“I’m a self-facilitating media node.”
This is how TV sitcom character Nathan Barley refers to himself in the eponymous Channel 4 series. Barley parodies self-obsessed media-driven Millennials, also referred to as ‘Generation Me’ by US psychologist Jean Twenge who described the broader affliction of a ‘Narcissism Epidemic’.
Narcissism has been of interest to psychologists since Freud tackled the topic over a century ago. The word comes from the Greek mythological figure Narcissus who fell in love with his own reflection and, unable to move away from it, ultimately died as a result.
Too much of a good thing
It’s healthy to have a degree of narcissism to look after yourself. In normal doses it correlates positively with extraversion, confidence and leadership. But in large quantities this self-interest can be pathological and destructive: narcissism becomes a disorder.
Traits which together make up Narcissistic Personality Disorder are set out in the American Psychiatric Association’s manual (DSM-V). They include identity and goals being excessively dependent on others’ approval, lack of empathy and poverty of intimate relationships, plus grandiosity and attention-seeking.
Despite this diagnosis being revised in 2013, the fundamentals of how we understand narcissism pre-date the era of modern technology, particularly the smartphones and social networking sites or apps so widely used today.
Some contend that narcissism is on the up. So where does technology fit in?
A rising tide
The idea that narcissism has been increasing over recent decades is not new.
Christopher Lasch wrote about the ‘Culture of Narcissism’ in US society in the nineteen seventies, a trend fuelled by the baby-boomers’ drive for ‘self-actualisation’, which he considered an extreme form of entitlement. Lasch argued that this philosophical goal produced levels of self-orientation that were deterimental to the population as a whole. An expression of the American dream had become a social problem.
Using data gathered from over sixteen thousand students in the US, Sara Konrath and her colleagues found a robust trend for rising levels of narcissism among young people over a 27-year period up to 2006. The reasons for this aren’t clear but might include a combination of economic, social and cultural factors.
Authors such as Andrew Keen have speculated that current technologies are partly responsible: he used the phrase ‘Digital Narcissists’ in his 2007 book The Cult of the Amateur. Keen particularly blames user-generated content associated with Web 2.0 for what he sees as a decline in the quality and professionalism of cultural output.
The idea that narcissism is associated with specific, sometimes problematic uses of web-based tech is well-supported by data drawn from many thousands of people across different countries.
Numerous studies show that traits of narcissism correlate with everything from compulsive social media use to status update / tweet frequency, number of friends, frequency of selfie posting and the motivation to use social networking sites to appear ‘cooler’ to others.
These trends are established, although there are important factors that influence the strength of the relationship. For example, men tend to have a stronger correlation between narcissism and selfie-taking than women, who use selfies to document friendships more often than men.
Narcissists posting more about themselves and doing it more frequently than non-narcissists is an obvious concept. It would only be surprising if data from social media use didn’t support it.
So what’s the problem?
A worrying new trend?
Psychologist Daniel Halpern at his colleagues in Chile have gathered some remarkable data suggesting a new facet to digital narcissim. And it isn’t good news.
Last year they published findings in the respected journal Personality and Individual Differences that showed a statistically significant bi-directional relationship between selfie-taking and narcissism. What does this mean?
Well, firstly it means there is self-selection at work: as many other studies have found, narcissists take more pictures of themselves and post them to social media more often.
But there is a second trend occurring: taking more selfies actually increases your level of narcissism over time — in this case a period of one year.
Halpern and his co-authors logically suggest that a reward mechanism from others’ rapid, often favourable feedback is reinforcing the narcissism, creating a positive feedback cycle.
Such a cycle is logical, but also worrying. That’s because the same pattern is potentially unfolding with a whole range of self-oriented tech behaviours — posting, tweeting, Instagram stories — occurring simultaneously across millions of people’s lives and potentially outside of our conscious awareness.
The empirical support for this process found by Halpern’s team lends new meaning to Keen’s decade-old phrase ‘Digital Narcissists’.
What’s the cure?
Given that high levels of narcissism are generally considered to be ‘socially toxic’ because of their proven damage to relationships, what can be done about this trend? It isn’t particularly realistic to suggest a total social media blackout, although this is what some have done in response to other perceived negative effects of associated tech (for example the ‘unplugging’ or ‘disconnect’ movements).
Psychoanalyst Pat MacDonald advocates trying to encourage counter-traits, for example modesty and gratitude. She also argues that increasing our focus on community is an antidote to narcissism.
Though there are many more research questions to be answered on the relationship between narcissism and social media — both problem and solution — MacDonald is on to something with her idea of community.
The New Economic Forum found that connecting with others (not just sending out a Facebook friend request…) was one of five key sources of wellbeing supported by research evidence. ‘Giving’ something (time, resource, skill) to others was too. (The remaining three are being active, taking notice, and learning, in case you were wondering.)
So if you notice that self-focus creeping up, get out and socialise in the real world. You may need to use your smartphone or social media to arrange it, but after that it’s about community.
- To see a bibliography of references for this article, click here.