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Social media and the unmasking of narcissism

Published:Sunday | April 10, 2016 | 12:00 AMMichael Abrahams

In Greek mythology, Narcissus was the son of son of the river god Cephissus and the nymph Liriope. He was a handsome young man with a stunning physique, but was also haughty, showing disdain to those who loved him, while dismissing them.
Nemesis, the goddess of indignation against, and retribution for, evil deeds and undeserved good fortune, noticed the young man’s behaviour and led him to a pool. Narcissus looked into the pool, where he saw his own reflection in the water and fell in love with it.
However, he did not realise that it was an image, and remained fixated on it, gazing intently at himself. Unable to detach from the beauty of his reflection, he lost his will to live, and stared at it until he died. The story has several versions, with the earliest known version written by Parthenius of Nicaea around 50BC.
Narcissism - excessive interest in, or admiration of, oneself and one's physical appearance - is derived from the name of the mythological figure described above. The narcissist is self-centred and demonstrates extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of his or her own talents, and craves attention.
Today, in 2016, the pool described in the Narcissus myth has been replaced by the cell phone camera in selfie mode. We are now seeing a generation, Generation Y or the Millennial Generation (birth years ranging from the early 1980s to the early 2000s), where obsession with self is increasingly being observed.
As matter of fact, psychology professor Bruce McKinney, from the University of North Carolina, publishing in the journal Communication Research Report sin 2012, concluded that narcissism may need to be redefined, as it may have become the social norm for young people.
Jean M. Twenge, another psychology professor, dubbed them “Generation Me”, and found that narcissistic personality traits in American college students rose just as fast as obesity from the 1980s to the present, suggesting that narcissism is another epidemic in America, with money, image and fame being valued over community, affiliation and self-acceptance.
A Canadian study at York University, published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, examined Facebook users aged 18-25 years and reviewed use of the social media platform, as well as the content that they posted on their profiles. The researchers looked closely at evidence of the participants’ “self-promotion” on their Facebook sites.
Self-promotion was defined as activity such as updating their status every five minutes, frequent posting of pictures of themselves, photos of celebrity lookalikes, and quotes and mottos glorifying themselves. The researchers concluded that the people utilising Facebook the most in these ways tended to have narcissistic or insecure personalities.
There is not enough evidence to justifiably demonise or blame social media for this explosion of self-centredness, as it may not be the cause for the personality, but rather an avenue for its expression. It clearly enables those with that mindset.
Before the advent of cell phones and digital cameras, one had to purchase film in order to take photographs, with up to 36 exposures per roll, and then pay to have the film developed. Nowadays, cell phones and tablets can take and store thousands of photos, at no extra cost, which can be uploaded to social media sites in a matter of seconds.
The invention of the selfie mode has made it easier and more convenient to take pictures of ourselves, but also facilitates self-absorption. More than 80 million photographs are uploaded to Instagram every day, many of them selfies.
Some persons feel the need to post or tweet every emotion they experience, every thought that appears in their minds, and every action they perform, in an effort to garner likes, shares, retweets or comments, as they believe that their friends or followers are as interested in their lives as they are. The feedback feeds their egos and perpetuates their inflated sense of self-importance.
Social media may actually help to build self-esteem, as praise for one’s accomplishments will boost one’s sense of self and be a source of motivation to excel. But narcissism is a different story. While self-esteem develops from our accomplishments, at the root of narcissism are feelings of inadequacy and the constant need for attention, affirmation and praise.
One of the major problems with narcissism is that the trait makes it difficult to form and maintain relationships. The self-centredness is a barrier to connecting with others, and those afflicted demonstrate little or no empathy toward fellow human beings.
Maybe we should be thankful for the existence of social media, for unmasking narcissistic behaviour, and, rather than attack the technology, bear these observations in mind while raising our children and communicating with them. We must be careful, however, not to stereotype or generalise, as not all millennials display this pattern of behaviour, and several older folk fit comfortably in this category.
But it is a wake-up call for all of us. Members of older generations need to guide and affirm our youngsters and empower them with self-esteem, and simultaneously make them aware that the world does not revolve around them, before they are old enough to sign up for a social media account.

Michael Abrahams is an obstetrician and gynaecologist, comedian and poet. Email feedback to and, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.