Over the years, I have noticed that more and more polls about what young people want to be when they are older are finding the same thing. And though it is always healthy to have a degree of scepticism around polls reported in the media, something rings true about these findings. But more importantly, what they show about the values we prioritise as a society should give us all something to think about.
A 2006 Poll for National KidsDay found that being a celebrity topped what children under 10 thought to be the ‘very best thing in the world’. Just a year later, a study from the USA’s Pew Research Centre found that 18-25-year-olds stated that getting rich is either the most important or second most important goal for people their age. A 2017 poll by First Choice found that over half of children aged 6 to 17 wanted to become vloggers or YouTubers. This was backed up by a 2019 survey conducted by The Harris Poll that also found most children aged between 8-12 wanted to be YouTubers or vloggers.
There will be many who will revel in judging the youth of today and who will be sneering at these findings. But there are a few things worth considering.
Firstly, they are children. I don’t think it is fair to expect eight-year-olds to have a level-headed idea of what they should be doing as adults. I wanted to be either a fighter pilot or a writer – very different career choices. Also, children don’t choose the world they are born into; they inherit the world created by those before them. And when we look at the modern world, it is very difficult to imagine children not valuing wealth or fame more than previous generations.
Secondly, there is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to be a YouTuber or vlogger. In fact, there are many benefits. You can be your own boss, be solely in charge of your content, and explore what you want without someone else's constraints. I, for one, accidentally became involved in content creation after being a guest on the Mantality podcast before co-hosting some of the episodes. It has been incredibly rewarding and humbling and has added great value to my life.
Is The World Becoming More Narcissistic?
Several books, such as Selfie by Will Storr and The Narcissism Epidemic by Keith Campbell and Jean Twenge, suggest that there is something to be concerned about. Twenge and Campbell cite many studies which show how what children value today differs vastly compared to children of the 60s and 70s. Nowadays, young people are more individualistic, materialistic, and concerned with making money. The theory is that there has been a rapid spread of narcissism, and many people now possess an inflated view of themselves, leading to problems later in life.
There is much evidence to back up this theory. A 2008 study, ‘Egos Inflating Over Time’, used a test called the Narcissism Personality Index to measure narcissistic traits. It found a decrease in narcissism between 1982 to 1989 but then a gradual increase in the 90s before a vast increase around the mid-2000s.
Storr attributes this increase to the effects of the self-esteem movement, which emerged out of America in the 1980s. The tragic irony is that narcissism leads to many of the societal ills that high self-esteem was set up to prevent, such as materialism, aggression and a lack of care and understanding for others.
According to Storr, the ramifications of the high self-esteem movement led to a rise in narcissism in several ways but primarily, and somewhat controversially, through parental overpraise, grade inflation and society trying to protect children too much from the realities of life. If you are constantly told that you can do whatever you want but come up against your limitations or the structural barriers in place, there is a mismatch between expectation and reality. The takeaway here is that well-intentioned actions can still have unintended consequences, and overly praising children can perhaps do more harm than good.
The Dangers of The Ego
It is here where my fears for the next generation lie. Children who set out to be YouTubers or vloggers will almost certainly begin to get an inflated and unhealthy sense of self. They will constantly check numbers, views and shares, seeing it as validation of their self-worth.
This is a dangerous habit to foster in a young, malleable mind. They will be tied into constantly creating content, for that is what the algorithm requires, and second-guessing what content is valued and what isn’t. Soon they will be chasing what they think people want to watch rather than creating content they care about. They could become part of the depressing endless loop of people teaching others to make money online by learning the tools to make money online and teaching others to make money online with those tools. Whatever the destination, this world has inherent selfishness, and the attachment to one’s ego that this career fosters is not healthy.
Some may think that criticism of YouTubers, influencers and famous vloggers comes from a place of envy. And perhaps some of this is true, but I find the idea of a huge platform, along with fame and recognition, highly undesirable. We are not wired to be really famous, and the effects on one’s ego cannot be healthy.
