Facebook narcissists

In the entire world, as far as I know, there are only a dozen or so photographs of me prior to the age of, oh, 16. There are a few school photos, your basic head shots. There are some official classroom pictures, invariably in black-and-white on glossy paper. If you’re of a certain age you know these photos: The teacher is humorless and prim, you have a dorky haircut, and sitting not far from you is the girl you thought was really cute but who you now realize had a hockey player’s smile.

In one photo in this very small archive, I’m seen as a toddler in my mother’s lap, and look remarkably happy, if rather simian. Someone off-camera may be offering me a banana. My mother somehow manages to look luminous despite being an overworked, single Mom, selling fabric at Sears (the company back then paid men more than women for the identical job because men supposedly had families to support) and trying to keep two boys from burning down the house.

In my dresser there’s a picture of me looking alarmingly dopey and scruffy and in need of a haircut. I’d throw it away but, as I said, there aren’t many of these photos in existence, and although I’m a very humble and modest person I do feel like I ought to keep something around for the biographers.

But now let’s look at These Kids Today: They have grown up in the age of the digital camera, the computer, and Facebook. These are fabulous inventions. But they’re also narcissism-enhancers.

In the era of film, you didn’t waste pictures. Each image counted. You carefully staged the photo, got the light just right, waiting for the precise moment, and then executed the shot. Now a typical teenager will take 20 photos in the time it took me to type this paragraph.Of those, 18 will be taken with the camera pointed back at the teenager’s face. Six images will be discarded, and the remainder will be loaded onto the computer and eventually posted on Facebook.

Social media enable kids to display themselves as no generation of kids has ever before been displayed. Parents have fretted about such exposure and the lack of privacy, so I’m not saying anything new here, but I do wonder if the technology, by allowing kids to curate their image, inevitably makes them all more self-conscious, self-focused, self-promotional.

Now excuse me while I go change my Facebook profile picture.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."

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