Every year, I look forward to the annual survey of college freshman that reveals their attitudes on a wide variety of issues and tracks the trends of nearly 50 years of accumulated data from nine million college students. The lead author this year, psychologist Jean Twenge, summarized the 2013 findings with a stinging rebuke of today’s college freshmen, describing their “tendency toward narcissism” and noting that the trend line on narcissism has increased “30 percent over the past thirty-odd years.”
In a recent Fox News analysis of this year’s American Freshman Survey, Dr. Keith Ablow, a psychiatrist and member of the Fox News Medical A-Team, was not surprised at the findings on narcissism. He described today’s college students as “faux celebrities” who are “the equivalent of lead actors in their own fictionalized life stories.” Dr. Ablow has written much over the past few years about what he calls “the toxic psychological impact of media and technology on children, adolescents and young adults.” He has long noted the dramatic discrepancy between the dismal test scores of contemporary young people and their self-perceptions of being “gifted and driven to succeed.”
I found Dr. Ablow’s explanation and analysis of the American Freshman Survey fascinating as well as very, very troubling. He blames social media and all the technology tools and games for creating false images and expectations. He claims that social media and technology are “the psychological drugs of the 21st Century and they are getting our sons and daughters very sick, indeed.”
For instance, he is troubled by Facebook where “young people can fool themselves into thinking they have hundreds or thousands of ‘friends.’” Worse, they have absolute control over the medium: they can “delete unflattering comments,” “block those who disagree with them,” choose only the most “flattering, sexy or funny photographs” to project just the image that they want others to see, and “publicly connect” to a wide variety of celebrities by simply clicking “like.” He didn’t mention the indiscriminate, often quite damning, posts that some youth are putting out there for everyone, including future employers, to see.
Twitter, too, has problems, according to Dr. Ablow. Teens and young adults can have “followers” and “fans,” enhancing their “faux celebrity.” Computer games create the illusion of “being something that they are not.” Likewise, reality television fosters “self-involvement and self-love” that, though fictionalized, can seem real and/or normal.
Dr. Ablow ties all these influences on our teens with the political correctness of handing out trophies to losing athletic teams and inflating academic grades. Add manic dancing, too-loud music, drugs like Adderall, and gigantic energy drinks into the mix and it’s no wonder we have a generation of youth with major psychological problems.
Warning the public that “false pride can never be sustained,” Dr. Ablow laments all the “young people who are higher on drugs than ever, drunker than ever, smoking more, tattooed more, and pierced more and having more and more sex, earlier and earlier and earlier, raising babies before they can do it well, because it makes them feel special, for awhile.”
Sadly, he concludes, “They’re doing anything to distract themselves from the fact that they feel empty inside and unworthy.” He thinks that we’ll see epidemics of depression, suicide, and even homicide as all the “real self-loathing and hatred of others that lies beneath all this narcissism rises to the surface.”
Yes, he uses the word, “EPIDEMIC!” [emphasis mine]. And he expects that this epidemic will “dwarf the toll of any epidemic we have ever known.” His warning is sobering: “By the time we see the scope and destructiveness of this enemy clearly, we will also realize, as the saying goes, that it is us.”