The Aztecs saw the doom of their civilization foretold by a bleeding omen hanging in the night sky. I see the imminent demise of our generation when a mother pays $4,000 for a record company to produce a music video of her daughter singing with a voice so heavily autotuned that all trace of the normal inflection of human vocals is erased. Besides this, however, I have no interest in adding to the derisive insults already launched at Rebecca Black on account of ‘Friday.’ What frightens me is that she is only the latest case in a trend of online self-promotion that has yet to hit its nadir.
Lest you close this tab and move on to another article, I am not ranting against the internet or how youth are choosing to express themselves through it. The internet is a leap in technology and connectivity, a leap that makes Gutenberg’s press seem like a little hop in comparison. Social networking has turned pen pal advertisements into antiquities. News about major events can be available barely five minutes after they occur. We are the most connected generation in human history. And I am all in support for that.
What is worrying is the fact that so many teenagers and young people are spending so much time in promoting their online image that they are heedless of what that image has become. They are so anxious to make themselves heard that they care not whose voices they drown out in the process. Online feuds and quarrels abound over Facebook statuses and increasingly abrasive comments fill the ‘comment’ area. Less time is spent on academic studies and healthy extracurricular activities, and more time is spent on airing vacuous views online or taking triple-digit numbers of ‘duckface’ self-portraits to select one for the new profile picture. We have, as young people, become a generation of narcissists.
The internet alone is not to blame for this alarming culture of self-advertisement. For years, shrinking nuclear families and increasingly intense focus on a small number of children (particularly in China, with its one-child policy) has led to a parallel increase in the attention given to each child. Repeated iterations of ‘You are special’ and motivational programs for students based heavily on self-confidence and belief seem to have overshot their mark by a massive margin.
To be fair, we as teenagers naturally experience fluctuating self-esteem and egos that alternate between completely smashed to burst. We struggle to build our identity amid paroxysmic emotional turbulence and raging hormones. But eventually life hits us back hard enough that we finally realize life isn’t only about us. We finally are grateful for the countless people who make us who we are today, top of the list being our parents to whom we owe two decades of selfless sacrifice and love. We grow up and start thinking about our responsibilities instead of our rights. In short, we finally become adults.
The internet, however, throws a wrench in the works and shorts-circuits the painful process to maturity by providing endless narcissistic supply and an easy way out to continue living the illusion that ‘I am the most important.’ If you want to, you can create a completely egocentric world online and no one can stop you. Just look online. Fifteen year-olds are typing college theses in the blogosphere complaining on how ‘bad’ their parents are for not allowing them to go out past ten o’clock at night. Secondary school students are lambasting each other online in flame wars over who is smart and handsome and who is a ‘poser.’ And in extreme cases, we have young people so intent on getting their fifteen minutes of fame that they burn family values and personal integrity on the altar of online prominence. The internet is like a man who, upon finding a butterfly struggling painfully to escape a cocoon, chooses to cut open the parched fibers of the insect’s prison to free the butterfly. Instead of a magnificent monarch butterfly erupting from the cocoon, what emerges is a shrunken slug, having tiny vestigial wings and zero survival value. The struggle that would have forced blood into its wings and enabled the insect to become the beautiful creature it was created to be was aborted. And in the same way, the endless glare of real or imagined limelight on the internet, and the boundless possibility of freedom without responsibility, are in danger of stunting the emotional maturity of teenagers and leaving them grown adults but mental juveniles.
The effects on society are already emerging. We see a disturbing lack of decorum and respect among Generation Y towards the older generation, seeing as our elders are usually less technologically active and thus do not command as imposing a presence online. My mother, who is a secondary school teacher, says that she is shocked at the disrespect of some of her more technologically inclined students towards teachers, and attributes this to the anarchistic aspect of the internet that has stripped some impressionable young people of the concepts of respect and etiquette. I have to share her sentiments. There is no appropriate response except revulsion towards a young adult who takes her dirty linen and smears it all over her social networking accounts and blogs; who insults and besmirches the woman who endured nine months of suffering and hours of excruciating pain to deliver life and breath to her body—all because that same woman does not approve of her new boyfriend. Selfishness of this nature may be adorable in an infant, mildly condonable in a toddler, and slightly annoying in a teenager, but it is absolutely heartbreaking to see it in a person who has a driver’s license, voting rights—and the emotional capacity of a five year old.
You get more and more worried when you extrapolate this trend into the future and realize that, my goodness, all of us are going to be the workforce of the national economy and the spearheads of the world of tomorrow. If this focus on the self (ever so subtly masked as ‘self-confidence’ and ‘go-getting’) continues into working adult life, we would now have a generation with a difficulty empathizing with concepts of common goals or delayed gratification—skills and attitudes key to any working organization.
I may be exaggerating from ignorance since we are the first generation in history to grow up with the internet, and there are no prior points of reference to what this generation will look like in the future. But look today at teenagers who attempt so hard at shooting for fame and glory through the web, neglecting their studies and personal development. Fair enough, everyone has different gifts and talents which may or may not involve academics. That said, this behavior is a matter of attitude, discipline and patience—which cannot be ignored, whether you want to be a musician or doctor. You need to wait, and you need to grow.
There can be no stone-throwing on the part of the author. I recognize this streak in myself. I admit, I am writing this article here hoping that people will read and like it, and at the back of my mind I see the desire for people to compliment me on how well I write and affirm my views, and I am worried about that need. That same infection of narcissism is creeping up on me. Perhaps I can fight it and kick it back. But it begins with the realization that we are—I am—not as important, not as prominent, as we would like to think. Maybe your blog post on some new idea is not as groundbreaking as you think. Maybe the target audience of your videos is primarily yourself. Maybe nobody cares much what you look like on your profile picture. We would do well to heed this irreverent, abrasive, and brusquely reminder I found online.
Benjamin has completed his A-levels and will be pursuing his medical studies in India. He is still trying to learn to smile in photographs.
*Original creator currently unknown.