Brennon Slattery looks deep inside a handful of studies claiming to explain human behavior through our social networking tendencies.
We all have “those” friends—the ones who choke our Facebook feeds with the excruciating minutiae of their lives, be it in the form of picture uploads, comments, or status updates that recycle the same bland robotics. You half-expect them to document the consistency of their latest BM. Turns out they’re not just digital social butterflies—they may actually be broadcasting their personality disorders and dysmorphic self-esteems.
According to a study conducted by York University psychologist Soraya Mehdizadeh, who analyzed the Facebook pages of fifty male and fifty female student participants, Facebook users who were highly narcissistic or relayed self esteem issues spent elongated periods of time on Facebook and were aggressively self-promoting. “Self-Presentation 2.0: Narcissism and Self-Esteem on Facebook” found this behavior characterized in a user’s posts, comments, photographs, notes, and in the “About Me” section of their Facebook profile.
Without a doubt we’ve become a culture of oversharers (it was, after all, the 2008 word of the year), largely due to the explosion of social media, which has replaced e-mail as the most popular online activity. Everywhere you look there’s another channel to blurt out what your lunchtime taco tasted like, or how much you liked The Toolbox Murders on streaming Netflix. Manufacturers like Kodak are even building social media sharing tools into digital cameras, allowing users to upload to Facebook, Flickr, or YouTube without the hassle of a PC—all in the name of splashing our online identities as quickly and as often as technologically possible.
These advances in technology are related to—and perhaps dictate—our modern Internet habits. But the subtext we might be missing here is that these louder-than-thou 140-character outbursts may be masking a deep-seated emotional fragility.
Our Online Presentations
Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is defined in the DSM IV as “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy.” The Facebook study found that social networks offered “a gateway for hundreds of shallow relationships (i.e., virtual friends), and emotionally detached communication (i.e., wall posts, comments)”—common traits of NPD. Social media also allows those with NPD to create “identity statements” with flattering self-photographs (shirtless dudes with Jersey Shore abs, for instance) and detailed autobiographic descriptions.
The study delineated two subtypes of self-esteem: implicit (unconscious self-evaluation) and explicit (conscious, reflective). Based on those descriptions, you’d expect the behavioral manifestations to be wildly different—even bipolar—but that’s where the study faltered. “With regard to online impression management, [researchers] did not find any differences between self-presentation and low and high self-esteem users. These contradictory results warrant further research within the emerging field of online self-presentation.”
Regardless of some Swiss cheese data results, the case stands: these skewed mindsets have become gasoline for the social media engine. The 7-plus hours we spend on Facebook per month may be feeding our personality disorders (as well as scoring us points on FarmVille).
The Study Itself
Before you take “Self-Presentation 2.0: Narcissism and Self-Esteem on Facebook” too seriously, let’s take a look at how the study was conducted.
- Only 100 students interviewed and examined—hardly a sizable base to reflect a social networking universe that has reached more than half a billion users.
- The rater of the participants’ Facebook page was the author of the study, a 22-year-old female undergraduate student at York University. Not only does the author have limited educational experience in the field of psychology, she also has an inherently intense self-interest in the study’s popularity.
- The Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale was used to measure participant self-esteem. This scale was developed in 1965, eight years before homosexuality was removed from the DSM as a psychiatric disorder. So it’s pretty old.
- The study used the shortest iteration of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory—the sixteen-question version rather than the forty-question version. While NPI-16 is an accepted version of the test, it’s seen as useful mostly “when situations do not allow the use of longer inventories.”
- The author also noted that the study was “exploratory” and was building on “limited existing research within this relatively new field”—both rather self-conscious statements; are they not?
Oh, and this study has been done before, so these results aren’t as groundbreaking as you might think.
The Other Social Media Studies about Personality Traits
This isn’t the first—and most certainly won’t be the last—study conducted about online social media habits related to sociology. One study showed that your photos indicated your self-worth. Another determined that—shock and awe!—Twitter is a broadcast medium, and not a conversation, meaning nobody is actually engaging but rather just shouting down empty hallways. Another: Facebook usage causes lower grades in college. Another: Facebook usage doesn’t cause lower grades in college.
My favorite: a couple of MIT students discovered an algorithm in Facebook that could, supposedly, determine whether or not you were a homosexual. The “data” was based purely on association—essentially renaming stereotypes as science—and the researchers admitted they had “no way to confirm the analysis with scientific rigor.”
The point is that, as Mehdizadeh noted, the phenomenon of social media is new, therefore the studies on it are also embryonic. Making—and believing—bold claims such as media has made you a wreck aren’t doing much more than adding hesitancy to following URLs and second-guessing the motivations and mindsets of those around us. It’s exactly like the onslaught of studies that slap a sociopathic scarlet letter on anyone who has picked up an Xbox controller—they tend to be a little reactionary, and, frankly, technophobic.
It’s also worth questioning the fairness and accuracy of applying ancient psychological labels to a modern phenomenon. Traces of NPD and other mental disorders may pertain to these situations—but what if our culture and our mindsets have just changed? We’re constantly evolving beings, right? So who’s to say the definitions of these mental disorders shouldn’t as well?