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Social Media: A Narcissist's Virtual Playground

When does normal adolescence angst become a compulsive need for affirmation? And when does that angst turn into pathological narcissism? For starters, we might look at the devices in our hands.
03/23/2015 11:18am ET | Updated May 21, 2015
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When does normal adolescence angst become a compulsive need for affirmation? And when does that angst turn into pathological narcissism? For starters, we might look at the devices in our hands.

It is not news that there are millions of young people obsessed by Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the rest. Daily, even hourly, they post of photos of themselves and their whereabouts, as if the world has taken sudden interest in the minutia of their everyday life. But what is this really about for them and what is its long term impact on us?

Are we just seeing the sort of self-involvement that is inherent in adolescent-like behavior? "Look at me, aren't I special?" Or is this a more insidious reflection of growing narcissism among our general population? "Look at me, or else!" As a psychologist who specializes in self-image and self-esteem, it's a question I'm often asked.

Cultural critics often say it's the latter -- that the presence of social media has led to a narcissism epidemic -- and while I don't deny its contribution, I have a bit of a different perspective. Couldn't both these trends be true and perhaps even intertwined? Isn't it possible that millions of insecure adolescents, like those in previous generations, are doing what they always do? Teens are, by nature, self-preoccupied, and "finding oneself" is a fundamental passage into adulthood. But with so many accessible venues to display the journey, perhaps it is encouraging more narcissistic behavior. And, as a result, perhaps this virtual playground is shaping its most vulnerable users.

Since the emergence of mobile technology -- computers, cell-phones, iPads, and others -- these devices have been in the hands of our children, often from the time they were toddlers. By middle school, they use them for homework, exploration, communication and connection. By high school, "no smart phone gets left behind," and with that come the non-stop texts, tweets and selfies. Posed, or carefully crafted portraits, serve to promote themselves like stars of their own reality show, seeking approval from their fan base, their friends. No eye contact, no one-on-one interaction. They all do it, because everyone just does.

The point is, typical teenage self-preoccupation with "who I am," and "who do I want to be" has gone from the privacy of their homes to being shared with hundreds, if not thousands, of others. So too are the responses. With virtual feedback provided instantaneously -- be it positive, negative, personal or anonymous -- it's the kind of attention that reinforces the desire for more. If our youth grows up believing that others can fuel their self-esteem, consolidate an identity and supply reassurance, it very well may interfere with learning how to provide it for oneself. For an adolescent starving for acceptance among peers, social media is like water in a desert. "If only I had more Twitter followers, more friends on Facebook or more 'likes' on Instagram, maybe I'd feel better about myself!" These opportunities for attention are enormous, varied and expanding everyday.

But to truly understand the difference between teenage self-absorption and pathological narcissism, it's helpful to view the underlying dynamics. Teens naturally use their peers and subculture to gain confidence and self-awareness. They rely on others for reassurance until they are able to provide it for themselves. Narcissists, on the other hand, never develop that emotional skill. Pathological narcissism isn't simply passing self-absorption; it's a failure to create a solid, cohesive self. The result? A chronic and desperate need for attention, a desire for ongoing external sources -- e.g., affection, sex, wealth and power -- in order to feel safe and secure. While the self-absorbed adolescent may get cranky and defiant when asked to part with their mobile devices, the narcissist can feel a deep and intolerable void when access is denied.

Take a patient of mine, a 17-year-old girl I'll call Annie who came to her first session with her phone in hand. She wanted help for panic attacks. As she walked into the room, she said she was just finishing a text to let her friends know where she was. Seeing a therapist was clearly one, among many activities she shared throughout her day. During her session, as her phone kept buzzing, I asked if she would mind putting it in her bag. She complied, but told me she never turns it off, checks it hundreds of times a day and that having it close by made her feel less anxious. "It's my lifeline," she joked, "especially having had panic," and staying connected to her friends was no joking matter. With her phone out of sight, she was able to focus on why she had come for help. She seemed like many an adolescent whose identity was strongly tied to her peer group, but with the ability to shift her attention inward.

Meanwhile, a 29-year-old male who I'll call Joe also came for counseling carrying his phone. He was there for marital help and said he needed to keep his phone on for work. He had one for his job and another for personal use, but neither left his side. His wife told me they rarely had uninterrupted time together, since even if their phones were off, Joe constantly glanced at his. He was a PR agent and claimed tweeting was part of the job. Since getting his first phone at age 14, he had developed thousands of Facebook followers, posted wherever he went and kept a travelogue of his life. This source of pride for Joe was the very same that caused irritation for his wife, who said that even their most romantic experiences were paused for photo ops and selfies. I later learned he had a third "secret" phone used for what he called, "playing" on dating sites. "It was harmless," he said, since he never followed through with anyone, but he clearly enjoyed the attention they provided. This was a man in constant search of external reassurance, something he seemed unable to supply for himself. He told me that without these social media activities, he felt bored, distracted and empty, like he was missing out on life.

All this is to say; clearly adolescents today experience a developmental process that is more visible than ever before. Their desire for attention, to be looked at and appear special, may seem more narcissistic than in previous generations. Yet, it's probably not all that different. Sure, it is self-involved and yes, it appears entitled, superficial and indulgent. But more concerning are the narcissists we may have in the making -- and to blame social media alone for this is too simplistic. Narcissistic character formation develops within a context of one's family, peers and culture from the day we are born throughout adulthood. We have to consider other factors -- like parental coddling, entitled children, our celebrity culture and more -- to see how these phenomena contribute as well.

While social media can encourage already existing tendencies, it takes a lot more for narcissism to flourish in a culture.

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Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She serves as a media expert on various psychological topics and as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. Her book, "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.

For more information, please visit my website at www.VivianDiller.com; and continue the conversation on Twitter @ DrVDiller.

For more by Vivian Diller, Ph.D., click here.