Social media has a pervasive presence in our society. There are platforms for everything, from posting cat photos and selfies (Instagram) to videos of self-proclaimed expertise in topics from makeup to mechanics (YouTube). There is a platform for casual hook-ups (Tinder), all the way to amateur porn (OnlyFans); a platform for wannabe singers and dancers (TikTok), a platform for making “friends” who “like” you (Facebook), a platform for sharing your unsolicited opinions (Twitter), and one for covert communication (Snapchat).
Social media has become less of a vehicle and more of a speeding freight train. The numbers support this: 80 million daily uploads of photographs to Instagram and 3.5 billion likes. There are 1.4 billion Facebook users with 4 billion daily shares. But what does this social media obsession say about its users?
Personality researchers think social media and narcissism have a strong connection. For some pop-culture context, it has been reported that Facebook founder himself Mark Zuckerburg exhibited “most of the traits of narcissistic personality disorder” in the movie about his life, The Social Network. In addition, the so-called “selfie-sticks,” which also bear the slang moniker “the Narcissistick,” have been banned from numerous places and events like Wimbledon, The Smithsonian, Disney World, and the entire country of South Korea. Coachella denied them entrance to their music festival, stating on their website: “No selfie-sticks and NO NARCISSISTS!”. The point is that selfie sticks and their related behaviors are a potential sign of a society becoming increasingly self-centered.
Credit photo: Michael Leunig
With narcissism on the rise over the past ten years, comparable to the increase in obesity, one cannot help but wonder: is there a correlation with the ever-growing influence of social media? While many people may have narcissistic tendencies like constantly looking in the mirror or posting endless selfies, Narcissistic Personality Disorder only affects about 1% of the population, and they must meet specific criteria. These are the four main pillars of narcissism: lack of empathy, grandiosity, chronic sense of entitlement, and a constant need to seek out admiration and validation.
A pathological narcissist, by distinction, has all the characteristics mentioned above but also exploits others to serve their own agenda, may be frequently caught in lies and exaggerations that make them look good while making others look bad – for which they feel no empathy - and manipulates everyone and everything for their own gratification. To be slightly hyperbolic, these are the people who end up becoming serial killers. On a less sinister note, according to foremost personality researchers Millon & Davis, narcissists have “star power” and are often athletes, politicians, or entertainers, making them the ideal social media maven.
So, how did we get here? As previously stated, narcissism is on the rise. Although less than 1% of the population suffers from Narcissistic Personality Disorder, it is estimated that 2%-16% of people suffer from persistent symptoms of generalized narcissism.
Narcissism is regarded as a “modern epidemic” based on several significant societal shifts during industrial and post-industrial times. Over the past few decades, we have switched from focusing on the greater good to concentrating on oneself, leading to the Self-Esteem Movement, which asserted that self-esteem is the key to a successful, happy life. This shift led to a rise in entitlement and individualization, which emphasized self-reliance, subsequently eradicating the need for social support or meaningful connection. Along with this modernization of society came a valuation of fame, wealth, and beauty above all else.
Who is most likely to have traits of narcissism and social media obsession? Millennials, controversially dubbed “Generation Me” are particularly vulnerable to social media traps – undue pressure and influence created by the need to receive validation through likes and comments. Research shows that social media (Twitter in this case) fuels young peoples’ already narcissistic tendencies by acting as a “megaphone for their thoughts, leading them to over evaluate the importance of their own opinions”. In a group of college students with an average age of 19-years-old, the study found associations between scoring higher on certain narcissistic traits and increased rates of Twitter posting.
Why is this a societal problem? Along with narcissistic maladaptive behaviors come consequences such as multiple failed relationships, major depression, and substance abuse. When Narcissism and social media intersect, according to Dr. George Simon, the modern phenomenon of “cultural narcissism” transpires.
Cultural narcissism is narcissism woven into the very fabric of our culture in insidious, subtle, and incremental ways. It inhibits character growth, leading to dysfunction, and the more dysfunctional individuals populating our society, the more detriment there is to that society, causing real problems at every level. It challenges our moral fiber, our collective ethics, law and order, political freedom, even the right to free speech. Consider Donald Trump’s oft-banned Twitter tirades and the narcissistic views which he espoused. He eventually lost his privilege – although some would argue – it was his right, to post.
Young people – both teenagers and young adults – have it rough these days. The pressure to look, do and be like some elusive ideal is oppressive. Keeping up appearances is bested in priority only by keeping up with the Joneses. One honest and objective look at our society, and it is easy to see how both social media and narcissism have progressed, as well as the magnetism they appear to have to one another.
We can and do care way too much about what people think, but not caring isn’t healthy either. Finding the balance is how we bridge the gap. Easier said than done, to be sure, but it starts with us. We owe it to ourselves, to our children, and each other.
Written by Kathryn Carver
Follow Kathryn on Twitter and Instagram