Social Media and Narcissism

Are social media users more narcissistic? National Book Award winning author of The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen, has said as much. In an article for the New York Times last year, Franzen wrote of Facebook,

“Consumer technology products would never do anything this unattractive, because they aren’t people. They are, however, great allies and enablers of narcissism. Alongside their built-in eagerness to be liked is a built-in eagerness to reflect well on us. Our lives look a lot more interesting when they’re filtered through the sexy Facebook interface. We star in our own movies, we photograph ourselves incessantly, we click the mouse and a machine confirms our sense of mastery.”

“And, since our technology is really just an extension of ourselves, we don’t have to have contempt for its manipulability in the way we might with actual people. It’s all one big endless loop. We like the mirror and the mirror likes us. To friend a person is merely to include the person in our private hall of flattering mirrors.”

Most recently, Franzen took on Twitter while doing a public reading, saying,

“Twitter is unspeakably irritating. Twitter stands for everything I oppose. It’s hard to cite facts or create an argument in 140 characters … It’s like if Kafka had decided to make a video semaphoring The Metamorphosis. Or it’s like writing a novel without the letter ‘P’… It’s the ultimate irresponsible medium. People I care about are readers … particularly serious readers and writers, these are my people. And we do not like to yak about ourselves.”

This set off the hashtag #jonathanfranzenhates, wherein Twitter users tweeted about his probable dislike of kittens, pies and Pixar movies.

We all know of social media users who seem to exhibit some of the symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder, which the DSM IV describes in part as “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy.” There have been several studies in the past several years that have positively correlated certain amounts of social media use and behaviors with narcissism. One found that teens and young adults who more often used Facebook showed more signs of narcissism. Another found that Facebook users that scored higher on narcissism were more likely to be judged as narcissistic because of their number of wall interactions, self-promoting and provocative pictures, and quantity of information listed about oneself, among other indicators. Basically, having a Facebook profile, filling it out, uploading attractive pictures and self-promotion through posts are all things a narcissistic personally would do.

However, Franzen and the media highlighting of the newest social media studies are missing the great nuances of a complex claim – this claim that social media users are more likely to be narcissistic. The claim is wrong, and it usually carries with it some inference of causality, as though social media causes narcissism. More correctly said, social media is an enabler of narcissism, and it just so happens that the generations that are most likely to use social media, the Millenial generation (and especially Generation C within and beyond that), are more likely to be more narcissistic. All of us have and exhibit signs of at least a low-level narcissism. It’s a part of what drives us to look good and to succeed, and we need that healthy dose of narcissism to be able to expect good things for ourselves even when others don’t.

But the Millenial generation (generally those born between 1978-2000) and those born still later are the quintessential “me” generations. They were raised in a period when the reigning pop psychology term was “self-esteem.” Individualism and self-love were emphasized by parents and teachers. Bad grades and bad behavior were met with reward and affection by parents who wanted to be equals and friends to their children. Achievement and failure were both praised, as long as kids felt good about themselves.

These generations were also coddled and overprotected by parents who feared the worst with the advent of wildly inflated 24/7 news reports of child abduction and “common things that can harm your children.” In essence, children needed to be shielded from both psychological and physical harm at the expense of children being children and learning how to become well-adjusted adults.

And now? Technology, a necessary consequence of living in human society, has evolved to give us the Internet and social media. The implicit promise of social media is to streamline how you connect to other people. But like any other technology, it can be employed for both good and bad, and employed by those who are very narcissistic and those who aren’t. Being that the latest generations tend to indeed be more narcissistic, many of them use social media as a testament to how many friends they have, how pretty they are and ultimately, how it’s all about them. It’s their chance to be on reality television, except that it takes place on the Internet.

So what Franzen misses in his assessment of social media is context, as well as a whole chunk of what social media technology is all about. It’s a tool that acts as an extension of man – yes, we can and do fill it with mirrors, but we can also use it to connect to other people and to inform and to learn.

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