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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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March022007

Has MySpace Contributed to Generation Me?

A new study out this week suggests that today’s college students are more self-centered than ever before. The question I keep asking myself, though, is why so many people are blaming MySpace and other social media tools for this apparent trend. Perhaps there’s a connection, but there’s plenty more blame to go around.

As reported by the Associated Press and other national news outlets, a longitudinal study examining narcissism among students over the last 25 years suggests that today’s young people are more focused on themselves than previous generations. Since 1982, more than 16,000 college students have participated in the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. This survey asks students to react to phrases such as “If I ruled the world, it would be a better place,” “I think I am a special person” and “I can live my life any way I want to.” Researchers then examine the results in the aggregate to make a determination regarding overall self-centeredness among students.

According to the latest data, college students are more focused on themselves than any other previous group of students. Quoting the AP article:

The researchers describe their study as the largest ever of its type and say students’ NPI scores have risen steadily since the current test was introduced in 1982. By 2006, they said, two-thirds of the students had above-average scores, 30 percent more than in 1982.

Narcissism can have benefits, said study co-author W. Keith Campbell of the University of Georgia, suggesting it could be useful in meeting new people “or auditioning on ‘American Idol.’”

“Unfortunately, narcissism can also have very negative consequences for society, including the breakdown of close relationships with others,” he said.

The study asserts that narcissists “are more likely to have romantic relationships that are short-lived, at risk for infidelity, lack emotional warmth, and to exhibit game-playing, dishonesty, and over-controlling and violent behaviors.”

Professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University, co-author of the research, places some of the blame on what she calls the “self-esteem movement” that began in the 1980s. “We need to stop endlessly repeating ‘You’re special’ and having children repeat that back,” she said. “Kids are self-centered enough already.”

But things have gotten worse, she suggests, because of ubiquitous access to social media tools on the Internet. “Current technology fuels the increase in narcissism,” Twenge said. “By its very name, MySpace encourages attention-seeking, as does YouTube.”

This is where I have to stop and raise my eyebrows for a moment. (I’d raise just one eyebrow in a moment of Spock-like skepticism, but alas, I didn’t inherit that most communicative gene.) Narcissism isn’t something you learn overnight, let alone in a year or two, especially in late adolescence. It’s built up through years of development. Yet the social media tools she blames have only been around for a few years at most; YouTube hasn’t even reached its second birthday yet.

She also makes too much of the fact that some of these tools have brand names that embrace the first-person, such as MySpace and YouTube. Twenge equates these tools with being “all about me.” They are about me, but not in the way she thinks they are. The vast majority of people who use social networking sites aren’t in on it to become famous and have hordes of adoring fans. Sure, some people are there for vanity or proto-celebrity purposes, but most people are there for us, not me. They’re communities where people come together to find each other and bond over likeminded interests. They’re communities where people reinforce interpersonal relationships through sharing and creating content. The names MySpace and YouTube are merely references to the fact that they’re an experience built around your interests and creative abilities - and the others who share those interests and abilities. Just as Time Magazine botched it when they declared “you” as person of the year, Twenge misunderstands the ethos of social media, not recognizing that users of social media do it because they care about the notion of “us” and want to be a part of something bigger than themselves.

Does this necessarily mean that there isn’t a correlation at all between self-centeredness and ubiquitous media consumption? There probably is, I would surmise. But that may have more to do with reality TV and the cult of celebrity in this country than it does with whether your teen has a Facebook profile. More research on the impact of media on young people is always welcome, but that doesn’t mean we can jump to conclusions simply because the brand names of certain dot-coms embrace the first person.

Anyway, that’s my opinion. Mine! All mine! -andy

Filed under : Research, Social Networking

Responses

This seems typical, though, and seems to point to a greater problem in our society.

MySpace seems to have taken over MTV (late eighties and nineties) as the poster child for all things wrong with our children. Many (not all, but perhaps most) researchers, parents and school administrators simply need somewhere to place the blame. A somewhat Girardian escape, perhaps, which may have more to do with the adults’ psyche than the so-called problem the kids are facing.

Recently, MySpace, Friendster AND “blogs” or any sites remotely related have all been blocked by our school district’s filter. Instead of blocking and filtering, school districts, researchers and parents need to be learning from, instead of whining about, places like myspace, youtube, flickr, etc.

