Does mobile tech breed narcissism?

But enough about cultural trends. Let's talk about ME!

Technology is dangerous -- at least according to a gazillion alarmist headlines published over the past 20 years.

Yesterday's fears about carpal tunnel syndrome and cancer-causing cell phones give way to today's concerns over Internet addiction, texting that causes car accidents and laptop-induced infertility.

While everyone's on the lookout for risks, such as a Wii controller to the face, or walking into an open sewer while texting, something subtler and more pervasive may be happening. Mobile technology may be transforming us all into raving narcissists.

What is narcissism, anyway?

Narcissism, or narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), is a real mental health problem. Sufferers feel a constant need for admiration, and have trouble empathizing, relating to or caring about other people. People with NPD feel very self-important, that they are special and that their specialness can only be perceived by peers. Although they feel superior to others, they tend to be incredibly sensitive to criticism. According to the Mayo Clinic web site, NPD may be caused by a long list of factors.

In general, however, everyone goes through narcissistic phases in both childhood and teen years. Normally, we snap out of it when reality smacks us in the face at some point. People learn (often the hard way) to interact with and have consideration for other people. We learn that we can't get whatever we want whenever we want it. We develop thicker skin about criticism, and sometimes respond to it by striving to do better.

But now it appears that mobile technology, such as cell phones, social networks and mobile software, may be interfering with the natural process of growing up -- of learning to evolve beyond adolescent narcissism. It may enable us to live in a self-centered social environment devoid of both non-peers and personal criticism.

Cell phones enable teens, for example, to constantly maintain contacts with peers, and block out interactions with non-peers, such as younger kids and older adults. This process may alienate teens even further from people and hamper the process of developing healthy empathy and a feeling of membership in the larger community. Right at the moment in human development when we are supposed to grow up and face reality, mobile gadgets may shield us from it.

Social networks, for example, are actually pretty anti-social. Their main benefit is to control and limit interactions. Thousands of different kinds of Web sites, from YouTube to the news site you're reading now, allow anyone to post any sort of comment and "socialize" with other people. But only social networks enable us to create a me-centered private club.

If new technology really does promote narcissism, then younger people would be more narcissistic than older people, because they had mobile technology during their formative years, and have been shaped more by it.

You might say that young people have always been more narcissistic than older adults, but a study published a couple years ago found that college students get more narcissistic every year, and have been doing so since at least 1982. What's fueling this trend?

Too narcissistic for Twitter

One surprising trend is that young people generally don't like Twitter, but love Facebook. Why is that? Various pundits have guessed that Twitter apathy among the young is caused by the service's limited number of features, not enough people reading their profiles and lack of safety.

But I think the main reason is that younger people tend to be too narcissistic for Twitter. Wait, too narcissistic for Twitter? How can that be?

Twitter seems to be a narcissist's dream. The conventional view is that Twitter is filled with self-important people broadcasting trivial personal events as if they were of general interest.

But narcissism isn't the same as megalomania (delusions of grandeur) or egoism (total self-interest). The narcissist lacks empathy for others and is overly sensitive to criticism. Twitter is actually a narcissist's nightmare because strangers -- the "general public," potentially -- can read posts and even comment on them in public. To narcissists, non-peer groups are of no consequence and exist only as some irrelevant abstraction. So broadcasting tweets is not interesting, and being criticized in public is terrifying.

Facebook, on the other hand, is a narcissist's dream. One can admit only one's own peer group, and talk endlessly about and post photos of the one subject that matters: Me! Best of all, nearly all comments on Facebook are supportive, and if not, people can be un-friended.

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Mike Elgan

Mike Elgan

Computerworld (US)
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