Recently, there’s been a fair amount of discourse surrounding a perceived rise in narcissism among young Americans, alongside a marked decline in empathy. A lot of this discourse focuses on how narcissism is expressed within the social media space.
A hallmark of narcissism is the desire for attention, and fame is the ultimate embodiment of that ideal. Several recent studies have revealed that today’s teens and pre-teens value and aspire to fame much more so than previous generations, suggesting that an increasingly narcissistic youth culture is not just a figment of our curmudgeonly imagination.
What is exactly happening in modern learning environments that accounts for such a shift in values? What is it about how pre-teens and teens receive their information and form their attitudes that is so drastically distinct from previous generations?
Media consumption is an alleged contributer. Reality TV at the start of the new millennium was a seminal event in promoting fame as both important and easily attainable; these sentiments were then intensified by the explosion of social media later that decade. Both media environments represented a new democratization of fame, with the former planting the seed and the latter amplifying its effects. Media consumers who were born in the early 2000s were the first to be raised in an environment shaped by a combination of these two forces. New attitudes towards fame would then become cemented into their value systems during their formative years.
In the 1990s, producers turned to reality TV as a means to cut production costs and bypass union politics (Fenoglio). The format proved highly profitable; there were no professional actors or script writers to pay and content drew unprecedented viewership. The genre boomed, and soon a new type of television star emerged.
Fame was no longer an exclusive rite of the elite; it was attainable to anyone with enough gumption or moxie. (Or at least, low enough levels of self-awareness.) Shows like Survivor, The Real World, American Idol, and Laguna Beach demonstrated that celebrity status was now a conceivable possibility for the masses sitting on the sidelines at home. Even more equalizing, talent was no longer always a requirement for notoriety. Fame was on the open market.
The availability of modern communications tools helped further democratize fame. The expansion of social media in the mid-2000s gave rise to the internet celebrity, the latest iteration of the average joe-turned-superstar. Personalities like MySpace’s Tila Tequila and YouTube stars Justin Bieber and Rebecca Black reaffirmed to the masses that they too, with the right amount of attention and the right tools, could achieve overnight stardom. Their success was based on leveraging a new kind of currency – attention in the form of likes and shares – to achieve higher status. Naturally, kids in the audience would then be conditioned to “crave the virtual audience that they see bringing so much attention to others” (Uhls).
Research has shown that kids 9 to 15 years of age who frequently use social media place a higher value on fame than their peers who rarely or never use it (Kelmon). So, it may not be that desire for fame is anything new; instead, the novelty lies in a newfound perception that the stardom they desire is realistically achievable, which makes it more enticing.
Fame-Focused Feedback Loop
While reality TV and social media paved the way for a fame-obsessed learning environment, there is evidence that these values are now reinforced in scripted TV content targeting pre-teens. UCLA researchers Patricia Greenfield and Yalda Uhls conducted a content analysis of TV shows most popular with 9 to 11-year olds, spanning a 40-year period (Greenfield and Uhls). The aim was to identify what types of messages were most strongly promoted in pre-teen programming over the years and to document any shift in values over time. They found that from 1967 to 1997, the prevailing theme in preteen programming was “community feeling”– being part of a closely knit family or group. Think Andy Griffith, Happy Days, Growing Pains, — and basically anything on the entire Miller Boyette spectrum. Fame was ranked last of 16 possible values promoted in these shows.
Then, in 2007, there was a sudden and drastic shift. Fame became the number-one value communicated to pre-teens in their shows, with community feeling falling to number eleven. Shows like Hannah Montana and American Idol reigned supreme, promoting wealth and fame over the loyalty, cohesion, and togetherness that once characterized pre-teen programming.
What was happening in 2007? An explosion of social media activity. There seems to be an alignment between prioritization of fame in TV content and the newfound ability to develop an online public following. In other words, once kids could easily obtain an audience of their own, they began to value having an audience more than ever. And their TV content feeds those values right back to them. We’ve seen it most recently in multiple Nickelodeon and Disney Channel series like Shake It Up, Victorious, Austin and Aly, iCarly, Liv and Maddie, Sonny with a Chance, and Big Time Rush. The common theme: a teen either aspiring to fame, enjoying a life of fame, or struggling with the effects of fame.
There is no need to wonder why the current generation of teens places so much value on money and fame if the content they’re consuming is socializing them accordingly during their formative years. At the same time, the content they consume is designed to appeal to their existing sensibilities. Shifting values among teens is merely one component of a larger feedback loop, which reveals a symbiotic relationship between producer and consumer.
Fenoglio, Thomas. “The Economics of Reality TV: Why Is the Genre So Darn Cheap?” A Critical Guide to Reality Television. Texas Christian University, 2009. Web. 18 Feb. 2014.
Greenfield, Patricia M., and Yalda T. Uhls. “The Rise of Fame: An Historical Content Analysis.” Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace 5.1 (2011): n. pag. 2011. Web. 16 Feb. 2014.
Kelmon, Jessica. “Is Social Media Making Your Child a Fame-seeker?” Great Schools.org. N.p., 22 Apr. 2013. Web. 17 Feb. 2014.
Oxford Dictionaries. SELFIE Is Named Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2013. Oxford Dictionaries.com. Oxford University Press, 19 Nov. 2013. Web. 18 Feb. 2014.
Uhls, Yalda T. “Kids Want Fame More Than Anything.” Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, Inc., 19 Jan. 2012. Web. 17 Feb. 2014.