Sunday, March 18, 2012

Narcissists on Facebook?

My good friend, Pacific Londoner, sent me a link this morning to this Guardian article, reporting research that relates Facebook use and narcissism. It makes for pretty interesting reading:

Researchers have established a direct link between the number of friends you have on Facebook and the degree to which you are a "socially disruptive" narcissist, confirming the conclusions of many social media sceptics.
People who score highly on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory questionnaire had more friends on Facebook, tagged themselves more often and updated their newsfeeds more regularly.
The research comes amid increasing evidence that young people are becoming increasingly narcissistic, and obsessed with self-image and shallow friendships.
I suppose in someways it's not overly surprising that narcissists will use Facebook in this kind of way, although as they say in the article, what comes first, the chicken or egg? Is the narcissism leading to the Facebook behaviour patterns, or is there something about Facebook itself that's leading to the narcissistic behaviour? Obviously the more research that looks into these issues the better. However, there is a tendency for the media to latch onto this kind of research to generate fear and overstate the 'dark side' of social media, without acknowledging the numerous benefits social media has to offer.

It is often said that the emerging young adults of today have barely known a world without the internet. They have grown up, generally, with access to the internet and a kind of connectedness that wasn't experienced to the same degree by previous generations (and sub-generations). What would be really interesting would be to find out how much of this purported narcissism is due to these young adults having already done a lot of their identity formation online. And a key question for educators, is what can be done for children and adolescents who are forming their identities online right now - what skills and competencies do they need to be able to cope online, and see through online narcissists and be responsible digital citizens?

I think one of the differences with Facebook and similar sites, compared with one's offline life, is that your profile spells out clearly how many 'friends' you have. Imagine if we all had that written on our t-shirts or foreheads! It's an online status symbol, and an indicator of 'social gravity' - that is, if they can gain enough social mass, that in turn will attract yet more 'matter' into their orbit, and on and on. Until the inevitable supernova! 

The very design of Facebook places each user at the centre of their online social universe. But then again, my eyeballs tend to do that too in my 'offline' life - it's unavoidable! The key is learning to see from other people's point of view, sharing experiences, developing empathy, engaging with a range of ideas. Facebook can be a great tool for giving insight into the lives of those in our network - it can counteract narcissism if used well.

In my experience, Facebook does not lead to shallow friendships. It strengthens existing ones and sparks old friendships into life in a way that probably wouldn't happen without it. The 'social' has always had a dark side, because it involves people. We should no sooner reject online social interaction than we should isolate ourselves from face-to-face contacts and become hermits in the desert. We just need to learn to do it well, and that is best learnt sooner rather than later.

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