The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Health & Family

July 11, 2013

Aisha Sultan: Study looks at social networks, narcissism

JOPLIN, Mo. — There may be people you haven't spoken to in ages, but you know when they've conquered a new level in Candy Crush Saga or how many miles they crushed in their last run. But is there something more sinister developing when all the world is literally a stage? Could our fascination with self be turning us into unhealthy narcissists?

Chris Barry, associate professor of psychology at the University of Southern Mississippi, has studied narcissism in adolescents and describes it as a preoccupation with being viewed favorably by others in comparison to others. He distinguished between two types: grandiose and vulnerable.

The former may be more familiar, with celebrities such as Donald Trump as a poster child, but the latter seeks affirmation and admiration to support a fragile self-esteem. Barry's research finds higher levels of narcissism in adolescents linked to problems such as anxiety, depression and aggression toward others.

Narcissists may be able to win people over quickly, but they have trouble maintaining long-term relationships, whether with co-workers, friends, family or spouses. There are consequences to society if we are, indeed, more reliant on constant positive feedback from others. We are likely to end up more lonely and less empathetic.

"Ten or 20 years down the line, we can ask, ÔDid social media make us more narcissistic?'" Barry said. Did it become normative, he asked, to be narcissistic or get left behind?

Right now, the jury is out as to the degree to which narcissistic behavior has changed over the years, or which cultural or societal factor may be influencing any such change, he said. But there's no denying that the advent of social media allows us to witness such behavior with regularity.

Unsurprisingly, a study released last month found a connection between how often people post on social networks and their self-reported scores on a scale measuring narcissistic personality traits. Researchers Elliot Panek, Yioryos Nardis and Sara Konrath conducted research at the University of Michigan looking at Facebook and Twitter use among student and adult samples.

"We found what a lot of people suspected to be true," Panek said. "There's some connection between narcissism and how often people post on social networks."

Perhaps more surprisingly, they measured "frequent" posting as "more than once a day." That's not to suggest that people who post frequently are all narcissists, of course. But social media is a handy tool for those who already have that personality trait.

Facebook is the mirror for adults with higher self-reported narcissism levels, Panek said, while Twitter is an amplified megaphone for students with the highest reported levels. Facebook allows one to maintain an image among established social circles and observe reactions to what is posted, he explained. Twitter is a public broadcast technology, allowing one to share a message with anyone who wants to see it.

Aisha Sultan is a St. Louis-based journalist who studies parenting in the digital age while trying to keep up with her tech-savvy children. Find her on Twitter: @AishaS.

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