Over on Twitter about an hour ago, I came across a tweet that said a new study had found that “Social Ntwks make college students more narcissistic.” I’m always interested in the latest research on student culture, so I clicked.

The link took me to a USA Today article on the study. The article doesn’t quite make the claim in the tweet, but it does make some other arguments that are well worth unpacking. (The study itself doesn’t appear to be online anywhere. If anyone reading this finds it, or can get access to it, let me know in comments.)

The tweet I quoted above makes a cause-and-effect claim: that social networking makes students more narcissistic. The lead sentence of the USA Today piece makes a similar, but slightly weaker, claim: that students believe that social networking makes them more narcissistic. But neither of these claims are backed up by the data that follows.

The article is based on the answers to two questions. Students were asked whether their peers “used social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook and Twitter for self-promotion, narcissism and attention-seeking,” and they were asked whether they agreed that their generation was “more self-promoting, narcissistic, overconfident and attention-seeking than previous generations.” A bit more than half (57%) answered yes to the first question, and 66% agreed “strongly” or “somewhat” with the second statement.

The first thing to point here is that there’s no claim of causality in the students’ answers. Most of them think that their peers (some of them? all of them? a few of them? the article doesn’t say) engage in attention-seeking behavior online (occasionally? frequently? incessantly?). And most of them think their peers are more prone to attention-seeking behavior than previous generations. But the answers provided in the article don’t give any indication that they think social networks themselves are the cause of this behavior, much less any evidence that such a cause-and-effect relationship actually exists.

So the Twitter soundbite version of the study is bunk — the survey doesn’t show that social networking makes people more narcissistic. And the weaknesses of the study don’t end there.

A second big problem is that the survey questions are muddled. Every blogger I know uses social networks for “self-promotion,” and to the extent that seeking attention for your writing is “attention seeking,” I guess they all do that too. But I wouldn’t call that behavior narcissistic, and I don’t think it makes much sense at all to frame the question as if it was. Self-promotion and narcissism aren’t the same thing. They’re not even close to the same thing — nobody thinks USA Today’s own self-promoting Twitter feed is narcissistic.

And here’s a third problem: what basis do young people have for assessing how “self-promoting, narcissistic, overconfident and attention-seeking” their parents’ generation was in their youth, much less their grandparents or great-grandparents? They weren’t there. They don’t know.

What they do know is how previous generations, and their own peers, are perceived in popular culture, and the perception of youth as “self-promoting, narcissistic, overconfident and attention-seeking” is a pop culture cliche. So that second question really only measures the degree to which young people have embraced society’s negative image of them.

And this is where we really go down the rabbit hole.

Where does the perception of today’s young people as narcissistic come from? In large part it comes from the work of researchers like Jean Twenge, who’s written two books and dozens of articles making exactly that argument. Twenge’s most recent project? She’s the author of the study we’re talking about today.

So here’s how it works. Writers come up with the idea — valid or invalid — that today’s youth are narcissists. They write books and publish op-eds and go on talk shows and give quotes to journalists and do public speaking engagements pushing this idea. Then, with their perspective embedded in popular culture, one of them, Twenge, conducts a survey asking young people what they think of it. Most of those young people, having been fed that story for years, admit that it’s at least “somewhat” accurate. And then that survey is presented as evidence that the theory is true.

Jean Twenge graduated from high school in the 1980s, a time when the popular media were full of stories about the entitlement and self-absorption of the nation’s youth. Her parents came of age in the 1960s, an era whose young people were widely condemned as narcissistic by their parents. As strange as it may seem now, the youth of the early 1940s faced similar charges, and anyone who’s ever read an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel knows that the same stereotype was rampant in the 1920s.

Are today’s youth more narcissistic than their parents were at their age? Maybe. I’m not sure that the question is a particularly meaningful one, but it’s possible that I could be convinced that it is, and that Twenge’s answer to it is the right one.

But what I do know for sure is that every generation thinks their children are more frivolous and more selfish than they were as youths, and that every generation is eager to consume “research” that supports this self-perception. Every generation loves to read about how great they are, and how the kids of today just don’t measure up.

And if I had to sum up that attitude in a single word?

I’d be tempted to call it narcissism.