With the increasing prevalence and omnipresence of social media, in general, there’s an increasing urgency to understand its effects on people and society and vice versa. University of Alabama‘s Elliot Panek discusses narcissism and social media with SCINQ.

SCIENTIFIC INQUIRER: Why is it important to study social media and the different ways users interact with various platforms?

ELLIOT PANEK: Fifteen years ago, almost no one used social media. Now, 1/2 to 1/3 of the world’s population uses some form of it. We’ve taken a lot of our off-line interactions – business interaction, dating, family, friends, news dissemination and gathering, large chunks of adolescence – and put them on these platforms. Of course, this doesn’t mean that it’s made things better or worse. It’s entirely possible (even probably, I’d argue) that the underlying traits humans have possessed for hundreds of thousands of years still dictate our thoughts, feelings, and behavior in predictable ways that are similar to the ways we behaved before the mass adoption of this technology, and that social media merely makes it seem as though we’ve changed a lot because its making certain kinds of behaviors (sensational, attractive, aggressive) more visible and other kinds of behaviors (quotidian) less visible. But we don’t know that for sure! Perhaps, social media really are changing individuals and societies in fundamental ways, much the way that the mass adoption of print changed individuals and society. The only way to know is through careful, collaborative research.

So far, we’ve found some interesting differences in the uses and impact of social media based on what platform folks are using. For example, the emotional impact of feedback (in the form of ‘likes’ or comments) seems to be stronger on Instagram than for Facebook (at least among young people). This may have to do with who is using the platform (each platform has different types of users), but it also likely has to do with qualities of the platform – what it allows users to do, and what users choose to do with it. We might look at how anonymity or pseudonymity – which we see more of on a platform like Twitter or Reddit – changes the social dynamic from what we see on a platform, like Facebook, that requires users to use markers their offline identities (e.g., legal names; pictures of their faces). Increasingly, young people use multiple platforms for the different ‘audiences’ in their lives. Snapchat might be used for maintaining connections with close friends while Twitter might be used to attracting attention from strangers. As the diversity of uses grow, so too do the diversity of the effects of use.

SI: What is narcissism and how is it measured?

EP: Put simply, narcissism is a kind of extreme self-focus, and a sense that one is in some way superior to others. Psychologists have developed various survey scales (in which individuals rate the extent to which they agree with a particular statement about how they think of themselves, or rate the extent to which they think a statement describes how they think about themselves and others) that have gone through a process of validation and replication. We try to be sure that people whom most others would think of as extremely narcissistic score high on these measures, while those who most others would think of as not narcissistic at all score low. While most people are skeptical that people have the ability to accurately reflect on qualities like narcissism, we’ve found that this is as good a way as any to delineate between those who are especially narcissistic and those who are not.

SI: Can you briefly discuss previous studies of note related to narcissism and social media.

EP: There has been a fair amount of research on this topic, I think because much of it seems to support a belief that many people have about social media: that there must be some link between self-presentation on social media and narcissism. Early studies did indeed find evidence of such a link, but it was not a terribly strong link: the amount of time one spent on Facebook was correlated to narcissism, but the correlation was weak. Since then, the diversity of people who use social media, and the diversity of uses for social media, have exploded. And the research has evolved with it.

Raw amount of use of social media tends not to predict levels of narcissism anymore: many, many people use a LOT of social media (particularly young people). Some of those folks are high in narcissism, but many are not. We are still finding that the frequency with which users post on platforms like Facebook is correlated to narcissism levels, but the correlations are still quite weak. Also, there isn’t much evidence that there is a causal connection between social media and narcissism. It seems just as likely that narcissists seek out mechanisms for broadcasting their thoughts, feelings, and experiences to the world as it does that the technology is making people more narcissistic.

Again, I think the trick here is the way in which social media makes particular kinds of behavior more visible: we see a lot of what we tend to think of as narcissistic behavior on social media, and then we make the leap that it is the technology that creates the behavior, which doesn’t follow, and hasn’t really been supported by much research to date.

SI: Gathering data regarding people’s social media usage is not as straightforward as it sounds. Why is it tricky?

