Dr. Keith Ablow, a frequent guest on Fox News, asserted just a few weeks ago that “we are raising a generation of deluded narcissist.” He cited an interesting study from the American Freshmen Survey which found that “college students are more likely than ever to call themselves gifted and driven to succeed, even though their test scores and time spent studying are decreasing.” In fact, this inflated self-esteem among the younger generations, a kind of narcissistic drive to stardom, is up 30 percent over the last three decades.
The iPod and Xbox generation, as I like to call them, is facing a whole new set of challenges than that of the television generation of the 1950s and beyond. It took a while, but the television phenomenon eventually had an impact on neighborhoods and local communities. As late as the 1970s, many, if not most, neighborhoods were filled children. Everyone knew each other and the whole town was a child’s playground.
Today, households are more isolated from each other. Families that live down the street are but strangers to us. This, in part, is why “play dates” became a widespread practice among parents. Instead of children playing on the other side of the neighborhood on their own initiative, the children of today have to schedule their play time scheduled by their parents. What is more, they have to be driven to the play site with the understanding that there is parental supervision.
In short, it can be argued that over the last three decades or so people experienced less of a need to go outside because their television entertained them indoors. With this, our neighbors became strangers. Neighborhoods, places where communities were once fostered, are becoming a thing of the past. And households of today are arguably more like islands than a part belonging to a greater whole.
What the television was to neighborhoods, iPods, iPhones and computers are to individuals; especially the youth. Just as houses became a world unto themselves in recent years, the same is bound to happen to individuals. Text messaging via cell phone, iPod usage and the computer are good in themselves. However, with every strength there is a corresponding weakness.
And the weakness that is beginning to show more readily today with modern social communication is that people no longer feel the need to talk to people who are in the same room. That’s right. Isolation from the people who are sitting next to you or in the same room is so much easier nowadays.
More specifically to Dr. Keith Ablow’s point: With the use of computer games, “our sons and daughters can pretend they are Olympians, Formula 1 drivers, rock stars or sharpshooters … being something they are not.” This virtual world- a world we can manipulate- a world where the illusion of reality is more appealing than the demands of real life -is but fertile soil for narcissism.
Play, fantasy and dreams are good, to be sure. But we have to remember that the modern technology of gadgets does all of the work for our children. Most of the fun is downloaded and programmed for them; leaving them little room for initiative, creativity and effort. Furthermore, they can more easily live in a world that is created by others; one in which the illusion of stardom, grandeur and artificial success are reinforced. In fact, sports for youth mirrors this need for self-esteem at all costs. As Dr. Ablow said, “(T)own sports leagues across the country hand out ribbons and trophies to losing teams.”
I fear that legacy of the iPod and Xbox generation will, if unchecked, be a disappointing one. The luxury of an iPod or Xbox is that the world it creates can be manipulated. As such, success can be simulated and the lessons that were historically garnered from real failure and hardships are minimized. Far from advantageous, this can lead to a life of artificiality and emptiness.
The question is: Will the world of gadgets prepare the youth for the demands of life? Dr. Keith Ablow seems to think not. He said, “False pride can never be sustained … That’s why young people are higher on drugs than ever, drunker than ever, smoking more, tattooed more, pierced more and having more and more and more sex, earlier and earlier and earlier, raising babies before they can do it well, because it makes them feel special, for a while. They’re doing anything to distract themselves from the fact that they feel empty inside and unworthy.”
In the end, narcissism, social isolation, and emptiness leads to a kind of despair and a disillusionment of life. “Distractions,” Ablow said, “are temporary, and the truth is eternal.” Then he goes to caution us of the following: “Watch for an epidemic of depression and suicidality, not to mention homicidality, as the real self-loathing and hatred of others that lies beneath all this narcissism rises to the surface. I see it happening and, no doubt, many of you do, too.”
Dr. Keith Ablow does not give us the cure, but only the diagnosis.
Nevertheless, a public discussion on the cure is every bit as necessary.
I will venture to say that the only force that can arrest the rise of “deluded narcissists,” as he puts it, is a Christianity that is not only a life to be lived seven days a week, but a social influence that will once again penetrate into our public institutions.
In other words, Christianity has to permeate the fabric of society so that the virtues of simplicity and moderation can become common again. This, in part, will save us from living in a downloaded and surreal world of our own making.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.