But school districts seem so much more concerned about lawsuits than about actually making any kind of impact on the learning environment and experience of a child.

The greater problem here, however, is that the schooling experiment in our country continues to be abysmally lame, for the most part—If in fact, this experiment is supposed to be about teaching and learning.

Unfortunately, the true learning environment(s) of our kids continue to be the communities on the fringes and how these communities intermingle to jointly form our kids’ education. This intermingling can be good or bad, whole or fragmented.

These communities include family, friends, after-school groups, clubs, nicktv, cartoonnetwork, gaming, chatting, MySpace, YouTube, etc. Communities, yes, but, particularly, socially networked communities, if I may.

And the schooling experiment, for these kids, is just a boring experince that just gets in the way, for twelve long years.

But, God forbid, we point at the nature of the schooling experiment in our country and the leadership that guides it as the greater problem.

“I’ve never let school get in the way of my education.”
-mark twain

I agree that we should not attribute a recent trend like My Space or You Tube to an increase in narcissistic behavior. I also take issue with the “self esteem movement” Twenge wants to blame. I have been in education 16 years and think our responsibility for building children up is not a negative one. In my experience, schools are better at noticing and quelling behaviors that contribute to poor self-esteem. In my first years teaching we worked very hard to build self esteem in middle school through small group activities where students were able to really bond with a member of the staff. There is also a better awareness as to the effects of bullying and it is dealt with rather than simply passing it off as a rite of passage.
Outside the classroom, parents are more indulgent of their children too. They want them to have opportunities to be involved in extracurricular as well as academic pursuits. Children/young adults must be given responsibility, and perhaps there has been a lack of that in that some expect to be catered to, but that is not the fault of our schools. Does the survey tap into the fact that young people simply feel better about themselves not narcissism? If so, what is really wrong with that?

I have to respectfully disagree with Saul’s comment:
“schooling experiment in our country continues to be abysmally lame, for the most part …..And the schooling experiment, for these kids, is just a boring experince that just gets in the way, for twelve long years.

But, God forbid, we point at the nature of the schooling experiment in our country and the leadership that guides it as the greater problem.”

Educational techniques are cyclic just like everything else in life. While I can agree that our educational system could be improved the vast majority of teachers are working very hard to educate our children. They may not have the time to learn new technologies and incorporate them into lessons in a timely manner but they are always looking for new ways to ignite a love of learning in students. In many ways, if we can teach students to adapt and how to find appropriate information when they need it, they’ll be able to do the rest on their own (and they are). Technology is not going to slow down to let the learning curve catch up so we have to stop blaming schools for not always having the resources to stay at the top of the wave. I sit on a fence with filtering, I know that good content is blocked, but it is naive to think that teenagers will avoid inappropriate sites just because we have taught them to know better.
I’ve grown weary of reading so many blogs that blame schools, and so many – not this one— bring up “how I was bored in school too”. May I point out that the same people who think they are well educated and who are pointing blame at our educational system are also a product of it.

Thanks for your comments Cindy. I’m glad we can respectfully disagree.

I’m not sure how or where you read me blaming teachers. I’ve been an inner-city, public school teacher for seven years now, love my job and can’t see myself doing anything else. Nothing gets me more excited than a classroom full of engaged learners. Teachers would be the second to the last to blame. The last being the children themselves.

I think you’ve completely missed my point(s) but that’s o.k. As I said, I’m glad we can respectfully disagree.

And yes, unfortunately, I am a product of this public school system. Very little, if any, of my education has come from it. Im an educated person today in spite of the schooling system and not because of it.

“I’ve never let school get in the way of my education.”
-mark twain

Hey, I’m from the generation affected by Myspace and blogs. Guess what? I don’t have one. Either one. Actually, I just got the internet this week. And you want to hear somthing really interesting? I’m just as narcissic and emotionally detached as all the other kids in my grade. In fact, I’m probably even more dispassionate than most of them. If you want to blame something, yell at sesome street or PBS, because that’s what I grew up watching (my family doesn’t have cable or satellite). Not so quick to lay blame now?

