To Americans over 30, YouTube, Facebook, MySpace and Twitter are buzzwords that lack much meaning. But to those born between 1982 and 2001—often referred to as “millennials” or “Generation Y”—they are a part of everyday life. For the uninitiated, these Web sites are used for social networking and communication. They are also places where individuals can post pictures and news about themselves and express their opinions on everything from music to movies to politics. Some sites, such as YouTube, allow individuals to post videos of themselves, often creating enough “buzz” to drive hundreds and even thousands of viewers; in some instances, these videos create instant media stars—such as the Obama imitator, Iman Crosson.

The amount of content on these Web sites is overwhelming and the time Americans spend on them is on the rise. More than one-third of Internet use is devoted to social networking sites.1 We are now collectively spending 13.9 billion minutes on Facebook, and 5 billion minutes on MySpace. Twitter grew at a rate of more than 3700% in the past year, taking up 300 million minutes of our time.2

Although baby boomers and members of “Generation X” are signing up for these sites, it is the youth market that drives their appeal. While on the surface, they are touted as venues for networking and communication, they may, ultimately, be eroding real relationships and social contacts much as e-mail, instant messaging and “texting” have replaced cards, letters, and phone calls.

This technology may be interfering with the normal development of a generation, prolonging the “normal” narcissism of adolescence and preventing the establishment of mature relationships. Rather than learning critical lessons about emotional sensitivity to others and reciprocity in relationships, our youth are creating alternate, solipsistic realities where they are the focus of attention. Those who do not agree are simply excluded from their inner circle.3 Thus, these technological advances may be fostering a sense of isolation, alienation, and (at worst) promoting a tendency toward narcissism that may ultimately lead to an increase in violence and aggression.

A series of studies by Twenge and Campbell4 demonstrated that narcissists experienced more anger and aggression following perceived social rejection. The narcissists’ anger was not only manifested as direct aggression toward the person who slighted him or her but also as displaced aggression toward innocent third parties.4 It is indeed a disturbing finding, then, that more than half of teen profiles on MySpace mention risky and violent behaviors.

Even if it is just so much empty talk, the mere proliferation of these attitudes may produce desensitization. Ultimately, desensitization may encourage the acting out of these behaviors,5 as we have tragically seen in the case of Columbine and, more recently, the Pennsylvania health club shooting in which the perpetrators posted messages and videos on the Internet before the events.

What makes such sites appealing to “millennials”? Web pages posted on social networking sites tend to be filled with photographs and writings expressing the opinions of the individual. In some cases, they are examples of exhibitionism at its most extreme. Yet, the number of videos uploaded to YouTube and “tweets” sent on Twitter increase exponentially by the day. The prevailing assumption is that everyone has something to say that is worthy of the attention of the masses. This is a generation screaming for attention and recognition, seeking their promised “15 minutes of fame.” And millennials often go to great lengths to get it, posting suggestive and downright salacious photos of themselves or uploading outrageous videos. The reward for bad behavior is, it seems, instant fame as measured by “hits,” “views,” and “followers.”

It is no wonder, then, that the millennial generation has a reputation for being self-absorbed and narcissistic.6 Indeed, analyses of web page content on social networking sites has been shown to correlate with not only self-reports of narcissism but with the objective impressions of viewers.7,8 Use of sites such as Facebook are almost ubiquitous among college students and, while such widespread use suggests that it is a normal part of social interaction, the level of narcissism present indicates that, consistent with these traits, the emphasis is on quantity over quality.8 Not surprisingly, then, studies show that college students have increasingly endorsed narcissistic attitudes on standardized tests, such as the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. Comparisons of students between 1982 and 2006 revealed that a full 30% had scored in the above average range by the end of the study period, earning this generation the additional designation of “Generation Me.”9 These results have been replicated in additional studies, which found that college students have steadily endorsed more narcissistic traits since 2000, making this, arguably, the most self-centered decade yet.10

These findings are not unique to cohorts of college students. Rather, they have been replicated in a nationally representative study of 35,000 Americans. Interviews conducted to determine the frequency of narcissistic traits demonstrated that only 3% of individuals over age 60 met criteria for narcissistic personality disorder but that 9% of those in their 20s did.11

If this trend continues, fueled even more by technology, the implications are disturbing. Narcissism, at its most malignant, fosters lack of empathy, poor impulse control, and frank aggression when insult or threat is perceived,3 particularly in the context of social rejection.4 It is the most extreme narcissistic individuals who tend to be the most dangerous. While it can be argued that any perceived increases are small, at best, they cannot be minimized. Small changes on a bell curve are most apparent, not at the average, but at the extremes. Therefore, even small increases over time will foster the development of greater numbers at the far end of the curve.11

It is, therefore, imperative to understand the social and cultural underpinnings of this alarming rise in narcissistic attitudes. In 1979, Christopher Lasch argued in The Culture of Narcissism that increasingly permissive culture eroded the superego, making it secondary to the will of the ego.12 The growth of capitalism after World War II encouraged a focus on immediate gratification and improved social status. After years of sacrifice and rationing, Americans embarked on a course of mass consumerism. These pursuits fostered a narcissistic mindset.

The rise of an advanced industrial culture that stressed consumerism and equated social standing with personal possessions rather than personal achievements favored Freud’s id and ego. The superego, or internalization of societal mores and restrictions, was itself becoming more permissive as society broke down one barrier after another.12 Modesty and self-restraint took a backseat to affluence and self-indulgence.

Million and Davis13 identified that narcissism had gained prominence in the closing decades of the past century. The citizens of industrialized nations, now less preoccupied with mere survival than their Third World counterparts, were falling subject to the higher levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Arrogance and grandiosity, once reserved only for royalty or the extremely wealthy, were now within reach of the populace at large. The United States in particular was viewed as a crucible of pathological narcissism, praising individualism and self-gratification over the needs of the community. Self-esteem was no longer derived from a sense of identification with the reputation and honor of a larger family, group, culture, or nation. Rather, the focus turned to the individual, fostering alienation over a sense of belonging and connectedness and further reinforcing narcissistic behaviors.13

This article originally appeared in:

Psychiatric Times

It is reprinted here with permission.