Recent research says we’re narcissists. Actually, it says we’re acquiring more and more narcissistic traits, “we” being the youth, the young adults, the social media users.
In 2010, researcher Soraya Mehdizadeh surveyed 100 York University students, 50 male and 50 female. Mehdizadeh and her team analyzed the students’ Facebook pages, and asked the students questions to determine how they felt about themselves in terms of self-esteem and narcissistic feelings.
Her study found a few interesting things. For example, she found that students with lower self-esteem checked their Facebook page more often.
She also found a difference between the way male and female students “promoted” themselves on Facebook. While female students usually used their profile picture as a means for attracting attention, male usually used some form of writing for that purpose. They had flashier, more descriptive “About Me” and “Notes” sections.
Finally, Mehdizadeh found a correlation between time spent on Facebook and narcissistic personality traits.
Let’s backtrack for a minute. When you think of narcissistic personality traits, what do you see? Do you see someone obsessed with their self-image? Do you someone preening and primping themselves all day in front of a mirror?
Those characteristics tend to overlap with narcissistic behaviour, but narcissism is something bigger. In psychological terms, narcissism describes a range of self-perceptions from regular, healthy self-confidence to complete self-absorption and self-importance. Some examples of narcissistic personality traits are constantly seeking admiration, exaggerated selfishness, and an inflated perception of one’s own abilities.
The 2010 study found that frequent Facebook use was associated with these traits. Mehdizadeh admits, of course, that the small survey group and its specific demographic can’t tell us about every single Facebook user. More fundamentally, she questions the causality of the whole thing. She asks, “Is it that narcissists are more likely to use Facebook—or people who use Facebook are more likely to become narcissists?”
In 2012, another study looked into the link between Facebook and narcissistic traits. This time, researchers surveyed almost 300 people between the ages of 18 and 65. They found that subjects that tested higher on the “grandiose exhibitionism” scale tagged themselves in the most photos, updated their newsfeeds most, and reacted to offensive comments most aggressively. But the biggest indicator they found was number of friends. In most cases, a higher number of Facebook friends indicated a higher narcissistic personality score. Unsurprisingly, those with a higher score tended to accept more friend requests from strangers.
Still, the lead researcher on the team, Christopher Carpenter, insisted that the study of psychology as related to social media and the web is still relatively new, and that much more research needs to be done.
But there are other studies that indicate that we love ourselves a lot more than our parents did.
Researcher Jean Twenge tested 16,475 American students. He team found a jump between the statistics presented by university students in 1982 and those in 2006. Usually, the longer you’ve been alive, the higher you score on a narcissism personality test. Here, however, Twenge found that the 2006 students scored higher on the test.
Twenge hypothesizes that a constant stream of compliments from parents, teachers, and other adults while the students in his study were growing up might be the reason for the higher scores. Well, it’s no secret that the parenting model of excessive positive reinforcement has come under fire recently for the popular perception that it engenders a sense of entitlement.
When presented with the idea that narcissism could be beneficial in some way, coauthor W. Keith Campbell admitted the advantages of these traits when auditioning for American Idol, but in other aspects of life they’re not helpful. Aside from maybe hyping up the impression you make when you meet new people, a person with narcissistic traits risks shortened romantic relationships and becoming dishonest, unemotional, and violent.
So is it worse to love yourself or hate yourself? Optimistic researchers suggest that things would be a lot worse if students ranked too low on a narcissistic personality test. Either way, we still don’t know the particular cause. Did our parents love us too much? Did our teachers give us too many gold stars? Did the mirror of social media morph our brains to automatic self-worship? The answer to that last question is probably—hopefully—our addictions beg that it be—a resounding no. But as a generation partly raised by computers, we still have to wonder what growing up with the Internet has changed in our perception of others, and in our own self-perception.