At my granddaughter’s christening, I noticed something strange. Everyone was smiling and laughing and taking pictures of little Lennox Anne in her baptismal gown. Everyone — parents, grandparents, godparents, family and friends — wanted time in the spotlight with her.
Cameras and cell phones came out. People were shooting selfies. Some were taking video. Everybody was making funny faces and talking gibberish to get a laugh, and Lennox was accommodating them. Like most babies in the Instagram age, she’s been the subject of nonstop photos since birth.
While one of my daughters was trying to elicit yet another smile from her, I realized something unusual. She wasn’t looking at my daughter’s crazy antics — she was looking at the smart phone. How does a baby know to look at the camera, unless …
Without realizing, are we turning a 5-month-old into a newbie narcissist? Will she become like those countless young women and men who prowl the streets, bars and concert halls of America and make duck lips whenever they’re within 50 feet of a camera? Will she get her own “selfie stick” for her birthday and take it to nursery school?
A recent study by Ohio State University found that when parents “overvalue” their kids, they score higher on tests for the “narcissistic personality disorder.” Brad Bushman, the author of the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said “overvalued children are not more intelligent or better performing than other children” … but they believe they are.
“Overvaluing” means that parents overstate their children’s accomplishments, leading them to believe they deserve special recognition. This practice was inspired in large part by the “self-esteem” movement in America over the past several decades.
Jean Twenge, co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic, says, “Narcissism causes almost all of the things that Americans hoped high self-esteem would prevent, including aggression, materialism, lack of caring for others, and shallow values. In trying to build a society that celebrates high self-esteem, self-expression and ‘loving yourself,’ Americans have inadvertently created more narcissists — and a culture that brings out the narcissistic behavior in all of us.”
Narcissism is a peculiar disorder of the 21st Century. It affects an estimated 7 percent of the population, and the epidemic is spreading fast.
The other day as I was walking from the train into Grand Central Terminal, I found myself following a young woman who looked at her reflection in every window she passed. She apparently couldn’t control the urge.
I recently read an interview with Pope Francis, who had a simple technique to diagnose narcissism. He said if you spend a lot of time staring at yourself in the mirror, you’re probably a narcissist. By that definition, this young woman was already in the advanced stages of the disorder, characterized by an intense obsession with “I, me, mine.”
Francis said, “We have ‘mirror’ men and women who are wedded to their own image in the mirror, who are closed in on themselves and constantly looking at themselves.”
Narcissism typically afflicts 20-to-30-something-year-olds, and the symptoms include excessive self-admiration and an inflated opinion of yourself. Medication won’t help. I suspect that humility is the only antidote, but humility is hard to find in modern America.
The problem is made worse by a society that worships celebrities. We idolize them, we emulate them. Consider that someone like Kim Kardashian has almost 35 million followers on Twitter who hang on her every word and feel special when they get a tweet or bikini photo from her. Everything from reality TV to supermarket tabloids and social media encourages young people to become narcissistic.
These delusions of superiority can also provoke criminal behavior, aggression, violence and failed relationships, when narcissists don’t get the attention they believe they’re owed.
But there’s hope. The long-term prognosis is good. Experts say that if narcissists live long enough — and don’t get fatally injured by a cracked mirror — they will suffer enough adversity in life to bring them back to the real world. You see, the putdowns, humiliations, failures and rejections that life throws our way have a tendency to tarnish an exalted self-image.
Remember, this is America, where all men and women are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of selfies.
Reach Joe Pisani at joefpisani [at] yahoo.com.