A plethora of recent studies have delved into the effect social media has on our brains. As part of a widespread neurological fascination in social science, these reports offer various concerns on the effect new technological platforms have on our social consciousness.
The University of Michigan reported last month that Facebook, while cultivating an addictive fixation in its users, also fosters depression. Why? “Based on the responses from the participants,” TIME reports, “the scientists speculated that the Facebook users were comparing themselves with their peers, and many were feeling inferior as a result. Users also reported frustration and a “lack of attention” from having fewer comments, likes and feedback compared with their Facebook friends.”
Social scientists are also musing over the growing “selfie” trend – and trying to determine its ethical implications. Is our pouty-picture-taking symptomatic of typical youthful immaturity, or is it indicative of some deeper cultural phenomenon?
These are just a few minor grace notes in a growing public dialogue on “narcissism”: whether we are more narcissistic than in ages past, how social media affects our self-absorption, and whether we need to change. Dr. Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, believes that younger generations are “increasingly entitled, self-obsessed, and unprepared for the realities of adult life,” according to a recent New York Times article. Slate author Katy Waldman felt inclined to agree with her:
Look at the rise of plastic surgery, our painstaking attention to Facebook and Twitter profiles, our selfies, our relentless focus on self-improvement, and “soccer teams that give every kid a trophy … Could it be that she is onto something? How else to explain that Twenge’s thesis just feels right?
Some believe this “epidemic” of narcissism is a product of our digital era. According to another study, this one conducted by the University of California Los Angeles, language in books have shown the trend develop over the past 200 years. “The currently discussed rise in individualism is not something recent but has been going on for centuries as we moved from a predominantly rural, low-tech society to a predominantly urban, high-tech society,” said psychology professor Patricia Greenfield, who conducted the study. Words like “unique,” “individual,” “self,” “feel,” “choose,” and “get” increased significantly over time. Words like “authority,” “belong,” and “pray” are more rare than before.
The “selfie” is a commonly quoted example of the narcissistic tendency in social media. One psychologist told TIME that the self-captured image could be beneficial, since it allows “young adults and teens to express their mood states and share important experiences.” But not everyone sees the “selfie” as a correct depiction of the self. Brett McCracken, in a Mere Orthodoxy blog post, argued the self-projections we present on social media are both deceptive to others and to ourselves:
Social media’s “what are you doing now?” invitation to pose, pontificate and consume conspicuously only amplifies the narcissistic presentism of the generation depicted in The Bling Ring. It makes it easier than ever to tell the world exactly what you want them to know about you. Through a carefully cropped and color-corrected selfie, depicting whatever glamorized “now” we think paints us in the best light, we can construct a public persona as we see fit.
Are Instagram selfies and Twitter posts truly making us more narcissistic? Or are we merely viewing a greater publication of old human tendencies?
I would argue the latter. While the digital era could be making us more narcissistic, it seems more likely that it is doing exactly what it was created to do: showcasing the self in all its glory. As long as humans have roamed the planet, they have had selfish tendencies. But prior to the rise of social media, they did not have a global platform for this grandstanding. High school, with all its intense and sticky drama, was documented profusely in letters and diaries, but it rarely appeared in public discourse. Now, via Facebook, young adults have a communal outlet for their emotionally turbulent lives. Facebook is, in many ways, the new diary.
In addition, arguing that young adults are more narcissistic than ever seems too simplistic. Many young people are immature and tend to be self-interested. It is only with experience and age that we learn the planet does not revolve around us. Once again, this generation has a wider global platform for self-pontification than ever before. This may skew the narcissism balance in their favor. Not to mention that the young are less adept at disguising their selfishness. With age, we learn how to hide our self-absorption behind facades of one sort or another. Time makes some humble; it makes others clever.
It is true that individualism and life disassociated from family and community is more widespread today than in past civilizations. It could be that this individualism has fostered our egotism. The person who lives with family or roommates must learn patience, self-control, and sacrifice. The individual, however, need not reconcile with other people’s wants and desires. Personal wants reign supreme. This obviously cultivates a different set of values and perceptions in the individual. But one must caution against the tendency to stereotype and predict behavior based on such perceived “trends.”
The human mind is not one massive mound of ever-growing egotism. It is a complex, varied, wondrous thing — scarred with the pains of human experience, spotted with sin and excess, ever shifting with the cadence of human experience. While we should be wary of social media’s influence on our mental and spiritual growth, we needn’t discount the online experience because of a few paltry “selfies.” One of the beauties of social media is its ability to connect and share – to teach us more about each other.