In “The Social Network,” Mark Zuckerberg’s fictional girlfriend breaks up with him after he refuses to stop talking about himself at dinner. Miffed, Zuckerberg hastily retreats to his Harvard dorm, opens a beer, and posts about his latest personal problem on the Internet for everyone to see.
This opening scene of “The Social Network” the story of Facebook, the world’s largest social networking site, i typifies a common attitude about such websites : outlets built for and by self-interested, whining Millennials.
Due largely to the writings of Jean Twenge, author “The Narcissism Epidemic” and “Generation Me,” the symbiotic relationship between rising rates of narcissistic behavior in Generation Y and sites like Facebook has been widely accepted.
A new study, however, challenges this presumed link between social networking and self-centeredness. With the lofty title, “Millennials, narcissism, and social networking: What narcissists do on social networking sites and why,” the study found no relationship between narcissism and how much time individuals spend on social networking sites or how often they post “status updates.”
And while the study’s authors—four professors from Appalachian State University and High Point University in High Point, North Carolina—admit social networking may appeal to narcissists, they assert it does not actually create narcissists. Instead, the experts agree with an argument posited by many Millenials: The narcissistic reputation results from the misperceptions of older generations. What looks like self-centeredness to many is actually a vital means of communication, self-expression, and professional advancement for Generation Y.
Shaun Davenport, an associate professor at High Point University and one of the paper’s three authors, believes his and his colleagues’ relatively young ages for academics (all under 40, unlike Jean Twenge) uniquely allowed them to challenge the stereotypes associated with Generation Y and social networking.
“Social networking is so transparent in some ways—you put yourself out there,” said Davenport. “With the older generation that isn’t as comfortable with that openness, they could perceive that as narcissistic because [Millennials] want to be open and have more shallow relationships.”
Indeed, the paper concludes, “While previous generations accomplished this via letter, telephone, or email, the Millennials may simply prefer to connect and communicate via SNSs. Thus, this may not be a sign of pathology, but a product of the times.”
For many, Facebook and similar sites are the easiest way to keep in contact with friends, It’s an update to the phone book, says Matt Vanek, 19, a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, adding that making personal information available to so-called “friends” is not self-aggrandizing, just functional.
“When I didn’t know my lab partner’s name after three sessions I tracked him down on Facebook,” said Vanek.
Yet, according to Twenge’s survey data, it is not the type of behavior that makes Generation Y unique, but the numbers. In one highly publicized study, Twenge found that 57 percent of Millennials agreed that their peers used social networking sites for “self-promotion, narcissism, and attention-seeking.”
Wes Davenport and his colleagues, however, argue that, while such behavior might be narcissistic, it does not make the majority of Millennials narcissists. Their research delineates between clinically diagnosed narcissists and subclinical narcissism, “a personality trait that normal, healthy individuals possess to varying degrees.”
Twenge asked if social media was used for attention seeking and self-promotion. 37 percent “agreed somewhat,” while 20 percent “agreed strongly.” To extrapolate these results as proof that 57 percent of Millennials are clinical narcissists—a classification that applies to just one percent of the world’s population—is a stretch, at least for Davenport and his colleagues.
Even Twenge’s use of “self-promotion” as a synonym for “narcissism” betrays a bigger misunderstanding. For some Millennials, the ability to self-promote on social networking sites has become a professional necessity for networking and making other work-related connections.
Indeed, as Davenport concludes, social networking only makes it easier for people to behave in certain ways, not more likely to do so. Social media can help either a budding narcissist or sports reporter, but it will make you neither.
“It’s a lot easier to be a narcissist on social networking sites than via telegram,” he said with a laugh.