Why narcissists love Facebook

After my 50-something sister Bev told everybody in the family that she was now on Facebook, my son Ben’s astonished reply to her was one line:

“I didn’t see this coming!”

That’s because – unlike Ben’s demographic (age 18-34, over half of whom worldwide are active Facebook users) – in my sister’s comparative old folks group (45-54), barely 12% are. At the time, his Chucha Bev was likely the oldest living human Ben knew personally who was.

Who else is on Facebook? The simple answer is a whole lot of people, says veteran California journalist Tom Jacobs, writing in his Alternet column called Facebook Linked to Narcissism. There he shared some new research from Australia that provides some less than flattering perspectives on the world’s 500+ million Facebook users.

For example, he cites researchers Tracii Ryan and Sophia Xenos of RMIT University in Melbourne who recently reported in the journal Computers in Human Behavior:

“Facebook users have higher levels of total narcissism, extraversion, exhibitionism and leadership than Facebook non-users. Secondly, individuals with higher scores on exhibitionism also have higher preferences for photos and status updates than for the site’s other features.

“These findings substantiate the proposition that Facebook is particularly appealing for narcissistic and exhibitionistic people. In fact, it could be argued that Facebook specifically gratifies the narcissistic individual’s need to engage in self-promoting and superficial behavior.”

Ryan and Xenos added that one of the most noteworthy findings of their Facebook user research was (perhaps no surprise here) the tendency for neurotic or lonely individuals to spend greater amounts of time on Facebook per day than non-lonely individuals. They observed:

“For lonely people in particular, it appears they are mainly using Facebook to partake in passive activities, instead of providing active social contributions.”

Dr. John Copen, chair of the Canadian Psychiatric Association’s section on media and informatics, adds:

“We share because it’s the nature of being human to want to connect. It’s about sharing common ideas, and that makes you feel healthy, normal, that you fit in. And now people are creating these global tribes: Who’s like me? Who can I relate to? How do I connect?”

You’d think this would be basic common sense, but there are some professionals who seem to lack basic common sense whose Facebook activity has already led to serious career consequences.

Consider, for example, 48-year old E.R. physician Dr. Alexandra Thran who recently learned the hard way that she really shouldn’t be chatting about her trauma patients on her Facebook page. She was fired from her Rhode Island hospital last year and reprimanded by the state medical board last week because she had posted personal information online about a trauma patient. Although her Facebook post did not include the patient’s name, she violated the patient’s privacy rights by writing enough that others in the community could easily identify the patient, according to a board filing.

When we’re on Facebook and other social media sites, we can forget that everything posted is up there for the world to eavesdrop on. It’s like being on a giant elevator, where you just never know who’s within earshot of your whispers.

And we can not only upload flattering 10-year-old photos of ourselves, unearth our Grade 5 playmates or vent about everyday pet peeves, we can also craft our own image so we can be who we want to be.  Dr. Copen explains:

“People feel less vulnerable online, because they can represent themselves in the way they see themselves.”

UK neuroscientist Dr. Susan Greenfield, a professor of pharmacology at Oxford University, recently testified to the British House of Lords during their internet regulatory debates:

“My fear is that Facebook is infantilizing the brain into the state of small children. Social networking sites can provide a constant reassurance – that you are listened to, recognised, and important.”

Dr. Greenfield believes that such navel-gazing focus is coupled with a distancing from the valuable skill of face-to-face, real-life conversations, which are “far more perilous, occur in real time, with no opportunity to think up clever or witty responses” and “require a sensitivity to voice tone and body language.”

For some familiar examples of such mind-numbing self-absorption, consider Christopher Muther‘s rant in the Boston Globe:

“If I thought my friends were interesting, Facebook has taught me otherwise.

“Last week I decided that I couldn’t take any more “Sally is just back from spin class and trying to decide what to make for dinner!” or “Scott might have to skip the gym to get a haircut!”

“I wondered why people now feel compelled to share so much about so little. Have Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn turned us into a nation of self-absorbed narcissists who think the world really wants to hear that we just drank coffee or view a mobile upload of that amazing fettuccine we had for supper?”

