Narcissism and Social Media: Should We Be Afraid?
Research reveals a complex picture of the effects of social media on narcissism.
Posted September 13, 2019 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
Narcissism is a term that can be used in a variety of ways—from the throwaway insult, to a personality characteristic that seems to suffuse all of a person’s behaviors, to a full-blown personality disorder.
Narcissism is a cluster of behaviors that occur together and include grandiose feelings of self-importance, the need for power or admiration, dwelling on one’s own appearance and achievements, and an inability to empathize with others. It can be focused on exaggerating the self and/or putting others down. The term is more widely used in society than before, and a question that is often asked by social commentators is: ‘Does social media increase levels of narcissism?’ The answer from research conducted in many laboratories is, almost certainly, "yes"—but with lots of caveats!
It now seems clear that different types of social media have different relationships to different aspects of narcissism. That sentence is almost as difficult to follow as the patterns of emerging results themselves! To begin with, research has found strong associations between the aggressive "grandiose narcissism" and a whole range of social media behaviors, such as: time spent on social media, the frequency of tweets, and the frequency of posting selfies1. However, little relationship has been found between social media behavior and the more "vulnerable" and self-directed types of narcissism1. Thus, different aspects of narcissism are differentially associated with social media—but are different forms of social media also implicated with narcissism?
In our own work2, we found that people who had high levels of narcissism traits to begin with tended to use Twitter (and other textual-based platforms) more-and-more over time. However, those who used Facebook (and other visually-based platforms) tended to become more narcissistic over time. This differential association between social media platforms and narcissism is highly similar to that noted in another piece of research that demonstrated that Facebook and Twitter differed in the facets of narcissism that drove their usage: those high in "superiority" feelings prefer Twitter, whereas those high in "exhibitionism" prefer Facebook3.
The question for most of these studies, as always, is which comes first—the narcissism or the social media use? Moreover, we need to ask whether this is a direct link between the two variables or whether some other factor is involved. In answer to the first question, in our own longitudinal study2, we noted that there were different relationships over time between narcissism and the use of different social media platforms—prior narcissism drove later Twitter use, but prior Facebook use drove later narcissism. While not causal evidence, these data are suggestive of the direction of action between narcissism and social media use—and it is different for different forms of social media.
Of course, it may be that some other aspect of personality or behavior is linking narcissism with social media use. One possibility is suggested by a recent study4, where it was found that cyberbullying and cyberstalking mediated the narcissism-social media relationship. Narcissists tend to want to exert power. One way in which they can do this is to intimidate others, and they can intimidate through committing personal cybercrimes. In this way, narcissism is linked to social media use, indirectly, through personal cybercrime, as the latter social-media action allows the narcissist to dominate others. This may be why "grandiose" narcissism, with its more aggressive tendencies, is linked to the use of social media more than the "vulnerable" forms of narcissism1.
So, different forms of social media are related, in different ways, to different aspects of narcissism—so far, so complicated! This brings us to another wrinkle in this increasingly complex story: the differences between men and women. Men and women differ in terms of their propensity to show narcissism, at least currently in many societies, with greater rates for men (8% of the male population) than for women (5% of the female population)5. Men also score slightly higher than women in terms of "exploitative/entitlement" feelings, and "authority/leadership" needs, although there is no difference in "exhibitionism."6 However, it turns out that this sex difference does not translate into the world of social media in any straightforward manner. There is evidence from a variety of sources that social media is having a disproportionately negative impact on women, including on their levels of narcissism and related behaviors.
A recent study noted that girls use social media more than boys (43% of girls versus 31% of boys use it for at least an hour a day at age 15)7. These girls also reported lower levels of happiness, and more social and emotional difficulties as they grow up. To explain these findings, it was suggested that girls make comparisons between themselves and others more often than boys, and such social comparison is enhanced (indeed promoted) on social media, causing social media’s differentially negative effects between the sexes7.
