It’ s not uncommon for people to be scrolling through their various social media feeds and feel sick to their stomach. The nausea isn’ t because of the questionable egg salad they had for lunch but because they’re sick of seeing everyone else’s perfect hair, perfect selfie, perfect vacation, perfect life. Everyone has at least a handful of these types on their feeds; those social media ‘ friends’  that post nothing but smiley, happy photos and status updates, never forgetting to cap it off with the ever-annoying hashtag #soblessed.

Narcissism is defined as being egocentric (caring too much about yourself and not about others), or the love or sexual desire for one’s own body, according to Merriam-Webster.com. There are now scores of studies that show a correlation between social media use and the rise in narcissism. But is social media the sole cause of this increase, or are there other things that cause your digital ‘friends’  to constantly update their Facebook page, clamouring for just one more like or share? More importantly, is there a way to actually reverse this perverse trend?

In her article for The Guardian in March of this year entitled I, Narcissist – Vanity, Social Media and the Human Condition, reporter Carmen Fishwick begins by sharing some strong evidence in favour of the idea that social media is driving narcissism through the roof.

There are “[m]ore than 80 million photographs uploaded to Instagram every day, more than 3.5 billion ‘ likes’  every day, and some 1.4 billion people – 20% of the world’ s population – publishing details of their lives on Facebook.”

Fishwick goes on to speak with counsellor and psychotherapist Lucy Clyde about the possible connection. Clyde poses the idea that narcissism is pre-existing in all of us and that social media has just made us more aware of those tendencies. So, a direct connection between the sharp increase in narcissism and the use of social media isn’t necessarily as clear cut as we might want it to be. However, narcissists exhibit behaviour that requires feedback from others in order to feel good about themselves. Using social media to achieve this is a no-brainer, especially given the instantaneous nature of the desired feedback.

Another rather troubling aspect of narcissism and social media use is the unrealistic portrayal of life that most people post online. To put it simply, no one posts the bad stuff. It’s much easier to use a filter – or three – and make yourself or your situation look perfect rather than post about what’s actually going on in your life. Again, that ‘perfect’ photo or status update is more likely to get positive feedback in the form of likes and shares, thus boosting the narcissism of the person posting.

The problem with this, of course, is that no one’s life is perfect. But posting photos and status updates that seem that way puts an enormous amount of pressure on not only the person that’s posting but also on those who see the post. We’ve all played the comparison game on social media in which you find yourself feeling jealous of someone else’s situation. Sadly, we are comparing ourselves to a fake and unrealistic portrayal of that person’s ‘life.’

Laura Firestone, Ph.D., speaks to this in her article for psychologytoday.com called Is Social Media to Blame for the Rise in Narcissism? (November 29, 2012). Firestone contends that:

“…nearly everyone presents an unrealistic portrait of themselves . . . [t]he unrealistically sunny picture that so many social networkers paint can have a negative psychological effect on their friends or followers.”

As annoying as social media narcissism is, there is an even more alarming aspect to this puzzle. While narcissism among Millennials (those born in the 1980s and 1990s) is rising, intrinsic values like altruism (selflessness), empathy (the ability to share in and understand someone else’s feelings), and self-acceptance are decreasing. In his article for The Guardian entitled Sharing the (self) Love: The Rise of the Selfie and Digital Narcissism, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at University College London (U.K.) puts it like this:

“[w]e are now more connected than ever, but also less interested in other people, except when it comes to finding out what they think about us. It is as if being closer to others made us more antisocial.”

So what do we do?

Firestone writes that narcissism “may have less to do with our social networks online and more to do with our social networks at home” (psychologytoday.com, November 29, 2012). This point certainly makes sense when you consider what is known as the self-esteem movement in which, for the last few decades, parents and teachers have essentially been giving empty praise to children for accomplishing nothing with the goal of building up their self-esteem.

Children build true self-esteem (confidence in one’s own worth and abilities) when they are praised for real accomplishments, skills they have learned and mastered, and goals they have set and achieved. Giving children praise or complimenting them on skills they don’t have or talents they do not possess will, according to Firestone, do more harm than good. To combat narcissism on social media, then, means to instill in our kid’s true self-esteem and demonstrate the value in building relationships offline, before they’re old enough to update their status on Facebook or tweet a selfie out to all their followers.

Having a true sense of self means you don’t need an abundance of acceptance in the form of likes, followers, or shares in order to feel good about yourself and your life. The comparison game stops, and you find yourself genuinely happy in your life and for others in theirs. Now, wouldn’t we all actually be #soblessed to have that?

By Jess Campbell