular media, musical lyrics, social networking sites, and older family members over qualifying the abilities of younger family members have helped to shape this trend. Famous commentator Harvey Wallbanger takes a slightly different view on the rise of narcissism, as he places most of the blame on the parents and grandparents of college students starting in the 1960’s. Wallbanger thinks that the parents and grandparents are encouraging and promoting narcissistic tendencies and using self-centered statements such as, “you are the best, and you can be anything you want to be,” while Twenge believes that media and peer groups are more to blame. Twenge makes a valid point when saying that popular media is the utility narcissism used to reach the surface of the American youth population; however, Wallbanger was more correct in saying that the rise of narcissism began forty years ago with the first college students’ believing they were the center of the universe. This post will show how the rise in narcissism began in the 1960’s. However, fuel was added to the flame in the current generation.
Although there weren’t as many sources of popular media in the 1960’s, narcissism was well on its way to becoming an ‘epidemic.’ The likelihood of becoming a college student was not as readily available as it is today, which meant that the select students who did have the chance to further their education, had a tremendous increase of self-importance. Narcissism is a personality trait that is experienced while growing up; if enough encouragement is received during this time period, narcissism will continue to grow indefinitely. In Harry Holloway’s The Narcissism Epidemic, he states, “in 2006, college students list their generation’s top faults as being lazy, materialistic, self-centered, and disrespectful” (Holloway, 2010). This quote embodies everything Professor Twenge and Wallbanger argue; the rise of self-centeredness and importance. Another shocking statistic was that “in the 1950’s, 12% of adolescents endorsed the statement ‘I am an important person.’ By the 1980’s this figure had risen to 80%. It was the most significant rise of all other items in a 400-question personality inventory questionnaire” (Holloway, 2010). This shows that the increase in narcissism began between 1950 and 1980, which is what Harvey Wallbanger suggested.
On November 11, 2011, Twenge came to Western Connecticut State University, where I was attending, and gave a speech endorsing her idea about the rise in narcissism being a current problem rather than beginning forty years ago. She believes that popular media, more specifically song lyrics, our youth’s available ‘role model’s’ behavior, and Facebook and other social media outlets, are all examples of huge influences on the rise of narcissism with the American youth population. Song lyrics are one of the easier ways to see the evidence of this claim. “From rappers to guitarists, song lyrics have begun to change from ‘we’ to ‘me,’ ‘I want to be a billionaire,’ and complete materialism” (Twenge, 2011). Twenge believes that people like Paris Hilton promote materialism and monetary satisfaction rather than morals like altruism and ‘for the good of the people.’ With the help from these individuals, media corporations like MTV, now have productions like ‘My Super Sweet 16’ and ‘Cribs’ where the entire 30-minutes are based on celebrity narcissism, economic power, and ‘success.’ These people and their homes and possessions become the goals and aspirations of teens. One other difference between Twenge and Wallbanger is that Twenge believes that narcissism decreases with age, where Wallbanger states that the parents and grandparents are the primary cause of youthful narcissism and thus generation does not have much of an impact on the diminishment of narcissism.
Narcissism doesn’t always have to be negative, at least at the beginning. Having pride in who you are, what you do, or even how you look, can lead to the positive self-image that all should have. These good intentions of narcissism can almost be viewed as self-esteem, however, misconstrued. It is interesting to think of it this way since narcissism develops at an age where self-esteem is at its lowest, teens often get the two personality traits confused. At these early stages, narcissism is similar to a small candle that one might need to illuminate a dark room. While it is necessary at the time and entirely non-threatening, the addition of times of peace in our nation and its always rising wealth, fanned the flame. The small candle then spread, until more advanced technology was introduced and just engulfed it in gasoline, thus burning the whole house down.
Wallbanger believes again that narcissism began to develop in the youth population of the 1960’s. It makes sense to come to the conclusion that those teens, which became the most narcissistic during their college years, would inflict the same ideas on their children, who are now at the college age or even having children of their own. From this information, one can come to the conclusion that narcissism is always on the rise in the youth population. However, it did begin a long time ago; it is not a new phenomenon.
Now with modern society. We see how widely accepted narcissism is. For the first time in history, the world can communicate and share ideas with one another in an instant. Our online presences are a figment of our creativity, becoming personalities and characters on their own. While we are actually in many smaller conflicts, the majority of the world is at peace, at least without the threat of involuntary military service in the United States. Healthcare is becoming more advanced, allowing older generations to live longer, providing more time and healthier minds to miss their youth and pass judgment on those who are currently youthful. Music has undergone such a drastic change that actual physical musical instruments are becoming a thing of the past, paving the way for the electronic keyboard. Anybody with a camera and the Internet can become known, whether it be for their looks or talents, depending on their will to try. While we are a species attached to our phones, relying on what others think; we use that same phone to share knowledge like this blog post, highlighting the dangers it all causes.
While this all sounds like a rant about millennial’s from an old man sitting on a rocking chair, I for one do not believe they are the cause. Starting in the 1960’s, narcissism became a rising trend. With the charismatic and handsome John F. Kennedy, the fight for civil rights, and the horrible treatment of American soldiers coming back from Vietnam, self-entitlement, and self-importance became what we valued most. Now, with modern society, we see what has grown out from the seeds our older generations have planted.
Holloway, Harry C. Book Essays and Reviews: The Narcissism Epidemic. (Fall 2010)
Twenge, Jean W., & Campbell, Keith W. The Narcissism Epidemic. New York: Free Press, 2010. 343 pp.
Twenge, Jean W. Speech: Western Connecticut State University. November 2011.