But we shouldn't just accept that this is a passive effect of girls being influenced by others through their need for social-comparison making. Research is increasingly showing that such social-comparison for women is an active, and partly aggressive, process that may be deeply associated with female narcissism. In our laboratory, we found that women are much more likely to use intimidatory self-presentation tactics on social media than men. Echoing the work mentioned earlier, it has been shown that the narcissistic trait of "exploitativeness" is associated with increased selfie taking by girls8. This can lead to increased female aggression, often inter-female9, as well as creating extremely disturbing problems for the "exploitative" (or, indeed, "vulnerable") narcissist—such as increasingly sexualized portrayals of the self8.
The disturbing trend towards female-posted sexualized selfies could be explained as resulting from "intimidatory" self-presentation strategies used by girls with narcissism9. This behavior may get reinforced by the user receiving "likes," which are especially important for the "vulnerable" narcissist, and this reinforcement drives more of this completely inappropriate and self-harming behavior. But, not receiving "likes" can be just as bad for this group and their behavior!
Receiving no reinforcement from such behavior can lead to a temporary increased level of activity and aggression—a well-known phenomenon of non-reward in the animal laboratory10—as well as to a host of negative impacts on physiology and immunity, through the action of stress hormones11—a known effect of internet addiction12. Coupled with a resulting "narcissistic rage" from not getting social approval, in this social-media context, this results in increased posting activity, distress and damage to the person’s self-esteem, as well as prompting aggressive cyber-behaviors emitted in order to aggrandize, and protect, the self by humiliating others.
Thus, not only is the relationship between social media use and narcissism complex, and mediated by the types of social media use, and the characteristics of the users, but it has implications for how we should view this form of cyber behavior. The problem of inappropriate content is more than just a problem for the social media companies and censorship—such inappropriate behaviors and content may actually be fostered by the psychological impacts of the social media platforms, and the personalities of their users. The evidence is strongly pointing to the need for a thorough re-evaluation of our relationship with this technology.
1. McCain, J. L., & Campbell, W. K. (2018). Narcissism and social media use: A meta-analytic review. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 7(3), 308.
2. Reed, P., Bircek, N. I., Osborne, L. A., Viganò, C., & Truzoli, R. (2018). Visual Social Media Use Moderates the Relationship between Initial Problematic Internet Use and Later Narcissism. The Open Psychology Journal, 11(1).
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4. Kircaburun, K., Jonason, P. K., & Griffiths, M. D. (2018). The Dark Tetrad traits and problematic social media use: The mediating role of cyberbullying and cyberstalking. Personality and Individual Differences, 135, 264-269.
5. Stinson, F. S., Dawson, D. A., Goldstein, R. B., Chou, S. P., Huang, B., Smith, S. M., ... & Grant, B. F. (2008). Prevalence, correlates, disability, and comorbidity of DSM-IV narcissistic personality disorder: results from the wave 2 national epidemiologic survey on alcohol and related conditions. The Journal of clinical psychiatry, 69(7), 1033.
6. Grijalva, E., Newman, D. A., Tay, L., Donnellan, M. B., Harms, P. D., Robins, R. W., & Yan, T. (2014). Gender Differences in Narcissism: A Meta-Analytic Review. Psychological Bulletin, doi:10.1037/a0038231
7. Booker, C. L., Kelly, Y. J., & Sacker, A. (2018). Gender differences in the associations between age trends of social media interaction and well-being among 10-15 year olds in the UK. BMC public health, 18(1), 321.
8. Stuart, J., & Kurek, A. (2019). Looking hot in selfies: Narcissistic beginnings, aggressive outcomes?. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 0165025419865621.
9. Chua, T. H. H., & Chang, L. (2016). Follow me and like my beautiful selfies: Singapore teenage girls’ engagement in self-presentation and peer comparison on social media. Computers in Human Behavior, 55, 190-197.
10. Amsel, A. (1992). Frustration theory: An analysis of dispositional learning and memory (No. 11). Cambridge University Press.
11. Papini, M. R., & Dudley, R. T. (1997). Consequences of surprising reward omissions. Review of General Psychology, 1(2), 175-197.
12. Reed, P., Vile, R., Osborne, L. A., Romano, M., & Truzoli, R. (2015). Problematic internet usage and immune function. PloS one, 10(8), e0134538.