When young people have loud parties on weekday nights or speak loudly in the cinema, they’re using roughly the same mechanism as when other youths jump on the heads of random bypassers or share mobile footage of gang rapes on Facebook.
“Some youths can only relate to the relationship they have with their friends – and that relationship is often a reproduction of themselves,” says Sven Mørch, a psychology lecturer at the University of Copenhagen, who specialises in youth studies.
“For these people the fellowship can become an extremely inclusive VIP club, while those who are not on the guest list are excluded,” he says, “In some cases, people who are outside their social network simply do not exists in their world.”
Metaphorically speaking, these ‘other people’ sometimes tend to become mere props in a theatre performance.
“This is an appalling trend,” he says.
This is why for some teenagers there simply are no neighbours who have their sleep disturbed by their loud partying on a weekday night.
There is no victim who suffers from having his or her head smashed, and there’s no girl who is further humiliated by seeing her rape turning into entertainment for the friends on Facebook.
For some teenagers there simply is no world outside of their own heads.
The common denominator is a lack of manners. Whereas previous generations misbehaved as a rebellion against authorities, part of today’s youths are so caught up in their own self-centeredness that no authorities exist in their minds, explains Mørch.
When they don’t show consideration for other people, it is not because they want to humiliate or spite them; it is because other people simply are of no relevance in their world.
According to Joakim Garff, a lecturer at the Søren Kierkegaard Research Centre, we have reached a lower limit for lack of good manners over the past decade.
”Many regard good manners as something pretentious, involving the correct handling of knives and forks and fancy visits to the theatre,” he says.
“But there’s a lot more to manners than that. Manners are an important prerequisite to a meaningful community, since manners – to use the words of the author M.A. Goldsmith – involve ‘the sophisticated skill of paying attention’”.
Garff argues that good manners involve an acknowledgement of ‘the other’ – an appreciation that ‘the other’ has the same rights as oneself.
“There’s no doubt that over the past decade we have seen a shift in our moral fabric, but the increasing interest in manners and culture could indicate that this tendency is about to change – and that’s encouraging.”
This trend with people being reduced to mere props isn’t restricted to Danish youths.
American researchers recently published a rather alarming result, having studied empathy in 14,000 college students over a 30-year period.
The study indicated that since the year 2000, students have become 40 percent less empathetic than 20-30 years ago. They no longer give frequent ‘yes’ answers to questions such as “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by putting myself in their situation” and “I often worry about people who are worse off than I am”.
Depending on whether or not one trusts these findings, the study confirms that some youths do not acknowledge the existence of other people.
The US researchers point to the young people’s self-centeredness as the reason:
”Many regard today’s youths as narcissistic, self-centred, confident and individualistic. It’s clear that an increased focus on yourself leads to a devaluation of other people,” say the researchers behind the US study
Danish and international social scientists agree that the narcissistic insensitivity of this ‘Generation Y’ can be traced back to the generation that were college students in 1968, whose authority clash had significantly changed the world when these youths were born after 1980.
“The ‘68ers regarded everything that was associated with rules and norms as oppressive,” says Garff.
“In the holy name of liberation, this generation wanted to free themselves from all norms because they viewed them as oppression of human nature and of their opportunity of expression.”
He argues that this rebellion was regarded by the youths as serving to promote man’s social dimension.
“These efforts reach way back into the European philosophy tradition,” he says. “But no-one is born with the ability to interact respectfully with others, and instead of more freedom and care, we ended up with a tyranny of formlessness, which could help explain the cynicism and insensitivity we sometimes encounter today.”
Garff believes that today’s youths are out of touch with some of the fundamental principles of life because teachers, parents and social workers are worried about infringing the child’s autonomy and integrity.
As a result, he argues, they have grown up without really learning the difference between right and wrong.
“This obviously creates a more impoverished community that’s not a good breeding ground for any desire to be considerate, responsible and to engage is something as outdated as good behaviour.”
Sven Mørch agrees that the ‘68 generation’s otherwise positive confrontation with the authorities is the main reason for some of today’s teenagers’ lack of appreciation and respect for other people.
“At one point, questions of right and wrong were determined for you, but that’s no longer the case,” he says.
The rebellion from the 68ers, he explains, led to a great deal of freedom, but it also left people with the difficult task of having to cope with all this freedom.
“When faced with today’s complex choices and the huge variety of opportunities, the young people need a reference point – and that reference point becomes their friends.
Paradise Hotel is a reality TV show, in which a group of single people live in a luxurious hotel resort, competing to see who can stay in the hotel the longest.
Periodically, someone is removed from the show, and others are brought in to replace them.
Each week couples pair off and must share a hotel room together.
“But young people do not choose friends who are different from themselves, which is why many of them tend to create virtual mirror images of their identity through their friends by forming extremely exclusive communities where everyone is highly similar.”
Like many international researchers, Mørch mentions reality TV as a highly influential frame of reference in the development of these young people’s personalities.
This, he argues, is due to the illusory reality portrayed in these TV shows, which shows them how other youths appear to behave.
”We mustn’t underestimate the role of the media in young people’s development,” he says. “After all, they spend six hours a day watching TV and surfing the internet – and reality shows such as Paradise Hotel portray some extremely egocentric images in which the teenagers can mirror themselves.”
And since some youths define their world almost exclusively based on the values and norms of their inner circle of friends, the choice of people they grow up with can become a crucial factor in the shaping of their identity.
“Today, good manners involve presenting yourself in your own circle of friends with the norms and values of this small community as a frame of reference,” argues Mørch.
“So it’s not hard to understand that parents worry about which friends their children end up in school with, because this can be absolutely crucial.”
Read this article in Danish at videnskab.dk