My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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“Generation Me”

Over the last couple of weeks, i’ve been telling loads of folks to go read Jean Twenge’s Generation Me and i realized i should probably share it with all y’all. Unlike most books on generations, this is a social psych analaysis of different behavioral characteristics over the decades. Translation: there’s a shitload of data here. The book is a bit too pop psychology for my tastes, but it makes it very accessible.

In “Generation Me,” Twenge outlines key characteristics of the current generation of teens/20-somethings that differentiate them from previous generations. For example, she goes through the data on narcissism and self-esteem, looking at how the self-esteem movement in the 1980s is directly correlated with the narcissism we see now. Some of what she points out is painfully present in our current conversation of Virginia Tech:

“Unfortunately, narcissism can lead to outcomes far worse than grade grubbing. Several studies have found that narcissists lash out aggressively when they are insulted or rejected. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the teenage gunmen at Columbine High School, made statements remarkably similar to items on the most popular narcissism questionnaire. On a videotape made before the shootings, Harris picked up a gun, made a shooting noise, and said “Isn’t it fun to get the respect we’re going to deserve?” (Chillingly similar to the narcissism item “I insist upon getting the respect that is due me.”) … Abusive husbands who threaten to kill their wives – and tragically sometimes do – are the ultimate narcissists. They see everyone and everything in terms of fulfilling their needs, and become very angry and aggressive when things don’t go exactly their way. Many workplace shootings occur after an employee is fired and decides that he’ll “show” everyone how powerful he is.” (Twenge 2006, 70-71)

I’ve been running around the country interviewing teens and this is the first book on generations that i’ve found that hits the mark dead-on. Eerily so. Much of it is quite bothersome. Twenge does an amazing job at outlining how our schools have become completely useless at educating because it’s more important to make students feel good than to be critical of their work. When i was in Iowa, i had a mother explain to me that teachers couldn’t give bad grades to rich students at the local high school because the country club moms would pressure the schools to fire such overly critical teachers.

Twenge unpacks the problems with the “You can be anything you want!” value, looking critically at how this sets up unrealistic expectations that result in all sorts of social chaos.

Anyhow, i’ll leave it at that and hope that i’ve whet your appetite just a whee bit. This is a must read if you’re a parent, a teacher, a marketer, a designer, a politician or otherwise interested in the under-25 crowd. (And if you’re not, how on earth can you stand this blog these days?) So, please, go read Generation Me and report back here what you think.

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14 comments to “Generation Me”

  • The self-esteem bandwagon had big rewards for everyone. Teachers could hand out more gold stars for fewer math tests. Kids could daydream through dumbed-down classes and write up reports as rock lyrics. Parents were assured (if their their bored kids drank, drugged, or bullied) that such setbacks had an easy and guaranteed fix–more self-esteem! That would put their kids back on the road to guaranteed fulfillment. And that self-esteem could be delivered easily, painlessly, by busy parents during even infrequent “quality time.”

    Will this feel-good symbiosis be run off the rails by mere research results? I have higher hopes for an end to abstinence-only sex education–and those bozos just hired the Swiftboaters PR team to defend their obviously-failed solution.

    http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/blog/2007/04/03/when-abstinence-only-policies-fail-bring-in-the-hatchet-men-to-preserve-bushs-billion-dollar-boondoggle

  • Thanks for the reference! *ordered*

  • My response to this and the earlier “fame, narcissism…” post is here.

  • Ordered the book too, I was looking for a book on this subject, getting deeper and deeper into the topic, it’s fascinating, being a 22yr old myspace-youtube-blog-etc. head myself, lol

  • It’s interesting that the discsussion is about schools that have become useless because of their emphasis on self esteem. Two points…

    I find there are contrary currents flowing in education today. NCLB puts performance and achievement above self-esteem.

    The other point I think is important… is that self esteem can be built without “dumbing down” the work; “inflating grades”; or “heaping phony praise” on kids. Developing authentic self-esteem and a sense of self-worth is an important part of our work as educators; it is not an “either/or” situation; but a commitment to achievement and self esteem.

    Kids know when they are being falsely praise and passed on without working to their ability, etc. They won’t speak it out loud; but they know. Phony praise and inflated grades don’t really build self-esteem.

    pete

  • This is a great reference post… Thanks danah.

    Folks here might also be interested in a 2000 book written by sociologists Barbara Schneider and David Stevenson:

    http://www.amazon.com/Ambitious-Generation-Teenagers-Motivated-Directionless/dp/0300082754

    Last year the Brown Center on Education Policy (where I used to work) conducted a study examining the link between self-esteem and student achievement.

