Are today's young people more narcissistic than previous generations and is the advent of the digital age completely to blame?
Social media allows us to share major life events and daily thoughts with friends, family, and colleagues. It makes connecting with people around the world easier, and people who use platforms strategically can develop online followings. However, posting too many photos, including selfies, may have its pitfalls.
Over a century ago, Sigmund Freud wrote his essay ‘On Narcissism’ which identified a form of self-adoration which described someone who saw themselves as an object of desire and since then, the term has filtered right down from psychology books and papers into colloquial conversation.
The word is now used freely to describe anyone that may display an overt sense of self and in doing so, the word has been watered down considerably. However, in the modern context, the idea of narcissism has found its own niche and is often used to describe the Millenials and Gen Z. “It’s a buzzword,” says Marianne Vicelich, author of the self-help book Destruction: Free Yourself From the Narcissist. “Every time you have dinner with a few girlfriends someone uses the term, their boss is a narcissist, or their husband, or their ex, or their mother.”
But what exactly defines a narcissist and how does it apply to younger generations?
Narcissism is a personality characteristic that can involve grandiose exhibitionism, beliefs relating to entitlement, and exploiting others for personal gain. Sound familiar?
Well, a study conducted by researchers from Swansea University and Milan University showed that those who used social media excessively, through visual postings, displayed an average 25% increase in such narcissistic traits over the four months of the study.
What we need to deduce whether this is simply what young people or millennials are like these days or whether there’s a more sinister pattern developing.
Younger generations are powered by the endless opportunity for self-promotion and self-reflection afforded by social media,and that, combined with a developing culture which has clearly placed greater emphasis on the importance of self-esteem has had a significant impact on the way they view themselves. Many could argue that these factors have caused young people’s personalities to change from previous earlier generations and become more narcissistic and inherently selfish.
It has become a trend to look at a positive correlation between narcissism and social media use and there is research out there to support both sides. In some cases narcissism does predict taking a greater number of selfies, having more followers and posting more pictures, but that is not a given. Visual social media platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat do play on people’s narcissistic appetite because they’re based on what you look like and how you present yourself to others. That euphoric feeling of self-enhancement is one the reasons people post on social media and quite literally get high off the positive feedback.
Psychologists however, are divided. Some say the evidence that the young have become “Generation Me” is overwhelming whereas others as still insure about the overall impact social media has had on younger generations.
In a foundational 2008 paper, Jean Twenge (coauthor of The Narcissism Epidemic) and her colleagues reviewed 85 studies that surveyed more than 16,000 college students between 1979 and 2006. The research follows up on years of studies that suggest younger generations are more narcissistic than previous ones. A test known as the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) can be used to score how narcissistic someone is; the test has been administered to college students for years, and, as the co-authors note, there was an upward trend in scores between the years 1976 and 2006. The researchers found that college students were becoming more narcissistic, by a full 30 percent from 1982 to around 2006.
Looking at social media in the context of influencing, a lucrative new career which is based on social media, perhaps it’s not narcissism but younger generations have simply found a hack which leads to bigger monetary rewards. The most important thing to understand in the social media landscape is that attention is a currency and people who attract the most attention are often the ones who reap the most rewards.
According to Alice, a contributor to Kinfolk during an interview about ‘Narcissism, Social Media and Power’, “When you think about the types of behaviors that get attention, they are not the behaviors that make for a good society or a good public culture. You’re not going to get attention on certain forms of social media for being kind, empathetic or thoughtful. The dark side is that people are rewarded for behaviors that might not be for the public good. Do you think that Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton and Donald Trump are the people who should get the most attention in our country? No! They are people who are very good at gaming the system. As long as we have an attention economy, as long as there are economic incentives to try to get a lot of attention, then we are going to have people producing content with the only aim of getting attention.” It’s this constant striving for attention, the need to do more controversial things and display more attention-seeking behaviour that can lead to one displaying narcissistic tendencies.
In the same interview, contributor Miranda continues, “One of the most adaptive components of narcissists is that they make really positive initial impressions on people, so we are immediately drawn to them. They appear very confident, charismatic, they are often attractive and they can be quite extroverted, so they are good at actually getting our attention.”
However, we have to recognise that the ability to attract attention is in itself a talent. It might not be a talent that older generations find respectful or necessarily understand but it is becoming increasingly important for a lot of the new wave of careers such as being a social media influencer or Youtube star. What may be mistaken for narcissism might simply be a new model for success in the contemporary context.
In essence, there is no denying that younger generations are more narcissistic than the last but they are also the most emotionally fragile (the snowflake generation) and the least confident due to constantly being on display (the downside of social media). Like many generations before, millenials and Gen Z are far from perfect but are also trying to carve out their own niche using the tools they have to their advantage. If a slight increase in narcissistic tendencies is a byproduct of that then perhaps that’s something we will just have to deal with.
What are your thoughts? Do you believe the digital age has bred a generation of narcissists?