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It is often said, particularly by those of us who happen to be over about thirty-five, that social media is the scourge of our times. It is seen to be the cause of our self-centred and narcissistic culture and the chief instigator of the breakdown of intimacy and face-to-face relationships.

Social media is blamed for everything from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) to inciting jihad. I know it’s often said, because I see it all the time on Facebook. After all, nearly 80% of folks my age (30 – 49) are on Facebook (Pew Research), surprisingly more than the 71% of those between thirteen and seventeen (Pew Research); mind you, they are still online, they’re just doing cooler stuff than we are.

While there’s a clear generation gap in perceptions between “digital natives” and “digital immigrants”, advocates and dissenters from both sides will both tend to agree that most forms of social media encourage people to be more self-referential. In my own research I have found that forms of social media that are directly accountable to an actual person, that is, ones that are not anonymous, strongly encourage the outward facing aspects of the ego while inhibiting the more inward facing ones. Colloquially, you might understand that to be “the performing self” – and it performs because it is constantly in public. Today, social media is the public space of the ego par excellence.

We all need a public facing self as it’s important to choose with whom to be more vulnerable and honest and from whom to protect ourselves. Today, however, the public space, via social media and smartphones, invades event the most private crevices of our personal lives. While tucked in bed in the late hours of the night, many of us are bathed in the blue light of the public lives of ourselves and others, tipping the ego balance outwards.

It is helpful to think of social media simply as a tool that enables us to extend our psychological selves out into the digital ether. The aspects of self that are enabled or disabled online depend entirely on the kind of social media that’s being used alongside the sort of personality using the social media. By the time most of us come to use social media, our personalities are already largely formed. So in relation to the question of whether or not social media causes narcissism, well, lots of us were narcissistic long before we came to Facebook – Facebook just enables us to enact it. So while our technology is not likely to “make us” narcissistic, it can certainly enable us to be more self-involved. There is a difference.

As a tool for the extension of self, social media cuts both ways. Sure, we can extend our best selves over Facebook, but as a public space, and sometimes quite a large one, it can make us quite vulnerable too. When we become dependent on feedback about our outward presenting self, it can cause us to be extremely vulnerable when we don’t get the feedback we want, or dependent on the feedback that pleases us.  The recent case of Essena O’Neill who recently deleted her extremely popular Instagram account is a case in point. Even when it goes well, we can find that our dependence on outward appearances can make us feel hollow inside.

On balance, rather than making us self-centred, social media has the capacity to cause us greater self-concern. Any public engagement carries the risk of getting it wrong, causing social embarrassment, or inviting wayward glances from others. By way of extending ourselves online, whether via our friendship groups, taste in music and art, our politics, or preferred posts we increase our vulnerability to the gaze of others. To be self-centred implies a grandiosity or arrogance that signals you are the centre of the world with an inflated image of yourself, what is colloquially known as narcissism. In psychoanalysis, however, the term “narcissism” almost means the opposite of this. It is seen as a compensation for a lack of centre in the self due to a lack of authentic recognition in childhood. The act of narcissism is a compensation for a lack of a centre.

As we extend ourselves further and further into the digital world it is important to remember the vulnerability that that entails, and the capacity for this vulnerability to affect our deepest sense of self. We find in the end that many forms of social media rather than causing self-centredness in fact does the opposite; it can make us vulnerable and hyper-vigilantly self-concerned.

Guest blog from Aaron Balick, psychotherapist and author of 'The Psychodynamics of Social Networking: connected-up instantaneous culture and the self'

More of his work can be found at Mindswork



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