Classroom Technology

Link Between Social Media and Narcissism? Not Always for Younger Generation

By Sarah Schwartz — February 16, 2017 5 min read
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A body of recent psychology research demonstrates a relationship between self-promotional social media behavior and narcissistic traits. Users scoring high on narcissism scales tend to post more about their accomplishments, post and share more selfies, and edit the photos they post of themselves more often. They use social media to garner attention from a public audience, and they get angry when others in their network don’t “like” or comment on their posts.

In short, narcissists behave online the same way that they behave offline, as one researcher who has studied the link put it.

But among young people, frequent posting on Facebook and other platforms might not indicate narcissism, researchers say.

Social media is a primary mode of communication for a new generation of children who are growing up connected. For these users, the line between normal and narcissistic behavior, as defined by their behavior on social media, is not as clearly defined, researchers say.

Recent news stories have examined the relationship between social media use and narcissism, and researchers continue to investigate how the connection manifests across rapidly evolving social media platforms.

While there is no direct evidence that social media use can cause narcissism, social media can give narcissists a platform for their behavior, said Larry Rosen, Professor Emeritus of California State University, Dominguez Hills and co-author of The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World.

“Narcissists like a large audience for self-adulation, and what better audience than all your friends—or fake friends—on Facebook,” he said. “The key is that all of this is done behind a screen, so there’s a feeling of safety and anonymity which feeds into and fuels the narcissistic characteristics.”

But there is some evidence that for millennial users, the relationship between narcissism and the use of one social media platform, Facebook, may be changing. A 2014 study published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior found that while posting more Facebook status updates is linked to narcissistic traits in adult users, there is no relationship between status updates and narcissism among college students. The researchers did find a relationship on Twitter: The more frequently millennials tweeted, the more likely they were to score high on narcissistic traits.

This generational difference across platforms could reflect ongoing changes in the way younger users communicate online, the study’s authors explained in the article.

“Our findings might reflect the fact that Millennials grew up using Facebook as a part of their lives, as a means of communicating with others just as previous generations might have used a telephone,” they explained.

“The social media platforms just change so fast,” said Shawn Bergman, an associate professor of psychology at Appalachian State University, and one of the study’s authors. “Now people use Twitter almost like they use text messaging, when they’re talking back and forth to people publicly. When [Twitter] originally came out, that’s not how people were using it.”

A Tool for Communication

In some contexts, even selfie-taking may be just another form of communication, rather than a telltale sign of self-absorption, according to a 2016 study. That research, also published in Computers in Human Behavior, examined the Snapchat use patterns of first year college students. The majority of users sent selfies, but the study’s authors did not associate this behavior with narcissism.

Snapchat, the researchers explained, is used to form a small network of close friends. Users communicate with each other in “conversation-like” picture exchanges. As a result, Snapchat use is associated with bonding, the researchers found. They hypothesized that the platform’s “high intimacy level” could imply different motivations for selfie-sharing than Facebook.

More and more, younger users engage with social media platforms for communication—not self-promotion, said Rosen.

There is a generational distinction within the group often referred to as “Millennials,” he added. Young adults born in the 1990s, he says, are part of the iGeneration. Named in reference to the line of Apple products including the iPod and iPhone, this generation is fluent in these technologies that entered the market in their early teenage years. By contrast, children born after 2000—Generation C, for “connected"—have been exposed to these technologies since birth, said Rosen.

“They see social media as simply a means to communicate with other people, whereas iGeneration young adults see social media as a way to display themselves.”

Art Spencer, a librarian at Arthur Jacobsen Elementary School in Auburn, Washington, said he doesn’t see a direct relationship between self-promotional behaviors and media use in students in grades 3-5 he teaches.

Spencer said that although the students who can be self-involved in the classroom sometimes post more online, he has also seen internet communication boost confidence in a positive way.

“The kids who are more reserved really blossom online,” he said. “They communicate in ways they would not feel comfortable in a classroom setting.”

‘Figuring Out Who They Are’

“When adolescent students are active online users, a certain amount of self-focused behavior can be expected, explained Yalda T. Uhls, youth development expert with Common Sense Media, assistant adjunct professor at UCLA and author of Media Moms and Digital Dads. When teenagers engage with social media, she said, they’re trying to develop their identity and negotiate social status.

“They’re figuring out who they are,” Uhls said. “Their social cognition turns on. They’re very attuned to peers. All of that is normal developmental behavior.”

Schools have a role to play in helping students have healthy and thoughtful interactions online. For schools looking to identify narcissistic online behavior, there is no definitive checklist, said Rosen. To address self-centered behavior, he suggests teaching empathy.

Students who are taught to reflect before they post, he said, are able to make more intentional choices online. Narcissistic patterns are subtle, but a strong reaction to criticism can indicate narcissistic tendencies.

“You really want to look not at what they post,” he said, “but how they react back when somebody dismisses them, makes fun of them, says their post is silly.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.