Posting your daughter's honor roll status on Facebook seems innocent enough. You're proud. Your friends and family can bask in her glory. Everyone's a winner, right?
Maybe not, says Austin, Texas-based psychologist Larry Bugen, whose new book, Stuck on Me: Missing You … Getting Past Self-Absorption to Find Love (The American College of Forensic Examiners, $19.95), warns that crafting an online image for our children may set them up for a life of self-absorption and undermine their ability to relate to others.
"When does a healthy interest in yourself start morphing into self-absorption and eventually into full-blown narcissism?" he asks. We chatted with Bugen about child-rearing in our connected world.
Q: Start by defining narcissism, because I think it means different things to different people.
A: An uncompromising self-absorption which alienates others and compromises the well-being of all. We all have a healthy self-interest, or should, but at what point do we become so involved with our own self-interest that we become blinded to the needs of those we love?
Q: How does posting updates about our children translate to their becoming narcissists?
A: We are weaving together this perfect family image that allows our kids to, 1., be in the limelight - but it also creates an image they need to continue to uphold and live up to for the rest of their lives. They get caught up in the attention that image provides and get used to being center stage.
Q: Do you think our kids are in danger of relying too much on others to define the person they become?
A: At the core of being a healthy person is having a genuine self-image and self-esteem based on knowing your own unique gifts. It's a matter of self-discovery over the years — discovering our strengths, discovering our potential, discovering our attributes that really matter. We don't necessarily do well if that's scripted for us, either by our parents or someone else, when we're growing up. Our identities are works in progress. They're not fixed. But so much of it depends on how we explore the world, and people explore when they feel secure.
Q: How do we build security in our kids without breeding narcissism?
A: Security comes from the belief that someone has my back. I can get comforted, nurtured, reassured when I need it. But if it were me, I would feel very insecure that I would be so exposed (online) by my parents and it would erode any sense of security that I had in life if I couldn't depend on my parents to protect me and cherish me. Sometimes parents are doing things in a way that's basically blind to the impact on the child later on.
Q: So what's your advice to modern parents? We're obviously not going to give up our online connections altogether.
A: Balance. Trying to avoid extremes of either devaluation or over-idealization of children when you tweet or post on Facebook. And there's something precious about good old-fashioned privacy. I still believe that's one of the hallmarks of intimacy. Being able to share private moments only with the people who matter most. Try to maintain a reasonable balance between what's privately cherished and what's publicly known. And be loving, and be thinking of what sharing that information in the cyberworld might mean to those involved.