I came across an interesting article the other day in TIME magazine’s May 2013 issue called The Me Me Me Generation: Why Millennials Will Save Us All, written by Joel Stein. This article posited that Millennials (or 20-somethings) are narcissistic, selfish, self-absorbed, entitled and lazy. The author referenced the technology era and social networking as key reasons for this, whereby Millennials are known to exceedingly plaster images such as the ‘selfie’ (self-portrait) all over Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, followed by hourly checks to see how many ‘likes’ or re-tweets have been received. This level of interest prevents capacity for alternate more productive activities, according to the author.

Statistics from the National Institute of Health data in the US reveal the incidence of narcissistic personality disorder as nearly three times as high for people in their 20’s as for those who are 65 or older. What is this disorder supposedly infecting our young generation? Simply put, people who are narcissistic are described as cocky, self-centered, manipulative, and demanding. Narcissists may concentrate on unlikely personal outcomes (e.g., fame) and may be convinced that they deserve special treatment. They have a grandiose sense of self-importance, lack empathy for others and have a need for admiration.

So, do Millennials possess some or all of these traits?

As co-author of the book Narcissism Epidemic, Keith Campbell advises there is more to it. With a clinical narcissist, there is a real pathology associated with it whereby the person cannot help himself/herself but strive to gain attention or seek admiration from others in all areas of their life. Campbell advises it interferes with their quality of life considerably by distorting decision-making and destroying relationships.

Fortunately, the article goes on to outline some of the strengths of this generation. The benefits of growing up with technology have led to Millennials being more open minded and more accepting of individual differences. They have been provided more tools to challenge convention in society. Yes, they are optimistic in their goals for personal success. Overinflated? Perhaps. Is this a bad thing? I think not. Young people have more drive to be entrepreneurs and explore their creative talents than ever before. To live by their individual values and to be driven for success has to be commended.

From an evolutionary perspective however, the ‘technology world’ is not the world the human brain was designed for. As noted by a leading psychiatrist, Dr Bruce Perry in his article Applying Principles of Neurodevelopment to Clinical Work with Maltreated and Traumatized Children, in comparison to our ancestors, we live in a relationally impoverished world.

Of the 250 000 years or so our species has been on the planet, we spent 245 000 years living in small trans-generational hunter-gatherer bands of 40-50 individuals, comprising a rich relational mileu. We had a ratio of 4:1 whereby for every child we had four developmentally more mature people who could protect, educate, enrich and nurture the developing child. This is the world our brain is designed for.

In contrast, our modern world involves children spending more time on the internet or watching television and less hours in socio-emotional learning opportunities created by interactions with older children, younger children, aunts, uncles, nephews, grandparents or neighbours. As the XIVth Dalai Lama notes in a verse named The Paradox of Our Age, “We have been all the way to the moon and back but have trouble crossing the street to meet the new neighbour”.

Social affiliation and communication amongst groups is essential to our survival in physical presence. With every new face, a new synaptic connection is formed which adds to the hardwiring of the child or young person’s brain. There are many reasons why children are being raised in homes and communities that are impoverished in relationships that contribute to neuropsychiatric problems. The more physically and socially isolated a family becomes, the more vulnerable a child becomes.

Knowing what is socially appropriate, including being empathetic, requires many rich relational experiences. So if Millennials are presenting with narcissistic traits, perhaps it is time we considered what they are doing with their lives when they are not online and let’s use this time to build the number and quality of relationships with individuals of all ages in order to support the healthy development of the brain and avoid this social phenomenon. Let’s work together as a society to support Millennials to be active in their community, volunteer, work, develop closer bonds with extended family members, be active in their local school and seek connections with a rich array of other human beings. With a rich relational mileu, technology can enhance social connectedness, not undermine it.

Oh, and say hi to the neighbours every now and then.

Written by: Alison Lenehan
Psychologist, Alpha Psychology.