Columnist Dennis Robaugh considers a study showing the iPod generation is very "I" oriented, but the exceptions, the selfless kids of today, offer a lesson to everyone.

These kids today ...

They're not like the kids of a generation ago. Or the generation before that. Or the one before that.

Reach back into history as far as you like, a blanket generalization about “these kids today” and their self-indulgent way gets repeated in one fashion or another for as long as kids have been getting on their parents’ nerves.

But a group of researchers has been pegging numbers to the narcissism of American youth these last two decades - and they believe the cry of “me, me, me” is getting louder.

Apparently, two out of three young Americans are budding egomaniacs.

Last year, 66 percent of college students posted a high score on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, a respected psychological evaluation given to more than 16,000 students between 1982 and 2006. The latest results show a 30 percent increase over 1982’s average, according to a study released this spring.

The narcissism inventory asks for responses to statements such as these to gauge one’s level of selfishness.

“If I ruled the world, it would be a better place.”

“I think I am a special person.”

“I can live my life any way I want to.”

“I like to be the center of attention.”

“If I were on the Titanic, I would deserve to be on the first lifeboat.”

And each year, the researchers say, the egocentrism has risen.

Jean Twenge, the study’s lead researcher, a professor at San Diego State University and author of the newly released “Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled and More Miserable Than Ever Before,” attributes the apparent self-centeredness to permissive parenting and the self-esteem movement that took hold in the 1980s.

“I hope people question the messages they hear in the media about the self - those things we take for granted like ‘You must love yourself first before you can love someone else,’ or ‘I have to put myself first,’ ” says the 36-year-old prof in a Q&A published on her university’s web site. “No, you don’t. You should have your own goals, but this overwhelming focus on the self is unique for this place and time.

“I also hope that schools will stop emphasizing self-esteem so much - it’s not doing any good, as high self-esteem does not cause good grades or good behavior.”

A falsely inflated sense of self encourages narcissism, lack of empathy, aggression and an inability to sustain relationships, Twenge says, which in the long run may damage our society.

Feeding these boundless egos are new fads in personal and social media, made possible by lightning-fast leaps in technology, which emphasize personal indulgence and put them on display.

The iPod.
 
MySpace.

YouTube.

Kids are so plugged into their iPods they are clueless to what’s going on around them.

MySpace sites are filled with candid pictures of attention seekers who years from now may regret the sight of the face looking back from center frame.

And YouTube, speaking of aggression and a lack of empathy, has spawned the weird spectacle of “happy slapping,” a fad in which an unsuspecting victim gets a beating while an accomplice records the assault with a camera phone and posts the video to the Web.

The average 2006 college student’s score on this narcissism index is almost as high as the average celebrity’s, according to a ranking culled from actors, musicians and reality TV stars interviewed by Dr. Drew Pinsky on his “Loveline” program. These are people whose sense of specialness is overfed by an entertainment media run amok. Witness the celebrity poster child of egomaniacal self-indulgence: Paris Hilton.

Whatever can we do?

The evidence may be overwhelming, but we should not despair.

Because there are kids like little Ryan Skarnulis, a boy just turned 9 who asked for 3,285 birthday presents - one for each day of his life. This little boy from Illinois wanted a book for each day of his life so he could give them to a local book drive, Reach Out and Read.

And think of Jacob Lowell, a 22-year-old Army paratrooper, the latest casualty of war in Afghanistan. This soldier took two bullets when his caravan was ambushed. Lowell kept firing as his fellow soldiers, seven of whom were wounded, found cover. Lowell kept laying down cover fire until a third al Qaida bullet took his life.

“He loved his comrades,” said a fellow soldier in Lowell’s eulogy. “He led by example. He held the line. He elevated the performance of everyone around him.”

Love.

Empathy.

Charity.

Selfless sacrifice.

The research says two out of three American kids are wrapped up in selfish conceit.

But if the kids who lead lives like Ryan Skarnulis and Jacob Lowell each can inspire just one other person, that surely will change.

These kids today ... one person can make a difference.