Muther sought out Patrick O’Malley, an internet communications consultant in Boston, for help in explaining why social media users seem to focus on boring personal details that few other human beings could possibly be interested in knowing.

“There are just no rules on how to use these sites. People see that their friends are putting up these inane posts on Facebook and Twitter all day, and so they do the same thing.”

Full disclosure alert: I too now have a Facebook profile, but unlike its golden 18-34 year old user group (half of whom report that they update their Facebook status right after they wake up every morning to make sure the world knows they’re awake), fewer than 6% of my own demographic in Canada have Facebook profiles. My own Facebook account is automatically linked with publication of each new post here so readers who “like” an article can help direct visitor traffic to this website from their Facebook pages.  And it works. (So feel free to “like” this article anytime…)

I don’t update my Facebook status, ever. I don’t share exciting details about my day-to-day life, like what new shampoo I just bought on sale at the Oak Bay Pharmasave. Nor do I post bad party photos of myself (which is what the camera’s delete function is for).

I have no Facebook friends. I have real friends instead. I like to talk to their actual flesh and blood faces, not to their Facebook walls. Compare this with Facebook’s user stats that report 60% of all Facebookers “talk more online than in real life”. Do you not find this just a wee bit sad?

And speaking of old ladies on Facebook, Lisa Earle McLeod, author of Finding Grace When You Can’t Even Find Clean Underwear, once lamented in a HuffPost essay that her own teenage daughter refused to ‘friend’ her when she became “one of those grownups who’s making Facebook uncool” merely by having a Facebook profile:

“Not only does my daughter refuse to friend me, but none of her friends will accept my internet overtures either. Teenagers I have lovingly welcomed into my home for over a decade have now turned their electronic backs on me. Apparently having a picture of your mom, or your friend’s mom, on your Facebook page is social suicide!”

Facebook usage stats are eye-poppingly big, according to the company’s own website:

  • people spend over 700 billion minutes per month on Facebook
  • about 70% of Facebook users are outside the United States
  • those who use Facebook on their mobile devices are twice as active on Facebook than non-mobile users
  • the average user has 130 friends

Read the rest of the Tom Jacobs article on Alternet about narcissistic Facebook users. And then just for fun try visiting a real live friend in person to discuss it.

See also:

Did you have time for a haircut today or not?  We want to know. Really…

13 thoughts on “Why narcissists love Facebook

  1. Oh, for crying out loud…let’s just pathologize everything, shall we? So, are all of us bloggers a bunch of self-involved narcissists, too? Oy. There are inherent dangers in too much of just about anything, but let’s not characterize what is simply a new tool for the bedrock human need to connect, share small talk & humor, as a pathology. It also happens to be a darn good survival skill. Duh.

  2. This Australian research makes perfect sense (at least to those of us who are not kept busy updating our Facebook status first thing every morning!)

    Those like Kathi who protest this article are defensively shooting the messenger. This research, from what I have read, is NOT saying that all people on Facebook are narcissistic, but rather that those who are self-absorbed really do enjoy Facebook and other social media because these sites somehow help make them feel more special and acknowledged.

    And you don’t need to be a shrink or to be trying to “medicalize” others to figure out that those “just home from spin class and deciding what to make for dinner” updates are indeed pathetically boring. How are comments like this remotely “a darn good survival skill”?! Duh.

    And YES by the way – many blogs are so self-absorbed that they are indeed in the same boat! The Ethical Nag excepted, of course – as there is always lots of provocative and well-researched stuff here to enlighten, entertain or poke at us. 😉

    Thx for this.
    B in Berkeley

  3. This really made me think.

    I enjoy Facebook, but for me it’s mainly a way to keep track of what friends, family and former co-workers are doing with their lives – the friend who recently published his second book of poetry, the nephew who posted photos of his newly adopted kittens, my sister-in-law’s travel pics from Europe, etc.

    Many of my Facebook friends live quite a distance away and I don’t see them often, so following them on Facebook is a great substitute.