Yes, there are times when I have considered creating YouTube content; about veganism, writing or for Mantality’s YouTube page. And as mentioned, I am a podcaster, yet interestingly if I weren’t asked to be a co-host, I would have told myself that it would have been egotistical to have pursued such a career. Ironically, looking back, this would have been my ego telling me to be smug in my humbleness. These experiences have taught me that this is a fine path to tread, and now, with whatever I decide to do, I ensure that I am clear about my intentions. Is it to add value to the wider world or to feed my ego?
How To Combat This
One of the key takeaways that silent retreats and meditation practice have taught me is how an attachment to our egos leads to dissatisfaction and unhappiness. Trying to distance yourself from your ego, and have healthy self-esteem, might seem a holier-than-thou approach to take, but fundamentally it’s an act of self-care. The ego will compare you to others. It will encourage you to manipulate others for the pursuit of goals. It will lament the success of your friends and peers in your field and tell you that it should have been you, not them, who succeeded.
This is not a happy place to be. And as a freelancer in the arts, I can tell you that this creates an even more fertile ground for these types of thoughts. The reality is that if you try and live to satisfy your ego, you will never be satisfied. The practice is to understand this and be mindful of the ego and the thoughts associated with it.
This is not to say that being mindful means you will not get these thoughts. Initially, you certainly will. Ultimately, we don’t control what jumps into our heads at any given moment. I don’t choose to have Daniel Beddingfield’s hit single If You’re Not The One pop into my head as I walk to the bus stop, but it does none the same.
The key is that when you are mindful of these thoughts, you won’t respond to them in the same way, or the response they evoke will pass much quicker. And the more you practise, the less these thoughts occur at all.
As with all movements, there are trade-offs and unintended consequences. Overpraising and giving children an inflated sense of self will lead to issues when the world doesn’t match this. I don’t have the answers to the questions posed here, but I would theorise that a better path is getting children to focus on within rather than on external goals. Fostering healthy self-esteem and a sense of ambition which doesn’t solely dictate your happiness may prove a better strategy. Pin your self-worth on developing strong friendships and strengthening family bonds, finding joy in everyday moments, living by the values you hold dear, and doing your best to achieve goals but focusing on the journey and not the destination.
This does not mean that children should not be pushed towards pursuits of which fame is a by-product. Each of us is unique and will require a different approach. Some children will be more extroverted and natural performers or enjoy sports more. This is something to be encouraged and cultivated.
I consider myself firmly on the introvert end of the spectrum but have often found some of the writing around extroverts unfair. True, the western world is geared more towards the extrovert ideal, but there is a portrayal of extroverts as attention-seeking, which is a misrepresentation.
I am married to someone more on the extrovert side. She is also a performer and genuinely enjoys the craft of performing far more than any attention she receives from it. She also needs to be social and be around people far more than I do. It’s that, or she needs to be away from me, so I will cling to the former. Both personality types are equally important and incredibly valuable and have different needs to manage their energy which should be respected.
And children themselves may figure all this out and combat some of what society has encouraged in them. Things change very rapidly, and there are countermovements already taking hold. Young people are opting for a digital detox. They drink less, do fewer drugs and partake in far less risky behaviour than previous generations. They are more knowledgeable about physical health risks and more aware of their mental health and strategies to manage it. It may be that we need not worry much at all. Perhaps the kids really are alright.
Throughout recent history, people have always bemoaned the coming generation. Still, the future generation generally grows up with more tolerant and humanist values and, as such, creates a better world than before. Studies like the ones mentioned above should not be used as an attack on today’s youth but as a reminder of the world we have created and our responsibility to those born into it.
The truth lies in what your intentions are with whatever you are pursuing. If you want to be a YouTuber who promotes something you deeply care about and is of value, then by all means, do it. But perhaps be aware of the dangers and be armed with some tools to combat any potential pitfalls the ego will take you to.
An alternative approach to life, and the one I take, is not to think I am special and can achieve whatever I want. It’s to find the values I want others to live by and live by those values myself. This provides me with a foundation of contentment. And when it comes to external successes, I aim to work hard and give myself the best opportunity to achieve those goals, so regardless of success or failure, I can look back and say I gave it my best shot. I won’t pin my happiness on achieving these goals, as I have in the past, as the external world means nothing if the internal one is not right. Perhaps that is the subject of my first YouTube video.
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