    Here is the URL to last year’s Brown Center Report:

    http://www.brookings.edu/gs/brown/bc_report/2006/2006report.htm

    – Paul

  • Consumatopia

    My feelings about self-esteem in youth are conflicted. I definitely believe that a person who treats others with respect and keeps humility in their heart will not only be a better person, but probably a happier person too. On this, I’m allied with no small number of sages, philosophers and, apparently, social scientists.

    But there’s also this disgusting sentiment out there (not here) that if only those uppity lower classes would accept their fate instead of agitating against it everything would be so much smoother and easier. Violently insisting on the respect one deserves is self-destructive. But that’s frequently how deterrence works–mutually assured destruction. Any time you find yourself tempted to tell some group that they think too highly of themselves, you can’t be surprised if the group in question interprets this as an attack and they act even more arrogant and self-righteous. The only way to teach humility is to act with humility.

    I realize that no one here, least of all Dannah Boyd, intends to make it easier to oppress lower classes. Indeed, it can be argued persuasively that assertiveness and entitlement serve doubly to make oppressors more inclined to oppress and the oppressed more easily manipulable. But everyone must realize–if you rally against self-esteem, you will be opposing things a whole lot deeper than rich yuppies spoiling their children.

    I’m also not buying that American schools are the primary causal factor here, in that this sort of destructive resentment is on the rise across the globe. The ultimate narcissist is the abusive husband? Nope. The ultimate narcissist is the suicide bomber. Walking up to a room full of civilians and blowing away everyone surrounding you because God is on My Side.

    I blame global media for selling a lifestyle that’s out of reach to the vast majority of the world’s people, combined with global competition and technological transformation that makes any progress towards that lifestyle seem fragile, unstable, and only for a few people at the top.

  • I would encourage folks to not jump off of my explanation into a conversation about self-esteem/education but to read the book and then let’s discuss. The tendency to take a topic and discuss in abstraction rather than reading the book is one of the problems with current high school environments. Teens rarely read the books these days, opting for SparkNotes (the modern day Cliff Notes) if they read even that. Then they discuss their feelings about a topic rather than rooting it in the literature that they were supposed to have read. For this purpose of this blog entry, i’d love to avoid falling into the trap that is precisely caused by the topic we want to discuss.

  • I appreciate your invitation to read the book; but I’m reacting to your own comments…not the books….

    “I’ve been running around the country interviewing teens and this is the first book on generations that i’ve found that hits the mark dead-on. Eerily so. Much of it is quite bothersome. Twenge does an amazing job at outlining how our schools have become completely useless at educating because it’s more important to make students feel good than to be critical of their work. When i was in Iowa, i had a mother explain to me that teachers couldn’t give bad grades to rich students at the local high school because the country club moms would pressure the schools to fire such overly critical teachers.”

    I don’t think I need to read the book to react to the above paragraph and your example about teachers not being able to give bad greades to rich students…

    pete

  • Steve

    Well, I think it’s time for another rant about cultural diversity among teens. But with a somewhat different focus. I have not read the Twenge book, and sadly I probably won’t have the opportunity. It sounds genuinely fascinating. But on to the narcissism question.

    I am quite prepared to accept that this trend exists, at least among the culturally visible/culturally powerful. Whether it is dominant numerically, I have no way to know. I’m not even sure whether I could claim that “my” teenage acquaintances are free of that trend. I do know that many of them place a high value on kindness, caring and concern for others – which would intuitively tend to correlate negatively with narcissism.

    But the interesting questions, to me, are ones like these. How pervasive is the narcissist trend numerically? Is there a significant population that is *not* caught up in that trend? What causal factors might be implicated in their ability to resist or ignore the trend? Is there a basis for discerning an actual counter-trend? If there is such a counter-trend, does it appear it possesses the basis for long-term viability? Could it come to supplant the dominant trend? Might that be encouraged? Is this something that should become a policy focus? Why or why not?

    Inquiring minds want to know,
    -Steve

    P.S. And for “narcissism” also substitute any other disturbing trend among teens which appears presently dominant but might not be irrevocably so.

  • Steve

    For those who are amazon.com customers, Jean Twenge has a blog there. However, one has to have made an amazon.com purchase to post a comment. :(

  • Just the other week the book fell into my mailbox and from the first pages I’m all into it!

    thanks for the tip, once finished I’ll let you know how I feel about it, being a GenMe’er myself :)

    Apart from the Amazon blog is there perhaps another blog out there where the author writes? I can’t seem to find any, in any case if you’d get to meet her, tell her she should start one, that would be great!

  • hedonism

    Although nothing near the level of Twenge’s book, we’ve recently started a blog that aims to address what the author covers in ‘Generation Me.’ Although the site is partially meant to indulge in the instant-gratification culture, it’s also meant to serve as a satire of those same values.

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