Smith: Cell phones, awards lead to narcissism

Outside of a store in Costa Mesa a few days ago, I saw a young father waiting with his two little boys. The boys, about 4 and 6 years old, were horsing around while dad texted something on his phone.

I've had a cell phone since 1993 and it is one of the few electronic devices I adopted early. Usually, I'll wait until the second or third model so that the bugs are gone but that cell phone was necessary for the business I owned.

When I began using my cell phone, my kids were 3 and 1. I went out of my way to make sure that I did not use the phone when we were together. It was important that they got all of my attention.

Thinking about that dad outside the store, it occurred to me that the first generation of Americans who have been raised entirely in the cell phone era are about to have kids of their own.

Today, what we used to know as a cell phone is now also a jukebox, a video game player and means to access the Internet — the latter of which may be the challenge for this generation of almost parents.

In the results of a psychological study released about two years ago, Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State, reported that 30% of U.S. university students were narcissistic, compared with 15% in 1982. The study was the result of testing 16,000 students.

The causes are "permissive parenting, celebrity culture and the Internet," she reports.

Narcissism, which defines as an "inordinate fascination with oneself," can have negative consequences. Students who had "an inflated sense of self, lacked empathy, were vain and materialistic and had an overblown sense of entitlement," Twenge reports. "Some resulting social trends were a greater interest in fame and wealth, more plastic surgery and an increase in attention-seeking crimes — for example, 'beating someone up and putting it on YouTube.'"

Perhaps most important, she reports that the self-esteem movement, that is, going out of our way to tell children they are special when they may in fact be just ordinary or even failures, "could foster narcissism."

I've had a problem with the self-esteem movement since it began. I questioned and wrote about, for example, the wisdom of handing out an award to every kid who played in Little League, even if their team came in last, which teaches kids exactly the wrong thing.

Now, the generation full of self-esteem, cell phone-wielding kids are about to be parents. It's anyone's guess as to whether this is a good development, but I cannot help but believe that we've spent the last 20 years teaching kids that it's OK to spend time in front of a screen instead of playing catch in the street or even reading a book.

Worse, though, is the sadness that will affect that father I saw at the store when he turns around and sees his teenage kids on their own cell phones, ignoring him the way he ignored them that day. We are about to reap what we have sowed.

STEVE SMITH is a Costa Mesa resident and a freelance writer. Send story ideas to

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