There has been a massive increase in the use of social media – from being almost non-existent 15 years ago, it now takes up a major part of our lives and our children’s lives. Facebook, for example, boasts over one billion users per day. This explosion of social media has led to many cultural, social, and economic changes.
Narcissism – having an inflated view of oneself – has become a major topic of research interest, and also of concern. Is social media becoming an outlet for narcissistic individuals to self-promote? And is social media turning us and our children into narcissists?
Some use their social media accounts as platforms for self-promotion – places to seek attention and admiration. Others take up an oversized amount of space in social media feeds. These “friends” bragging about their amazing lives – replete with pictures and hashtags – come across as at least a bit narcissistic.
Even the names and taglines of many social media sites seemed to reflect this narcissistic, or at least individualistic, bent. Youtube: “broadcast yourself”. Twitter: “what are you doing?”; and “iPod”, “iPad” and “iPhone”.
This led to culture becoming considerably more self-focused.
Hardware designers made cameras that took pictures of their owners, and the selfie took over. Selfie was named word of the year by the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013. (The first use of the word “selfie” was actually by a drunk Aussie in 2002 who took a picture of his own bloodied lip after a fall to show his friends.)
Today we have 100 million people on social media sites like Snapchat taking selfies, running them through filters, and sending them to friends. Researchers follow these trends as best they can, but they are always about two years behind.
A 2008 study on narcissism and Facebook found evidence that more narcissistic individuals were more self-promoting on Facebook and had more “friends”. This finding is consistent with what many people expect – narcissistic individuals do well in an environment where there are shallow relationships and opportunities to self-promote.
It does not mean that Facebook is only for narcissism – social media is a tool that can be used to form and maintain close relationships, learn new things, or just provide entertainment. But it is also an attractive place for narcissists to do their thing. This finding has held up across many other studies across the world, with narcissism predicting self-promotion and number of connections.
More recently, researchers have tackled the question of narcissism and selfies.
Several papers have found that narcissistic individuals take more selfies, spend more time on social media, feel good about it, and are a little more self-promoting (for example, show more body shots and more solo selfies).
They also tend to be well integrated into these social media networks, having large numbers of friends and followers. In general, men are a little more narcissistic than women, but we find that narcissistic men and women use social media in similar ways.
The more challenging question is if the arrow points the other way. That is, does social media use cause narcissism?
This has proven a much more challenging question to answer. When we first studied changes in narcissism over time, it looked like narcissism and social media use might be accelerating together. But this data is correlational and doesn’t tell us about individuals’ social media use; therefore it doesn’t really say much about how social media will influence users.
Since then, researchers have tried a couple different strategies.
One is experimental. For example, you take two random groups, have one group work on their social media page and the other on an unrelated computer task. Then you measure differences in narcissism to see if the social media group is higher. Results from this approach have been mixed and inconclusive.
Another approach is longitudinal, measuring narcissism and social media use over time and seeing if they are mutually reinforcing; that is, whether narcissism predicts increased social media use and whether that, in turn, predicts increasing narcissism. At least one study shows this pattern. It might also be the case that social media inflates the narcissism of those already predisposed, but has no effect on others.
So it is plausible that social media use increases narcissism. But there is also longitudinal research suggesting that social media use can make children more empathetic. For example, children who spend time engaged with their friends on social media might become more concerned with the up and downs in their friends’ lives. Thus, given the vagaries of social science and the challenge of figuring out how to answer the causal question (without randomly assigning 300 children to avoid social media until they turn 18 and have their narcissism measured).
A new study concludes that there is, in fact, a causal link between the use of social media and negative effects on well-being, primarily depression and loneliness. The study was published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology.
“What we found overall is that if you use less social media, you are actually less depressed and less lonely, meaning that the decreased social media use is what causes that qualitative shift in your well-being,” said Jordyn Young, a co-author of the paper and a senior at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Prior to this, all we could say was that there is an association between using social media and having poor outcomes with well-being,” she said.
The researchers say this is the first time a causal link has ever been established in scientific research. The study included 143 students from the University of Pennsylvania. They were randomly assigned to one of two groups: one that would continue their social media habits as usual or one that would significantly limit access to social media.
For three weeks, the experimental group had their social media use reduced to 30 minutes per day — 10 minutes on three different platforms (Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat). In order to keep these experimental conditions, the researchers looked at phone usage data, which documented how much time was spent using each app per day. All of the study participants had to use iPhones.
But why even let the experimental group use social media at all?
“We didn’t think [complete abstinence] was an accurate representation of the landscape of the world that we live in today. Social media is around us in so many capacities,” Young said. The results were clear: The group that used less social media, even though it wasn’t completely eliminated, had better mental health outcomes.
Baseline readings for participants were taken at the beginning of the trial in several areas of well-being: social support, fear of missing out, loneliness, anxiety, depression, self-esteem, autonomy, and self-acceptance.
At the end of the trial, those in the experimental group saw both loneliness and depressive symptoms decline, with the largest changes happening in those who reported greater levels of depression. “No matter where they started off if they were told to limit their social media, they had less depression, no matter what their initial levels were,” Young said.
Meanwhile, both groups saw a decline in levels of anxiety and fear of missing out, which the researchers posit as potentially coming from users simply becoming more aware of their social media use by taking part in the trial.