Wednesday, July 11, 2012
Recently I tried to persuade a friend, a professional woman in her 40s, to create a Facebook account. Like many people, I’m a regular user, usually to post photos and updates of my daughter’s sports and academic accomplishments — and to keep track of friends and family. But my friend believed Facebook would drain her time. She said that if she couldn’t maintain friendships in the real world, she wasn’t interested in keeping up with the small details of people’s lives.
There has been a lot of scholarship devoted to the study of Facebook, sparking debate about the mental health and personality traits of frequent users. Most recently, research from Western Illinois University suggested, like other studies before it, that Facebook appeals to our most narcissistic tendencies. The study, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, asked 292 people to answer questions aimed at measuring how self-involved they were.
Those who frequently updated their Facebook status, tagged themselves in photos and had large numbers of virtual friends, were more likely to exhibit narcissistic traits, the study found. Another study found that people with high levels of narcissism were more likely to spend more than an hour a day on Facebook, and they were also more likely to post digitally enhanced personal photos. But what the research doesn’t answer is whether Facebook attracts narcissists or turns us into them.
Last month, a study of 233 Facebook-using college students by researchers at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and the University of Hartford took a different approach. Were the students primarily writing self-promoting status updates? Or were they interested in others, clicking “likes” and posting comments on friends’ pages? How many Facebook friends did they collect?
In addition to measuring narcissism (Do you like being the center of attention or blending in with the crowd?), the researchers also measured a student’s sense of privacy. (Do you share information with a wide circle of friends or value your privacy?) The researchers found, to their surprise, that frequency of Facebook use, whether it was for personal status updates or to connect with friends, was not associated with narcissism. Narcissism per se was associated with only one type of Facebook user — those who amassed unrealistically large numbers of Facebook friends.
Instead, frequent Facebook users were more likely to score high on “openness” and were less concerned about privacy. So what seems like self-promoting behavior may just reflect a generation growing up in the digital age, where information — including details about personal lives — flows freely and connects us.
“It’s a huge oversimplification to say Facebook is for narcissists,” said Lynne Kelly, director of the school of communication at the University of Hartford and one of the study’s authors. “You share information about yourself on Facebook as a way to maintain relationships.”
The social medium of choice for the self-absorbed appears to be Twitter. The researchers found an association between tweeting about oneself and high narcissism scores. That finding alone, I think, is worth tweeting about.