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Do Facebook and Other Social Media Encourage Narcissism?

Excessive use of some social media may be narcissistic.

Does Facebook enhance your self-esteem or does the popular method of connecting with people and "making friends," actually detract from a strong sense of self and promote narcissistic behavior? There appears to be conflicting perceptions and evidence regarding this question.

Facebook has more than 750 million users worldwide. It facilitates people keeping in touch online with a network of "friends" and the size of these networks varies from a handful to hundreds of thousands. One of the things that has not been clear is whether there is any relationship between the number of friends a person has and the number of their real-life friends. Some experts have observed anecdotally that social network friends are very different than real-life friends.

To provide a more scientific perspective, researcher Geraint Rees, and his colleagues at the University College of London examined the fMRI brain scans of 125 frequent Facebook users. After the scans, the number of online and offline friends were recorded. The researchers reported that the typical subject had on average, 300 friends on Facebook. They concluded that having more friends online did not significantly make particular regions of the brain larger or more active. However, the researchers concluded there was a positive correlation between the number of friends the subjects had online with the number of friends they had offline.

A Canadian study at York University, published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, of Facebook users ages 18-25 reviewed the subject’s use of the Facebook as well as the content they posted on their profiles. The subjects were also evaluated using the Narcissism Personality Inventory and measured according to the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale. The researchers looked closely at evidence of the participants “self-promotion” on their Facebook sites. Self-promotion was defined as things such as updating their status every five minutes, frequent posting of pictures of themselves, photos of celebrity look-alikes, and quotes and mottos glorifying themselves. The researchers concluded that the people who used Facebook the most tended to have narcissistic or insecure personalities.

Christopher Carpenter of Western Illinois University conducted as study on narcissism in Facebook, published in Personal and Individual Differences. His study showed grandiose exhibitionism correlated with self-promotion and entitlement/exploitiveness correlated with anti-social behaviors on Facebook.

According to research by Amanda Forrest of the University of California and Joanne Wood at Waterloo University, published in Psychological Science, they found those with low self-esteem feel safer sharing on Facebook. However, the study also found that those with low self-esteem frequently post updates that work against them. They tend to criticize their friends with negative details of their lives, making them less likeable as "friends."  Forrest and Wood also found that those people with high self-esteem, who usually posted more positive updates, received more positive responses.

Russell Clayton at the University of Missouri along with colleagues Alexander Nagurney at the University of Hawaii and Jessica Smith at St. Mary’s University, published their research in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, which concluded high levels of Facebook use by couples were correlated with negative relationship outcomes such as cheating, breakup and divorce.

A study by Larry Rosen at California State University, presented at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association, showed how teens who spend too much time on Facebook are more likely to show narcissistic tendencies and display signs of other behavioral problems. Rosen said the negative effects of teens overusing social media include making them more prone to vain, aggressive and anti-social behavior and that excessive use can lead to poorer academic performance.

Dilney Goncaleves, at the IE Business School in Madrid, conducted a research study which argues that much of how we judge our success in life is by comparison with others: " The problem is that Facebook gives us a limited view of our friends' lives, and that view tends to be unrealistically positive." He added that the more friends you have, the more likely you are to spend your day enviously reading about someone else's paradise vacation, new girlfriend or job promotion.

Psychology researcher Soraya Mehdizadeh at York University in Toronto, conducted a study, published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking  of 100 Facebook users and measured activities such as photo sharing, wall postings and status updates and frequency and duration of use. After measuring each subject using the Narcissism Personality Inventory and Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale, Mehdizadeh discovered that narcissists and people with lower self-esteem were more likely to spend more than a hour a day on Facebook and were more prone to post self-promotional photos and showcase themselves through status updates and wall activity.

Laura Buffardi and W. Keith Campbell, researchers from the University of Georgia, conducted research, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, which supports the Canadian study. “We found that people who are narcissistic use Facebook in a self-promoting way that can identified by others,” Buffardi reports. The researchers found that the number of Facebook friends and the way posts are made on profiles correlates with narcissism. Nearly all young  people today use Facebook and it has become a normal part of social life, says Campbell, but “narcissists are using Facebook the same way they use their other relationships—for self-promotion with an emphasis on quantity over quality.”

A University of Michigan study conducted by Elliot Panek and his associates, examined Facebook and Twitter. “Through Twitter,” Panek concludes, they’re [young people] are trying to broaden their social circles and broadcast their views,” and in the process, over evaluate the importance of their opinions. Panek concludes that “among young adult college students, we found that those who scored higher in certain types of narcissism posted more often on Twitter,” whereas among middle-aged adults, narcissists posted more frequently on Facebook.”

Alex Jordan at Stanford University conducted a study, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, of 80 Facebook users, focusing on the number of positive and negative experience their peers were experiencing. He found they consistently over-estimated the fun their friends were having and underestimated their negative or unhappy experiences. He concluded that Facebook may be worsening the tendency to think everyone else is enjoying themselves more than you are. "By showcasing the most witty, joyful, bullet-pointed versions of people's lives, and inviting constant comparisons in which we tend to see ourselves as the losers, Facebook appears to exploit an Achilles' hell of human nature. And women may be especially vulnerable to keeping up with what they imagine is the happiness of the Joneses," Jordon contends.

Not all the research is critical of the impact of social media nor supportive of the narcissism claim.

A 2012 study by Bruce McKinney, from the University of North Carolina, published in the journal Communication Research Reports, concluded that Facebook users are not as narcissistic as once thought. He concluded that it may be time to redefine narcissism, as it may have become the social norm for young people.

A study by Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., published in Cyberpsychology Behavior and Social Networking found that viewing and editing your Facebook profile could boost your self-esteem. This research is based on Objective Self-Awareness theory, as reported by Adoree Durayappah, in a Psychology Today article. The theory suggests that people the view the self as both a subject and an object, and that Facebook can be a tool to promote greater self-awareness.

Jeffrey Hancock at Cornell University has published research in the Cyberpsychology Behvior and Social Networking journal which concludes Facebook can have a positive influence on the self-esteem of college students because Facebook by and large, shows a very positive version of ourselves.

So it seems like the jury is still out about the relative impact—positive or negative—of social media such as Facebook, particularly for young people, although there is mounting evidence to show a link with narcissism. 

Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

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