I WAS at a mountain retreat. The scenery was breathtaking. A group of teenagers came onto the timber deck and were blown away by the view. “Wow”, they gasped bringing out their mobiles. And then they started snapping their faces and each other’s, all making kissy-pouty lips and donkey ears with their fingers, hats pulled down over faces, breasts pushed forward.
The Facebook page would surely tell us they were at the Golden Mountain lookout and “it was awesome and amazing” but their heads and breasts would block any view.
It would easy to describe the behaviour as self-obsessed and exhibitionist. But the issue is more complex than that. And far more troubling. If one is to take the word of experts who are looking into the behaviour of young people, we are looking at a selfie-led Armageddon. The end of society as we know it. We are breeding a generation of potentially ruthless narcissists who might not develop empathetic centres in their brains. Lack of empathy is what causes much destructive and aberrant behaviour in our society.
It is a neurological crisis according to British scientist Susan Greenfield, professor of synaptic pharmacology at Lincoln College, Oxford. She believes that the prefrontal cortex, which governs empathy and compassion, needs social nourishment in order to grow and develop synaptic connections. This starts with the mother’s gaze, the incredible stare of love that stimulates the brain. It is further developed by gazing at, and with, other people through smiles, sneers, flushes and changing voice tone, expressions of grief, pain or anger. Greenfield even refers to pheromones, the smells we emit that give signals to others. Greenfield warns that the danger is that our technology-obsessed kids are no longer accustomed to the full range of messy experiences and meaningful human interactions. Social media and games are moulding children’s brains and we’re possibly looking at emotionally stunted kids. The selfie’s aim is to make people jealous or to prove you are having a fantastic time, or to get the likes because you are hot or fabulous. Hence expressions are only ever the pout, the grin, the laugh, the flirt, the display of body beautiful, photoshopped in 2D.
A recent gag on TV summed up the problem. A comedian is selling a new device that discreetly projects text messages from his mobile onto other people’s foreheads. “Now you can read your texts or tweets and your companion will think you are really interested in them!”
Technology and social media isn’t to blame. There are wonderful new usages being developed for kids. One example is the iCinema Centre at the University of NSW, a 3D cinematic surround dome, eventually to be made into a home or head unit. It’s technology that brings the entire world to students, history, interactive emotional experiences, takes you to mountain tops or streetscapes around the planet.
It’s what technology is being used for that is the issue: At the moment a lot of social media is about FOMO, “Fear Of Missing Out”, the teenage phenomenon described as “Anxiety caused by the fear that an exciting or interesting event may currently be happening elsewhere, often aroused by posts seen on a social media website.”
“I’m have a better time than you” blares out from Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. But those same kids are envious of someone else, too.
I met a very concerned mother at a conference where I was speaking on self-image. “I don’t know what do to,” she said, desperately showing me Facebook selfies of her intelligent daughter who was studying to be a teacher at the time. The pretty girl’s page was filled with provocative images. In one shot she looked drunk, lying on her back with open legs. “I told her it would ruin her career. These images live forever. Who would hire her at a school seeing these?”
My daughter, 20, took me on a guided tour of some well-“liked” teenage Facebook pages. One young girl of about 16 had deliberately pulled her bum cheeks out of skin-tight pink shorts and was bending towards the camera. She was listed as a student at a reputable university. “See, she gets 1000 likes in ten minutes. That’s why she does it. It makes her feel special and wanted.”
Even pages filled with stimulating ideas and art and feminist rhetoric are littered with selfies. My daughter, who is a media student at university, says “Teenagers of today are an insecure generation growing up with these images all the time — the cult of celebrity and Kim Kardashian — and have to keep pushing the boundaries to compete, to get hits and likes.”
But where is self-acceptance? Where is female pride? “Guys need to look cool, too,” she says showing me arrogant-looking teenage boys parading their naked bodies. “If the skinny boy suddenly gets buff he gets ‘likes’ from girls and other boys.” The ascent of teenage bodybuilder and internet sensation Zyzz, whose chiselled body was revered in youth culture, was emblematic of this trend. But in 2011, at only 22, he died of a heart attack sparking a debate about alleged steroid use.
Statistics say five to 12 per cent of male high school students have used anabolic steroids by the time they are seniors. The president of the Australian Medical Association, Steve Hambleton recently said steroids come with this wish to attain the perfect body immediately. “We worry about our girls with body image but it is just as much young men we need to worry about now.”
Recently, a friend’s 17-year-old son said this gobsmacking sentence. “It’s hard to work out at the gym, all the girls want to touch my body because it’s so buff and shiny.” He is no himbo, he’s a deep-thinking, intelligent boy. So how does his brain get so pickled that he thinks it’s OK to say that?
The new world is not about savouring experiences. It seems to be measured in “likes”. Neuroscientists think this is a very serious dilemma. Firstly, it’s addictive behaviour. The reward centre is on overdrive as dopamine floods the brain. As with any drug, “likes” make the teenager feel happy. Without them he/she feels bad, worthless and desperate for another hit, at any cost.
Then there are brain development issues. Sydney therapist Jo Anne Baker says all kids have a touch of narcissism. “Adolescent narcissism is natural for survival. It’s natural to want to have the admiration of friends, and social acceptance. But this vanity is at an extreme. Once the brain is fully formed at around 23, if empathy and crucial social skills haven’t developed, the synapsis can become stunted.”
She says many kids are not maturing. They are not experiencing the world so much as looking for photo opportunities. They are losing the broader context.
“This is the generation who will be looking after us as we go into our twilight years. Are we breeding generations of narcissists who are going to be cold, indifferent, ill-equipped, and who will grow increasingly insensitive to each other and the planet?” It’s too early to know but it’s not alarmist to worry not just about our kids but a generation.