I don’t think that all teenagers now are narcissistic, but many more so than 20 years ago. I don’t think that technologies like My Space or You Tube are the reasons that there has been an increase in narcissistic behavior, either. There has been a general decrease in the common civility of young people that high school teachers and even college professors are noticing too often. I think we are neglecting to say “no” and properly correct and discipline our young people so they are left with really mistaken ideas of what is proper or improper behavior. They are certainly not used to or open to having an adult correct them in any way. This leads to a feeling of entitlement and an overblown sense of their own importance. It is caused by a pure laziness and lack of courage on the part of adults to properly do their jobs on behalf of young people. The adults who are blaming MySpace or YouTube are the ones who have not even bothered to check them out and have made no effort to monitor what their children are doing on the Internet in the first place.

Andy,

I don’t see how Jean Twenge’s statement “Current technology fuels the increase in narcissism” is defeated by your argument. It’s true, as you point out, “Narcissism isn’t something you learn overnight, let alone in a year or two, especially in late adolescence.” But if American culture as a whole is steeped in narcissism, as one could make a fairly good case for, then late adolescents already have it enculturated within them. Twenge doesn’t say that current technology fuels narcissism; she says it “fuels the increase in narcissism,” a significant difference and one that would seem self-evident.

If you do have an argument, it may lie less in viewing social networking sites as fuel for narcissism than as symptoms of it. The technology may simply have allowed a kind of extension of an already virulent cultural phenomenon. What we may be seeing is less cause but more outgrowth.

You also state that users of social networking sites like MySpace “care about the notion of ‘us’ and want to be a part of something bigger than themselves.” Well, maybe. But I wonder if such a notion isn’t more vicarious than real. Real community requires real dependence; social networking sites may be little more than a mask, a ruse, for covering up a real fear of that.

One senses that MySpacers care less about being liked and care more about being admired. Such a notion doesn’t so much foster community as it inhibits it. It fools the user that she is part of a community, but how much community can there be when most seem transfixed by their own reflections? A community of mirror gazers?

Despite the cyber connection among its inhabitants, any social networking site must still grapple with physical distance. How much “us” can there be when distance separates, physical presence is absent, and pseudonyms or incomplete names mask identity? Yes, action can result from cyber connections, and people can coalesce around issues online, making a kind of community, but is that what we see at places like MySpace or Facebook? If so, it’s escaped me.

Here’s looking at you, kid.

Mike S.

I have been out of high school for almost 30 years - I now teach high school students. As I look at students of today compared to the late 1970’s I can see similarities and differences.

Similarities;
Both have teenagers that want to be the center of attention.
The teenagers that envy the others that get the attention that try to get it other ways. Parents wanting better for their children than they had it. Ever hear of ‘helicopter parents’?

Differences;
Back - it could have been showing off – now they can do it with the on-line methods.
Today - more students expect rewards IMMEDIATELY.
Back - most students knew they had to earn and wait for rewards.
Back – I didn’t see students look down on other students as much as today
Today – more disrespectful students. Comment from fellow teacher –“ I dread the thought that students will be our caregivers when we are in nursing homes!”
Today – little compassion for others.

These sites just make it more apparent of the types of children our society is raising. I don’t think the blame can be put on just one source. Parenting (both having to work to make ends meet – even though it may be more than they should need), education (constantly changing to jump through hoops to try to get the newest requirement or trend tried), technology, and etc.

Maybe the phrase that pops in my head is “Don’t blame the messenger!” Maybe this is a sign of what needs to be done to help our students.

I’m going to completely disagree Andy. First of all such studies are bunk. I’m not even going to go through the endless reasons why. Not enough time.

But primarily it comes down to this. This generation is much more empowered than the last. The medium is the message as they say. The last major generation was the MTV generation. Perhaps the first generation to be targeted in gradeschool and teans as a mass market. That’s what that represents to me. They grew up more media savy, more anti-comercial, maybe even a little jadded, but it was a generation that largely was put on the shelf like all the generations of the TV era, a little more so.

This generation, some call the igeneration, and indeed that is my favorite term for it, has grown up in a DIY world. A world where they can actively engage in a larger more fluid debate then the one at their school, or in their neighborhood. I think… while there are many negatives, that this is overwhelmingly positive in producing a generation with a whole different world view, a new idenity.

All I can do to back this up is compare this new generation to what I see as an insider to other new age cultural phenomon. Open source culture, DIY culture, the makers, the videoblogging, blogging and podcasting worlds.

