Tuesday, October 27, 2009

On Narcissism, the Internet, and Social Networking Sites

I read with interest the posts of Dr John Grohol, PsyD regarding my commentary, "Twitter and YouTube: Unanticipated Consequences of the Self-Esteem Movement.I had hoped it would bring attention to this topic and am glad that this has opened up an important dialogue. However, the author has missed the point.

It was not my intention to blame the internet for creating more narcissists or for causing irreparable harm to our children. In fact, nowhere in my article do I “demonize” the internet as this post asserts. It is my contention that the internet is not, in and of itself, inherently evil. I do not blame social networking sites for the rise of narcissism in our culture. A more careful reading of the piece would reveal that I consider social networking sites a symptom of a narcissistic society rather than the cause of it.

My argument was not that the internet is to blame for the sad state of affairs in which we find ourselves. Rather, it is the philosophy that influenced the rearing of an entire generation, namely, the self-esteem movement. By shielding our youth from the dangers of criticism and disappointment, they have arrived at adulthood without having developed the coping skills they need to survive in the real world. No one succeeds at everything. This is a fact of life. But the millennial generation was not exposed to this reality. Not only do they shun criticism, they feel entitled to praise, even if undeserved.

The studies of Twenge and Campbell[1-3] have shown a steady rise in narcissism in the past several decades. While the author is quick to point to statements he believes are not backed by data, he fails to even take note of this study. This rise in narcissism was evident before the advent of social networking sites. And it is my contention that these sites would not have risen to such prominence but for the fact that a generation of narcissists needed an outlet. The millennial generation needed a way to assert their uniqueness, their specialness and garner the attention and praise of the masses. Facebook, MySpace, YouTube and Twitter filled the bill.

Communication has certainly changed throughout the last century. And with each successive change, the degree of face to face contact has decreased. From in person visits and hand written notes, we have progressed to phone calls and emails. Each time we remove ourselves from face-to-face contact with each other, the communication becomes eroded. When we can see each other, we can appreciate important non-verbal cues, absent if we just speak over the phone.

When we write or email, we lose the information that can be gleaned from pauses, prosody, and intonation of speech that are still available over the phone. When we text or blog, we have none of those things. The words must stand alone and they are condensed to their most basic and, in some cases, completely replaced by shorthand such as “lol”and “omg.”

Call me old-fashioned, but having a close friend with whom I have shared real experiences and confided real feelings to beats being anyone’s “bff.”

Lauren LaPorta, MD
Chairman, Department of Psychiatry
St Joseph's Regional Medical Center
Paterson, NJ

1. Twenge JM, Campbell WK. “Isn’t it fun to get the respect we’re going to deserve?” Narcissism, social rejection, and aggression. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2003;29:261-272.
2. Twenge JM, Konrath S, Foster JD, et al. Egos inflating over time: a cross-temporal meta-analysis of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. J Pers. 2008;76:875-928.
3. Twenge J, Campbell K, Trzesniewski K, Donnellan B. Narcissism in Gen Y: is it increasing or not? Two opposing perspectives. Twenge J, Campbell WK. Generation Me in the jury box. The Jury Expert. May 2009;21(3). http://www.astcweb.org/public/publication/article.cfm/1/21/3/Narcissism-in-Generation-Y-and-Litigation-Advocacy. Accessed September 4, 2009.

4 comments:

  1. I read both articles the day after Dr. Grohol published his, and I sided with you. I appreciated your objectivity as we strive to further define the narcissism epidemic. I perceived the subject matter of your article as just a small portion of an even larger problem.

    I did agree with Dr. Grohol on some things, but I mostly disagreed with his criticism.

    I found your aticle to be wonderfully written, but I can understand how some people might think that it was an attack on them.

    You wrote, "It is the most extreme narcissistic individuals who tend to be the most dangerous." To this, I agree.

    Thank you for the opportunity to comment.

    Russell Tabbert, Orlando, FL

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  2. H. Berryman Edwards, MDNovember 16, 2009 at 10:39 AM

    I'm glad Dr LaPorta isn't blaming technology for narcissism, but I fail to see the connection. Does she suggest that an increase in face-to-face contact will undo the "damage" of the self-esteem movement? Just how is that supposed to work? If we go back further in history, prior to the automobile, the barriers to face-to-face contact were considerable except for those with the means to afford to travel by horse, carriage, or ship. Even then the cost in time was considerable. Technologies of transportation and communication it seems have markedly increased the potential for face-to-face contact.

    But now we must contend with the energy costs of transportation to achieve proximity, and the Internet, even more than the telephone, now offers technologies (GPS) that facilitate face-to-face contact.

    All this still leaves the question unanswered: how is increased face-to-face contact suppose d to reverse the supposed ill effects of the self-esteem movement? And there's another problem . . . for Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden, self-esteem represented more than a psychology. To them it meant the opposite of communism, collectivism and socialism, a political position.

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  3. This is an important discussion about how we understand ourselves in relation to others, and how that understanding is molded by the media in which we communicate.

    Social networking tools provide wide open forums for self-expression and today give us unprecedented access to a vast array of journals, diaries and correspondence. Up until recently most of us never read anyone else's diary; I have read several as a psychotherapist, but otherwise only those of famous (and very literate) writers. Now we have immediate access to the unbridled, self-absorbed musings of millions and, it should come as little surprise, much of it is not very interesting. And some of it is disappointing (so this is what you are thinking about?) or sad (you have nothing better to write about?). Dr. LaPorta sees this as further evidence of an epidemic of self-absorption; I see it as previously unavailable data. Our collective narcissistic underbelly is far more exposed than ever before, but I’m not sure it looks very different in 2009 than it would have in 1603, had such tools been so readily at hand, their use so widely encouraged, and the time so widely available.

    The epidemic wrought by the self-esteem movement has two important components: one is an exaggerated, at times hobbling, need for reassurance; the other is a pernicious blindness to the needs and feelings of others. The latter is the toxic narcissism that should worry us. Do social networking sites promote callous disregard for others? Or do they reassure us that "it's all about me?" Ultimately the impact of these blogs, walls, journals, spaces, 'books and friendings is in the exchanges that take place, that is, the “social” part of the network. The crucial data is not in the content of the self-absorbed musings or self-promoting profiles; it is in the response of the readership. The interesting question is not so much, how is one affected by the ability to post pictures of our latest party, but rather, "how does the world respond?" And, to return to Dr. LaPorta’s more important point, if this is the primary means of social interaction, how does my world learn to respond?

    I am not so worried about an epidemic of toxic narcissism and yet share Dr. LaPorta’s concerns about the loss of face-to-face (or even just voice-to-voice) interaction. We know ourselves best through our interactions with others, and we build our character in social interaction. This interaction necessarily takes many forms. I am not convinced that social networking inhibits or diminishes socializing. The posts that I read (in a very unscientific sample of my nieces, nephews, acquaintances and colleagues) tend to record social events or present thoughts inviting comment. I do not sense that they sate the hunger for social interaction, rather, they seem to augment it and invite more.

    Hopefully the evolution of social networking will lead to better and better tools that promote constructive self-disclosure and shared discourse. The former by offering structured opportunities to record and reflect, the latter by stimulating a new epistolary age: “every one an author, and every life a book.”

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