The numbers alone tell a powerful story of self-obsessions. More than 80m photographs uploaded to Instagram every day, more than 3.5bn ‘likes’ every day, and some 1.4bn people - 20% of the world’s population - publishing details of their lives on Facebook. Is social media turning a relatively modest species into a pack of publicity-hungry narcissists? Or were we already inherently self-absorbed?
In the US, diagnoses of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) have risen sharply over the past 10 years: the rate of increase is comparable to the rise in the rate of obesity.
Numerous studies claim to have made direct links between the increase in NPD and the ubiquity of social media. Behaviours such as attempting to attract more followers, wanting to tell followers about your life, and the need to project a positive image at all times have been described by researchers as examples of exhibiting narcissistic personality traits on social media. A direct link has also been found between the number of Facebook friends a person has and the prevalence of socially disruptive traits commonly associated with narcissism.
But psychologist Ciarán Mc Mahon, director at the Institute of Cyber Security, believes the link between narcissism and social media use is not so clear-cut.
“Academics argue over the data and how it’s measured. On balance, there is an increase in narcissism, and there has been an increase in social media use. But it’s not completely clear if there is a correlation,” says Mc Mahon.
“It could be that there’s a wider cultural increase in narcissism in the west that’s then reflected back in social media. For social media to have become so popular there has to have been pre-existing narcissism.”
Lucy Clyde, a counsellor and psychotherapist, believes that everyone has narcissistic tendencies and that we’re simply more aware of these traits because of the prevalence of social media.
“In terms of personality disorder, I wouldn’t imagine social media is the cause but an expression. If you’re a narcissist, you’re looking for a positive reflection of yourself, the world is your mirror and you’re constantly looking for affirmation. For this reason, you’re probably curating your own life very heavily on social media,” says Clyde.
Jack Price, 34, has amassed more than 60,000 followers from around the world on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter over the past 10 years. He checks his social media accounts tens of times a day and says he is obsessed with maintaining his online profile. He does not describe himself as a narcissist but as someone using available technology to further his career and keep up with expectations.
“I sometimes spend hours thinking about what to post, thinking about what my followers want, but also what I want them to think about me. But I see it as time well invested: it’s made me successful, well known, and it’s made me money,” says Price, whose name has been changed.
“I’ll often see moments as ‘good content’ for my social media followers. It’s almost like the photographing and sharing of a cool time is more important than actually appreciating it in real life.”
NPD gained prominence in the 1960s and official criteria for diagnosis were created in 1980. Characteristics of NPD include a deep need for admiration, an inflated sense of one’s own importance, and a lack of empathy for others. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, other diagnostic criteria of narcissistic personality disorder include dreaming of unlimited success; craving attention from other people, but showing few warm feelings in return; and choosing friends based on their prestige and status rather than personal qualities. As an observer, it’s easy to draw parallels between the way people behave on social media and narcissistic traits.
Millennials are particularly vulnerable to the potentially negative effects of social media. Young people aged 17-21 go through a necessary narcissistic stage as they seek to find their place in society and move away from their caregivers. Their experiences of this developmental phase can be unhealthily magnified by social media.
“This age group is heavily influenced by their peers. What is crucially important is how other people see you and a huge focus of your life is geared to creating a positive impression of yourself,” says Clyde. “Like taking huge care to get the perfect selfie as this stuff stays online forever. That’s a pretty unique pressure and it has to create a painfully pressured state of mind. This has the potential to amplify pre-existing narcism. And to some extent we all have narcissistic traits.”
There is a body of research that suggests social media is good for our self-esteem. Mc Mahon believes that it allows people to test different identities and find a comfortable place in society, but he agrees that social media adds a layer of pressure to an already complicated time and can encourage people to overshare.
“If you have a boring profile, you will get no likes. But if you post something revealing about yourself, or something provocative, then you get more likes. People with 5,000 followers are constantly thinking about what they’re going to post next to get a reaction,” he says.
William Roberts, from Buckinghamshire, is a frequent social media user and acutely aware of its narrow view of reality. The 19-year-old sees social media as a place for people to show off and he actively manages his use to protect himself from negative influences. “The only purpose of Instagram is to promote the highlights of your life, and often people will focus on parties, holidays, times with friends. My own posts rarely reflect my feelings when I am sad, depressed or lonely and entirely reflect the positive side of my life,” says Roberts.
According to Clyde, it’s virtually impossible to showcase all aspects of your personality on social media, which is an issue.
“We are trying to sanitise the messiness of human experience. Modern life is hard. If we deny our own messiness, we can’t really connect with other people and their own messiness. And that is really lonely and isolating,” she says.
“We’ve broken ourselves into bite-sized chunks. We are infinitely more complex than a selfie or 140 characters. If we believe that’s who we are, it becomes impossible to tolerate the complexity of ourselves and other people. It’s a huge struggle to be authentic warts and all, and social media isn’t helping,” says Clyde.
It may be difficult to say concretely that narcissism among millennials is directly linked to social media. But it does seem that social media encourages and panders to pre-existing narcissism. “It’s not our outward behaviour that we need to concentrate on, we need to look inward” says McMahon, “people are using external validation on social media for a reason. We need to examine what is missing at the heart of people.”