    I’ve noticed differing Facebook philosophies, though. Some people seem to post mainly when they feel they have something worth sharing – sort of like an alternative to phone calls or old-fashioned letters.

    For others, it’s a place to spill every last inane detail about their lives, to the point of TMI.

    If many Facebook users seem to be narcissistic, is this perhaps because this particular social media has more appeal to a certain personality type? In other words, if there’s more narcissism on display, perhaps it’s because Facebook users are self-selected for this characteristic. It would be interesting to know if this has changed over time – if early adopters of Facebook tended to be more narcissistic, or if younger users are more extroverted than older users.

  4. Just heard that for the first time ever, last month the number of Facebook users has dropped by 10% in Canada. Numbers also down in the U.S. and the U.K. Inside Facebook says this trend suggests that the number of Facebook users in a country seems to plateau when 50 per cent of the population is signed up.

    Maybe we’re starting to get globally embarrassed over all those inane, self-absorbed and not to mention BORING updates.

    Thanks, Carolyn.

  5. Huffington Post? Facebook is more interesting…..

    Seriously, the unheeded friending requests by Mom should have been quickly followed up by the cutting of the electronic “cord” by this kid’s parents. If the kid was too embarrassed to acknowledge her parents, her parents should have been equally too embarrassed to provide her with an avenue to connect to the internet. When my son complains, I remind him of who pays for the connection and service while at the same time reminding him that he can exercise his free will and economic freedom by providing his own high speed connection. Parents like mechanics are their own worst enemies.

    • I disagree. It’s like having a diary – you don’t want your mom to read it. Or listening in to your phone conversations or showing up at a party ready to dance. It’s their private world and parents don’t need to be in every part of their kids lives. The criticism would begin immediately. Parents have their place, to set by example and instruction.

      If you need to know what Jazz and Jack are talking to their friends about – it should be for real reasons – not just to be a ‘part’ of their social life. Pulling the plug ’cause they won’t let you join is throwing a tantrum. Use other methods, a keen eye and good sense to monitor your kids. Look at the world we have shown them and see why they want a world apart for their own. Accept it – you aren’t cool! And a profile picture of mom and teen on a FB page is way too much! I predict someday FB will not be cool itself. Kids also like their parents to be different than their friends. It’s the natural way.

  6. When is the Facebook drug coming out? Will this be in the new DSM V? As a disabled and, as a result, somewhat lonely person, I do use Facebook to connect to other people like me who are mostly confined to home. I mostly interact with others in my situation and use it to keep up with information about topics important to me via the links shared (I got here indirectly using one).

    All of this is not new. All this went on using email discussion lists prior to Facebook. And yeah we talked about dumb stuff sometimes there too. It’s usually self deprecating and funny, sometimes stupid or offensive and that’s because we’re human.

    I find those who are hypercritical of Facebook are often just not socially or technologically able to use it effectively. And, maybe, no one’s too interested in being their ‘friend.’ There is also a sort of egotistical delusion of grandeur that is inflated by stating that you’re above all the plebeians on the very popular Facebook.

  7. I wondered why my world is so limited and it’s because I have reduced my social interaction to typing. Time for a real break. The old switcheroo. As for those who want to keep up with their friends and relatives far a way etc and get those trip photos – everyone says that.

    How does it affect you really? If you have friends, you know it.

    • Maybe this is the reason for the growing popularity of “digital sabbaticals” – a full week holiday from the computer, smartphone, email, Facebook, Twitter, blogging, checking cute kitty YouTube videos, you name it. I’m working on another essay right now based on Finnish research on obsessive social media “checking behaviour”.

  8. This makes sense. The Facebook generation is used to updating their status (before even getting out of bed?!) as if others are actually interested in their every waking moment. They now believe that there’s nothing actually wrong with checking in obsessively day in and day out to check on their ‘friends’ updates. It’s scary.

  9. When you post something on Facebook, it is not up there for the world to see. That is Wikipedia (or blogging, like this website is). Furthermore, if you see a Facebook update and don’t like it, Facebook allows you to block them.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s