Narcissism? Vanity on steroids? Technology that promotes both? And where, exactly, is the line?

A recent article on The Atlantic addresses our Internet Narcissism Epidemic when it comes to the Millennials. But are the rest of us far behind with our fans and followers and friends? It was one thing to check my darkened Blackberry to see if my eyeliner was smudged, but now I can take a “selfie?”

Do I want to?

Don’t think so.

Cue my incredulity when I realized my new iPhone would allow me “face” time on a call. Cue my millennial college kid laughing madly as I told him no, no, no!

I find this topic of Internet-incited narcissism particularly relevant after a recent conversation with that very same young man. My 20-year old is working on a project in which he’s using himself as a guinea pig to determine if he’s too self-centered. That’s a simplistic summary, but we’ll go with it for discussion purposes.

Narcissistic or Self-Absorbed?

The parameters of my son’s multimedia undertaking remain blurry (to me), but he’s relying on specific social interactions with strangers to measure his ego, or potential narcissism. He will eventually refashion the results of his findings into a performance piece involving film.

Fully aware of the extent to which our teens and college students put their lives on display, I asked my son if he thought he was a narcissist. I offered an abbreviated definition: someone who is convinced he’s always right, acts as though everything revolves around him, and dismisses what others have to say and feel. (This, hardly intended to be a thorough definition of narcissistic behaviors or personality.)

He said he didn’t know if he was a narcissist, but he thought he might be more self-absorbed than he ought to be.

As I followed up on that one, he responded: “I spend a lot of time by myself, in my own world.”

That’s always been the case as he’s tended more toward introversion than extroversion, and he was content to be holed up and recreating the universe that lived in his head on paper – in drawings or cartoons.

Is the Internet Fueling Narcissism?

Many of us pull back from our Facebook pages and Twitter feeds at least occasionally. We know these friends and followers are clicks on a keyboard. We know that select online connections and communities provide information, commiseration, and something akin to community. We also know that some individuals behind our techno-approval measures are real, and become real friends.

Still, the Atlantic article pulls no punches:

Beyond the basic social media platforms that narcissists use to display themselves… Articles abound providing advice on how to build fan bases on Facebook and get books reviewed on Amazon. Services allow the purchase of page views, Youtube plays, and fake social media followers of all kinds.

We suspect part of the rise in narcissism is being driven by Internet tools. What is clear is that social media platforms are frequently used by those with narcissistic tendencies to feed their egos. These same applications are used by millions of others to build their businesses, coordinate events, and maintain close ties with friends and families.

So we see the good – tools that serve us for earning our keep, staying in touch, offering community; we see the downside – tools that influence what we value in unfortunate ways, and likewise, how we value ourselves.

Can We Recognize Our Narcissism?

I could ask myself if an exploration of narcissism is narcissistic – (may we smile at the irony?) – while realizing that as a mother, I’m not in a position to view my children objectively.

I wouldn’t know if others perceive them as narcissistic or not, as self-absorbed or not, as selfish or not.

I have a problem with the first, a problem with the last, while self-absorbed is a different matter, and I would carefully consider its context.

As for vain? Vanity is typically defined as excessive pride in one’s appearance or accomplishments. I’ve seen no signs of that in my sons, but then again, am I a fair judge?

Turning to the definition of Narcissistic Personality Disorder and its symptoms, I realize I could have provided a better explanation, which would have included expectations of praise and admiration, the sense of superiority, taking advantage of others, and so on.

As for my artistic kid who is examining his own behaviors, is he confusing his terms? Is he assessing introversion versus extroversion, or superficial dimensions like time on social media? Is he looking beneath the surface and genuinely considering the quality of his real-world interactions?

No matter what, is this a healthy discovery process we might all benefit from? And if we recognize a pull toward narcissism, are we capable of pulling ourselves back?

  • Is it narcissistic to choose “face time” on our phones, or is it personable?
  • Is it narcissistic to post 1,000 images on Facebook in a year, but not 100?
  • Where is the boundary between ego and narcissism? Vanity and narcissism?
  • Are we constantly moving these lines as technology permits it, and isn’t that part of our challenge as a society?

My Devices, My Self…

I am attached to a laptop or cell phone far too much, largely (but not entirely) as a result of how I make my living. I am constantly trying to rope off “personal time” away from both.

I restrict my number of devices and did so for my children. Part of that is a budgetary matter, and part a belief that we will lose fundamental skills (critical thinking, interpersonal) – if we yield to all our technology options.

I don’t post many personal photos (no time, no desire). I don’t post my whereabouts (no time, no desire). I don’t play much online – even when I might enjoy it – again, by virtue of limited time.

I also recognize degrees of “sharing” that hold more (or less) appeal at different life stages, and according to individual circumstances.

As for our teenagers and 20-somethings, I’ve no doubt they’re impacted by growing up connected to the Internet. We know they socialize online (as do we), they manage their courting by text (as do we?), and they seem to navigate far more with something hand-held than I could ever have imagined.

The extent to which this is skewing their skills, their judgment, their sense of self?

I have my concerns. I won’t pretend otherwise.

© D. A. Wolf