The growth of social networking websites is believed to have shifted the nature of our social relationships, as well as how we present and perceive ourselves.
But experts disagree on whether social media, like Facebook, allows us to connect, or become more self-centered and less empathetic towards others.
A new study by Tracy Alloway, Ph.D., of the University of North Florida, investigated the relationship among adult Facebook users, between ages 18 and 50, and found a mixed bag: some Facebook features are linked to selfishness and others may encourage empathy.
Alloway and her team queried more than 400 individuals on their Facebook behaviors, including how many hours per day they spent on Facebook, and the number of times they updated their status.
They also asked participants to rate their profile picture: were they physically attractive, cool, glamorous, and fashionable.
The findings are published in the journal Social Networking.
Participants in the study were predominately single and used Facebook an average of two hours per day and had approximately 500 friends for both males and females.
The majority — 89.5 percent — reported they were included in their profile photo.
To assess how narcissistic they were, participants were given a standard narcissism questionnaire, where they had to choose between statements that best described them.
For example, they had to decide between “I like to be the center of attention” or “I prefer to blend in with the crowd.” The study revealed only one Facebook behavior accurately predicted narcissism levels: user profile picture ratings.
For males, only their profile picture ratings were a predictor of narcissism. For the females, both their profile picture ratings and their status update frequency predicted their narcissism.
Narcissistic individuals have an exaggerated view of their attractiveness and want to share it with the world. The profile picture is the most tangible aspect of a user’s online self-presentation, making it a touchstone for narcissists seeking to draw attention to themselves.
“Every narcissist needs a reflecting pool. Just as Narcissus gazed into the pool to admire his beauty, social networking sites, like Facebook, have become our modern-day pool,” said Alloway.
The study also showed that there were differences between the sexes. While men were more narcissistic according to the test, narcissistic women were more likely to rate their profile pictures as more physically attractive, glamorous, and cool.
Females also changed their profile picture more than the males, updating their photo once every two months, compared to once every three months for males.
This may mean that narcissistic women are more likely to use Facebook as a reflecting pool than narcissistic males.
However, Alloway noted that many other Facebook activities weren’t linked to narcissism.
“The number of friends they had, even how often they posted photos of themselves weren’t related to narcissistic tendencies,” she said.
“This pattern suggests that while Facebook may be a tool for narcissists, it’s more than just a reflecting pool.”
Additionally, the findings indicated that some Facebook activities, such as chatting, were linked to aspects of empathic concern, such as higher levels of Perspective Taking — the ability to place oneself in another’s situation — in males, while females scored lower.
The photo feature in Facebook was also linked to the better ability to place themselves, both males and females, in fictional situations.
For females only, viewing videos was associated with the extent to which they could identify with someone’s distress.
The study’s conclusion found that some Facebook activities, such as chatting, encourage some aspects of empathy.
Although the photo feature was linked to narcissism, the overall pattern of findings suggests that social media is primarily a tool for staying connected than for self-promotion.
Source: The University of North Florida