5 Key Aspects of Social Media and Narcissism
A decade of research shows several correlations.
Posted Oct 13, 2020
Social media creates a perfect playground for narcissistic behavior. The shallow, broad connections encourage our narcissistic tendencies of extraversion, brashness, and flashy behaviors to enter into the public. We want to connect with others, and we want to feel good while doing it. Social media can make that happen.
Plus, social media allows us to curate our public image, which is perfect for the narcissistic drive to look attractive, successful, and popular. Simply put, social media platforms allow narcissists to do what they do best in real life — meet new people, expand their circle of followers, and promote themselves endlessly.
Based on research from the past decade, here are a few things we know about social media and narcissistic traits:
1. Narcissists take more selfies.
Social media provides an easy avenue for an ego boost, and narcissistic individuals are always on the hunt for an ego boost. Since studies show that people tend to “like” or “heart” selfies more than they react to other photos, selfies make the perfect choice for narcissists who want to be at the center of attention.
Of course, almost everyone takes selfies of some sort, so selfies don’t necessarily indicate narcissistic traits, but for narcissists in particular, selfies are all about themselves and their ego. They take more selfies than other types of photos. They’re also more likely to take photos of themselves and not groups of friends. In addition, they’re more likely to “like” or comment on others’ selfies and get involved with selfie-related posts, which creates a feedback loop of ego-boosting across social media platforms.
2. Narcissists post their bodies more, too.
In general, narcissists are more likely to describe themselves as attractive, and they’re more likely to show off that attractiveness. Narcissists are more likely to post selfies with more than their faces — like gym selfies with abs or alluring photos. They’re also more motivated to post these selfies to get an ego boost. Since they seem themselves as attractive and worth viewing, they’re pretty happy about posing and posting pictures of themselves.
Since the days of MySpace, people have put time and effort into crafting the perfect “profile pic,” so it’s no surprise that narcissists win out in this category and drive forward image-sharing platforms such as Instagram. Even still, our overall relationship with selfies and body pics is getting complicated. We love taking them, but we judge others who post fake or inauthentic photos. We like the ego boost, but we’re also more critical of others’ posts that seem narcissistic or inappropriate, hence the recent trend around calling out influencers who edit their photos dramatically.
3. Narcissists have more followers.
Narcissists want a large audience, and they work hard for it. They search for others who will boost their status, request connections, and use social media platforms more often to get attention and status. They thrive here because it’s built around their environment — like lions thrive on the savanna and polar bears thrive in arctic habitats.
Self-promotion is essential for social media participation, and narcissists do that particularly well. They have more attractive photos, more selfies, and more self-focused content, which in turn, brings them new followers and subscribers.
4. Narcissism is linked with trolling.
Not only do narcissists use social media to make themselves feel good, but they also log on to make others feel bad. Narcissism and other “dark” traits, such as sadism and psychopathy, have been linked with online trolling. People with these dark traits post to get a reaction from others and enjoy arousing anger in other users, including people they don’t know.
Men with narcissistic traits, in particular, are more likely to harass and cyberbully others online. They also retaliate strongly against negative comments on their own posts. All of this could be related to their desire to dominate and control others, as well as to shift the focus of attention to themselves.
5. Narcissists crave fame.
People use social media in different ways — to promote their work, stay in touch with friends and family, and learn about the latest news and trends. For narcissists, it’s also an avenue to fame and celebrity.
Influencers with large followings are more likely to get noticed, draw in brand deals, and become famous. They don’t necessarily need a publicist or agent if they’re good enough at promoting themselves, so they work hard at it. This doesn’t mean that promotion or fame are bad, simply that social media allows people to self-enhance, and self-enhancement is a key feature of narcissism.
But the biggest question still to answer: Does using social media make us more narcissistic? The research can’t quite say yet, but for the most part, we know that social media is used more often by narcissistic people — and their motives are focused on self-promotion and ego more than anything else. Some studies have shown that social media can increase narcissistic tendencies, but other studies don't.
Our best guess is that social media doesn’t turn people into narcissists, rather it reinforces existing narcissism. In fact, the latest studies show that the rampant and ever-pervasive nature of social media is actually making many of us insecure and anxious. Now that everyday people have more public exposure than even celebrities in the 1920s had, we're facing “celebrity problems” that can lead to anxiety about our looks and public perception as well as narcissism.
New trends are emerging on platforms such as TikTok, too. We can’t say yet for sure, but it appears the popular app has the potential to promote not only narcissistic behaviors but also fun dance videos, goofy jokes, and serious conversations about social and political matters. This could reduce the focus on self-promotional content — or at least broaden the variety of topics and posts found on social media platforms. The key aspect is to watch how the latest platforms evolve and how self-promotional behaviors change. After all, narcissists helped to build social media platforms by connecting with others and posting enormous amounts of content, and they’ll likely continue to do that, no matter which platform is popular.
Campbell, W. Keith & Crist, Carolyn. (2020). The New Science of Narcissism: Understanding One of the Greatest Psychological Challenges of Our Time—And What You Can Do About It. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.