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Calling our children narcissists on ‘a sociopathic scale’: Really!?

A column in The Guardian’s Web site called “Comment Is Free” (I guess you get what you pay for) starts off with an anecdote that reads like the heart-stopping opening scene of a new Netflix crime drama. Nothing wrong with that; grab a few more readers, sell a few more newspapers. What’s fatiguing is the writer using a tragic public murder to begin yet another commentary about today’s narcissistic young social media users (I’ll say “click to it,” but only to use reverse psychology).

She’s understandably shocked, as most of us would be, that some people actually took video of the victim dying. But how is her dramatically written lede much different from the behavior she’s criticizing, besides the fact that it’s text? And how – really – does she extrapolate from that that 8-to-18-year-olds who use Facebook, Snapchat and YouTube are much more narcissistic than all the generations that didn’t? She actually goes there.

The same authors – Harvard psychologist Harvard Gardner and social media researcher Katie Davis – The Guardian writer cites as writing that 80% of young people’s time in social media is spent talking about themselves (which, referring to today’s youth, she calls “narcissism on a sociopathic scale”) themselves cite research that says something quite different:

“While youth’s online behavior may appear narcissistic to an outsider’s eye, it’s important to keep in mind that their primary motivation for going online may well be not to promote themselves but rather to maintain and nurture their social ties,” Gardner and Davis write in The App Generation.

Annoyingly, probably (though they respectfully indulged me), I read the Guardian commentary to a couple of teenagers I know. The reflexive response of one of them to the comparison of teen social media users to the person(s) who took pictures of a dying crime victim was, “Hey, we’re not robots…. I would never do that and I don’t know anybody who’d do that.” They also couldn’t believe the association between people who take videos of awful things to ancient Romans using bears to tear apart humans as a public spectacle (that was actually in the article too) and then extrapolating from the video-ing of a dying murder victim that the social media users of their whole generation have a psychological disorder.

Enough said (except that maybe adults who read it will apply some media literacy, and teachers could use it for potentially lively classroom discussion to that end). But I’m still shaking my head over the disrespect shown young people. Maybe the writer doesn’t have children.

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