In these world the first instinct when you need something or it breaks is to fix it, or if you can’t ask a friend or go to the internet to find someone or something that will help you… NOT to go to the store and buy a new widget.

It’s not just a small change, because as this happens it creates a whole dialogue… a web of wikis, mailing lists, blogs, user groups and all manner spaces and surface area for people to interact. It’s an entire culture that exists outside of ties to church, or work, or school, or many commercialized spaces and interests.

If you want to meet this culture all you need do is set aside some time and run linux on you desktop, or spend a month or two making videos on youtube, or start writing a blog, doing a podcast, or videoblogging. Get really into flickr. It isn’t easy to arbitrarily do. You have to do something you have a deep passion and interest in and find a place to conect with others and share that interest. It can’t be done arbitrarily… and yet it happens. Because people find those small groups of people on the planet that share those same unique intrests.

Some call it geek culture… everyone is a geek about something. Some call it DIY culture.

And some idiots call it anarchy, socialism/communism, gift culture, or narcism.

What it is is a radical cultural shift that’s creating a generational divide. If MTV was indicative of the last major generation, then youtube and myspace are definitely indicative of this generation.

And I think it’s far healthier for kids to be interacting with each other and watching each others videos and reading each others posts then be to merely be absorbing the crap huge media conglomerates are pumping out.

Personally… A term I like to use is “Social super users”. A super user in the computing world is one who knows how to dive beneath the gui and use the command line. I’d like to think this generation who’s grown up with all these social webservices and social media know more about collaborating and about themselves and their idenity then any other generation.

BTW, Nice blog. What’s it running on? Wordpress? Moveable type? Something other?

You’ve lost me, Michael. I think I agree with every word you wrote, so where are we in disagreement? How does what I wrote contradict that?

The blog’s running on Movable Type, btw.

As I high school teacher for many years, I have been at the front lines of this MySpace Generation controversy. And narcissism is at the bottom of the list of things to be concerned about… so are predators, for that matter.

Anyone who undertakes a super-media-saturated way of life is at risk of becoming a disconnected and lonely individual, but a preteen or teen whose delicate coming-of-age process is set to a 24/7 backdrop of reality television, iPod videos, and MySapce messages is at risk of more lasting and less trivial effects. Remember McCluhan’s mantra, “The medium is the message.”

And the message this MySpace Generation is hearing is:

1. I must be entertained all the time.
2. If you’ve got it, flaunt it.
3. Happiness is a glamorous adult.
4. Success means being a consumer.

Are these four messages inherently narcissistic? Perhaps, but really aren’t we all struggling narcissists at heart? We just don’t like to admit it.

Again, the real issue is the warped MySpace influence on youth culture — the total effects of which we don’t even know yet.

interesting article. what caught my eye was the statement intended to be alarming that “two-thirds of the students had above-average scores.” while the AP writer who was quoted may have misstated the original work of Prof. Twenge, clearly only half can have above-average scores. or is “scientific” research influenced by media more than schooling, as in “all the students at Lake Woebegone are above average?”

while i don’t know the methods used here, i tend to disbelieve the results of students filling out questionnaires especially since language usage changes in college students in relatively short time periods, and current culture makes mucking up the study fun. so we hear reports that some high percentage of students don’t know where Washington, D.C. is on a map.

if the quoted study is done by questionnaire, then the method was chosen because it’s cheap and easy to analyze, not because it yields reliable results. i’m constantly frustrated by multiple-choice quentionnaires placed in front of me in adult life, like customer satisfaction surveys. i can assure you that the results do not indicate my feelings because i’m limited to choosing only from stupid answers.

I agree that all children want to be the center of the world and to become a functioning adult is to realize that this is not possible. Not only is it not possible, but it is not healthy. To possess everything that time, money and attention can afford is to invite misery. I do not believe that mySpace or even the Internet have created the “me, me, me” attitude that permeates our society. Capitalism has caused this population of credit draining, gotta have it now mentality that is destroying the fabric of our culture. That and reality television.

It’s crazy how many people are using myspace there is truely a addiction to myspace. I even find myself spending many hours in front of the computer looking at myspace. It’s like what was i really doing the whole time really nothing.

I just think college students are geting addicted to sites like myspace and facebook so they blame those sites because they spend so much time on them and with time it causes drama.

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