Wednesday, October 21, 2015

What the Age of Narcissism Means for Reading

Until recently, I've thought of the constant Facebook selfies and YouTube videos as occasionally amusing, more often simply posts to scroll through. Don't get me wrong. I think my nephew's puppy is maturing handsomely, and it goes without saying that any child of family or friends could be voted cutest kid on the Internet (especially my grandnieces).

I don't understand posting about daily activities (why would someone care if it rained as you drove to work?), or sticking out your tongue for the camera. (Hello! Who wants their photo to bring to mind Miley Cyrus? Yuck.)

There are security advantages to all the cameras in society. Criminals are apprehended or abuses uncovered because people grab their mobile phone cameras. Criminal mischief aside, people are free to behave as they want. Go ahead, post photos of  yourself looking into a fish bowl. No doubt some of my Facebook friends are tired of seeing pictures of my book signings.

But what has been the impact, especially for children, of knowing a camera could lurk in any wing? Perhaps they become more conscious of their appearance, expect to look up with a smile when Uncle Godfrey comes into the room to sneak a photo. Smiling is good, especially when we're pleased or happy. Fake smiles, or the newer oval expression, don't convey much except you know there's a camera pointed in your direction. Still, no harm done.

However, it appears to me that the constant awareness of how we look to others and the need to present our everyday activities eight times is expanding the Age of Narcissism, which largely began with the dawn of television and ease of home photos. (Wait, some are saying. There used to not be television? What do you mean Granddad burned his fingers on a flash bulb?)

So, who cares? Why am I thinking about this?

I think narcissism inhibits imagination -- imagination beyond how we might look in a photo if staged a certain way. Why read a book to envision Middle Earth in The Hobbit when we can pull down an Internet photo and insert our picture in the Shire?

Children have always believed fiction to be real, placed themselves in it. I looked for the House at Pooh Corner in a nearby area of mature trees, and even expected to meet Nancy Drew to help her solve crimes. (I may have spent too much time in imaginary worlds.) But, it was more about the story than me.

I think children today are less likely to travel to places in their minds in part because they cannot be part of the action. There is no camera viewer to check to see how they looked in the shot.

Have I any proof? No. It's also hard to conduct research in a field with no possible control groups. Plus, the impact of the "look at me" environment goes beyond selfies.

Maybe the enhanced focus on self and looks doesn't affect reading, or maybe I'm too 'mature' to envision how taking and displaying hundreds of your own photos every month can draw you into reading paper or digital books.

Do your own research. Sit near a group of kids in a shopping mall or playground. You'll generally see them playing video games to see who can get the top score--and then crowing about it on Instagram. Nary a book in sight.

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Usually I post photos or other graphics with blog posts. Somehow, that didn't seem appropriate here.
Elaine L. Orr
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