EP: People tend to be pretty bad at remembering precisely how much time they spent on social media, or how many times they ‘liked’ posts, or posted something themselves. People might also lie about it because there is a stigma against posting a lot or spending a lot of time (social media use is regarded as frivolous or pernicious by many people).

Of course, we can overcome these biases in measurement by monitoring people’s use, but many people consider this to be a violation of their privacy. A great deal of deeply personal information travels via social media, so all researchers (including academic researchers and ones who work for social media companies) must consider this, and consider how users perceive privacy and research before proceeding.

One compromise that we use is to ask study participants to log into their accounts and look at the number of times they’ve posted, or to install a timer that shows how long they spend on sites or apps, and then to voluntarily report that information to us via survey. It doesn’t overcome the deception problem (they could still lie to us about what they do!), but it does address the memory issue.

SI: How was the study designed?

EP: Out first study on this topic was pretty simple. We thought about what types of social media use might relate to the trait of narcissism, and then designed a survey that measured both narcissism (using a pre-validated survey scale) and various aspects of social media use (frequency of posts; content of posts; amount of time spent on platforms). We asked questions related to Facebook and to Twitter. We saw that many studies relied on samples of college students, and we wanted to have some point of comparison, so we also had participants from the general population (average age around 35).

SI: What did you discover? What did your results indicate regarding narcissistic behaviors and social media usage?

EP: We found that there was a positive correlation between posting frequency and narcissism, but that the platforms for this differed among populations. Among college students, we found a positive correlation between Twitter posting frequency and narcissism, while for post-college-aged adults, we found a positive correlation between Facebook posting frequency and narcissism.

It must be noted that the correlations were not terribly strong. In subsequent studies, we’ve found similar results: there is a weak, positive correlation between posting frequency and narcissism.

We’ve also found that those higher in narcissism tend to get less feedback (in the form of ‘likes’ or comments) than folks who are lower in narcissism, suggesting that those who are high in narcissism aren’t getting the positive attention they crave from social media use, and that it may be a frustrating experience for them.

We’ve also found that those higher in narcissism are no more likely than others to use Facebook or Twitter to talk about themselves, though many people assume that this is the case.

SI: Your data also indicated that there may be differences in self-expression on social media based on race. What were the differences?

EP: We found a modest difference between White and Non-White college students, such that students who are Non-White were slightly more likely to post about their thoughts, feelings, or experiences (as opposed to posting about experiences they shared with others) than White students. We also found a somewhat larger difference between male-identified and female-identified students, such that male-identified students were slightly more likely to post about their thoughts, feelings, or experiences (as opposed to posting about experiences they shared with others) than female students. This all suggests that posting about one’s self is more of a kind of cultural vernacular, a mode of expression that certain groups of people within a culture are inclined to use more than others, as opposed to something that is indicative of narcissism.

SI: You note limitations to the study. Specifically, the sample mostly consisted of “white, female, college students in the U.S.” Other studies have this issue as well. Why?

EP: Well, it’s mostly an issue of access. Many communication studies are conducted using communication students as participants. The students learn about research (learning, first hand, what it’s like to be a participant in a study, which is something that every researcher should have a good sense of), and they receive course credit, typically. Most communication majors are young women.

However, in the case of social media use, this has been convenient, as young women tend to use more social media use than anyone else. Still, we do like to verify that the patterns we see in this limited population persist in other populations. Most recently, our team compared smartphone use among US college students and Korean college students, and found no major differences in terms of how self-control and mindfulness relate to social media checking behavior via one’s smartphone. So, we have at least some evidence that some of these behaviors transcend gender, race, and culture.

SI: How can this issue be addressed in future studies?

EP: More international collaboration among researchers would help. I think this starts at the undergraduate level: getting our students to think globally, to be more aware of people outside the U.S. There are more Facebook users in India than in the U.S., but there aren’t very many studies of their Facebook use published in English-language journals. Most young Americans have very little idea of what social media use in China looks like, and yet this use already represents a massive chunk of social media use generally. There has been some headway in this regard, but we have a long way to go.

For more information on Elliot Panek and his research visit elliotpanek.com or follow him on Twitter @epanek

IMAGE SOURCE: US Marine Corps; Yuval Perez; Creative Commons

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