Author: Dr. Sunita Nair Mukherjee
In a world saturated by personalized media and technologies, virtual communities have become a universal fact. One of the tools that are commonly used to facilitate such online interactions is Social Networking Sites (or SNSs). These sites provide new opportunities for individuals to become more preoccupied with their own representations and these preoccupations often impact their identities, both virtual and real, in different ways. One of the most significant effects, especially on young and teenage minds, is a growing self-absorption.
Adolescence is a time of great psychological and physical upheaval. This is often also the time for various forms of behavioural experimentations, the expression of which can be seen in online activities. Although SNSs allow individuals to foster relationships, give and receive support and encourage exchange of ideas, it can also force them to sustain their social interactions, and this generally leads to increase in SNS use that leads to SNS addiction.
Social networking sites encourage oversharing of one's own image and opinions. This encourages feelings of entitlement, an inflated sense of importance, a preoccupation with looks, achievement, and power, among others. This also prevents people from introspecting; being open to suggestions and criticisms as these individuals simply disassociate themselves from those they disagree with, thereby reducing their ability to understand and deal with reality.
Excessive criticism or being overvalued by parent figures is some of the recognized causes of Narcissism which is an ever-increasing phenomenon. The SNS merely becomes a replacement for such parent figures. The desire to motivate people has led to individuals getting undeserving and needless praise. It has led to an overvaluation of one's capabilities. Self-absorption encourages people to observe themselves.
Often narcissism is misunderstood for self-esteem. Self-esteem is a more realistic appraisal based on one's achievements, values, and such, while narcissism stems from an excessive focus on oneself, fear of failure, an unhealthy desire to be seen as the best, underlying feelings of insecurity, deep-seated insecurity, and the like.
The narcissist generally fails to look within their own selves to figure out what needs to be worked on and because social media functions on anonymity, confirmations, affirmations, likes, dislikes, ghosting and cancelling, it becomes easy for narcissists to maintain their complexes. Thus, social networking sites can augment narcissism and may be partially responsible for the related changes in the personality that can inflate into personality disorders. And those personalities that are already self-absorbed may find reinforcement and an easy outlet for their attitudes online.
Excessive self-concern is a part of the adolescent years. These formative years could be damaged by excessively narcissistic encouragement that is constituted in social networking sites.
In my career as a psychologist, I have witnessed a seeming rise in deterioration in empathy, increasing dependence on the virtual media for self affirmation, and a pseudo-utopian construct of the world. We need to recognize the insidious ways the SNSs impact our perceptions of the self and the corresponding effect in our attitudes and behaviour.
A multi-pronged approach is therefore required as we need to tackle it at individual, digital, and educational levels.
At an individual level, one can reflect on our online behaviour and its impact on our self-esteem and relationships. We can recognize signs of excessive self-centeredness - be it by sharing our filtered and affected photographs, and videos, making ordinary activities and responsibilities appear noble, simplistic, or even glamourous, and basking in the attention and praise for the same.
We can set limits on our social media usage. We can foster online connections that can have a positive influence on us, and our well-being and we can 'unfollow' those who promote our vanity and narcissistic tendencies.
We can share content, make comments that are meaningful, valuable and what we believe in, instead of merely focusing on self-promotion or saying what we believe would make us 'fit' in with the crowd and is popular.
We need to engage in meaningful and empathetic conversations both offline and online. We can avoid seeking validation constantly though likes, comments, sharing and so on.
We need to get more involved in real world interactions and seek validation from within. A focus on personal growth would be helpful. Digital 'detox' needs to be practiced.
At an educational level, schools can teach young students how social media and the internet shape our minds and behaviour. Students can learn how we unwittingly take refuge in social media to feel good and allow these agencies to control us - even when the interactions may be unfavorable to us, as when we try to fit in by carrying out activities that we may not believe in. Students can learn how media works and understand how pervasive technologies and software are used by social media platforms to impact our behaviours. Schools can help students develop healthy empathetic attitudes, sensitize them to their own responsibilities and real world issues through community work and thus impact their personal growth.
At a digital level, programmers can change the algorithms so that they aid in the promotion of meaningful connections between people instead of promoting egotism.
As in all situations, we should seek the help of mental health professionals when we find our lives and relationships significantly, and negatively influenced by our online interactions.
Disclaimer: This website is for information purposes. This is NOT medical advice. Always do your own due diligence.