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Social Media Synthesis Paper: The Relationship of Social Media & Narcissism

John Carroll University

Social Media

Emily Mastroianni


Our book, Social Media: Enduring Principles, by Ashlee Humphreys (2016), introduces

the theory of uses and gratifications to describe the motivations that social media users have for

joining and interacting on social media sites. She defines this theory as the idea that people

consume media for some purpose and to receive some reward, or gratification (p. 83). Although

social media may have started solely as a medium to keep connected to one another, it has grown

into a medium in which individuals have the opportunity to showcase their lives, in the most

idealized way, and in return, receive benefits from it. On one extreme, as we have discussed,

these benefits can be monetary, as there recently has been a huge influx in social media

influencers who literally make money to promote products on their sites. But on the other

extreme lie the majority of social media users, like myself, who simply gain confidence and

attention through things like followers, likes, comments and re-posts on each site.

When truly focusing on the reasoning as to why we spend hours out of our day deciding

which photo to post on Instagram, for example, it becomes easier for one to admit that our

motivations for using these sites is to ultimately feel better about ourselves through the

interactions we have with others. Thus, sometimes without even noticing, we begin to turn into

more narcissistic individuals, consumed in how we are presenting ourselves to the world on our

social media platforms. My analysis will first define the relationship narcissism has with the idea

of self-presentation, and then delve into the role that social media plays in advancing narcissistic

tendencies in people.


Jessica McCain and W. Keith Campbell (2016) define narcissism as a dimensional

personality trait that consists of grandiose self concept as well as behaviors intended to maintain

this self-concept in the face of reality (p. 1). It is important to realize that there is a difference

between being diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder and having elevated levels of

it. Andreassen, Pallesen and Griffiths (2016) state that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of

Mental Disorders determine someone diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder as having,

high levels of self-importance, fantasies of unlimited success, feeling special and unique, and

lack of empathy, envy and arrogance (p. 288). Researchers have concluded that elevated levels

of narcissism, not necessarily the full-on disorder, have been a key characteristic of modern


This varying level of narcissism can be referred to as subclinical narcissism, according to

Shawn Bergman, Jacqueline Bergman, Shaun Davenport and Matthew Fearrington (2014), who

claim this to be a less intense level than actually being diagnosed with narcissistic personality

disorder. This subclinical level of narcissism has been increasingly noticeable in more and more

people in recent generations, making itself a common feature of todays society (McCain et al.,

2016, p. 2). Common traits of these narcissistic individuals are those with elevated levels of

self-esteem and self-concept, who are always seeking positive reinforcement, affirmation and

attention from those they interact with, and in turn, end up presenting themselves competitively

in social situations (Bergman, 2014). McCain et al. (2016) introduce two forms of narcissism

that has been studied: grandiose and vulnerable. They describe grandiose narcissistic people,

which has been studied more in relation to social media, as having very extroverted, open

qualities as opposed to the extreme opposite type of narcissism, vulnerable narcissism, which is

characterized by low self esteem and introversion (p. 2).


As expected, narcissistic individuals are constantly concerned with maintaining a positive

image of themself, on and offline. Sociologist Erving Goffman is best known for his studies on

the self and has conceptualized many ideas that help explain what motivates individuals in their

self-presentation. First of all, Goffman makes the metaphorical comparison that the self can be

considered an actor or actress who is always performing different roles or identities, on a stage

for intended audiences (Humphreys, 2016, p. 86). The feedback and reactions from these

intended audiences help us garner an even better understanding of who we are- a perspective

referred to as the looking glass-self. This perspective leads into why we ultimately manage the

impressions we give-off, and Erving Goffman, in his metaphorical comparison, believes that we

are constantly going back and forth between a front and back stage; the front being the place

where we present ourselves to others and the back where we relax our impression management

and practice and prepare how we want to be seen by our intended audiences (Milkie, Lucas &

Rohall, 2011, p. 128). As Ashlee Humphreys (2016) suggests, many of the goals we pursue

online concern a desire to build, maintain, improve, or perform a sense of self, and because of

the affordances and capabilities that online social media platforms offer us, our online selves

tend to turn into idealized versions of who we are (Humphreys, p. 84). Idealized meaning

that we have the power to highlight the good, hide the bad, and create a version of ourselves that

may or may not align with who we are offline, thus making it easier for narcissistic tendencies to


The Role of Social Media

Barry, Doucette, Loflin, Rivera-Hudson and Herrington (2017) make the claim that

narcissism is related to managing a positive image of oneself on social media (p. 49).

Interestingly enough, Barry et al. (2015) and McCain et al. (2016) both describe there to be a

mutual relationship with highly narcissistic people and social media platforms, meaning that

already narcissistic people seek out social media sites to self-promote, but at the same time, the

social media sites encourage narcissistic behaviors on those that may be more humble (p. 245).

So what makes social media enticing to a narcissistic individual?

First and foremost, is the opportunity for self-enhancement. McCain et. al (2016)

describe that social media offers a favorable environment for narcissistic individuals, who are

constantly seeking to reinforce traits, skills and behaviors that are self-sustaining, but have no

over-arching goal, which can translate into receiving likes and comments on photos or posts on

social media (p. 3). Secondly, narcissists seek a wide intended audience, as Goffman would

refer to it as, and wish to be connected to social networks that are of higher status, and most

likely shallow. Narcissists will seek out more attractive individuals in order to publicly

associate themselves with people of higher status, which social media sites easily afford you to

do (McCain et al., 2016). By simply viewing someones profile image, to see how attractive they

are, or witnessing the amount of followers they have, which would indicate the size of their

online social network, narcissists can easily build the reputation they want on social media by

interacting with the right people.

In fact, Barry et al. (2015) confirm that, greater frequency of social interaction and

attractiveness of the main profile image are two of the most relevant indicators of narcissism on

Facebook (p. 245). Lastly, social media appeals to the extroverted side of narcissists, who in

turn, most likely have a large group of friends and social network, and who enjoy constantly

creating new content in order to be praised for it (McCain et al. 2016). Because for narcissists,

the more content they generate and the more extroverted they are, the more praise they will get

from a diverse array of people.


On the reverse side of things, social media, and the affordances it offers, encourages

narcissistic behavior, both in folks that already uphold narcissistic tendencies, and those that do

not. In one way, social media sites reward the skills of the narcissist, including self-promotion,

posting attractive pictures of oneself and having the most friends (Barry et al., 2015, p. 245).

Along with that, social media platforms remove the meaning behind being friends with

someone, and allow for effortless friendships that are maintained through the click of a button.

As explained previously, narcissists are more interested in the amount of social following they

have and the look that it gives off, rather than the actual meaning it may bring to the relationship.

Bergman et al. (2014) confirm, when focusing on Facebook, previous research has routinely

hypothesized and found a positive relationship between number of friends and narcissism (p.

213). Thus, social media platforms open the door for narcissists to build meaningless

relationships with people who will enhance their self-presentation through things such as liking

and commenting.

Narcissistic Practices on Social Media

Now that there is an understanding as to why social media is so attractive to those

possessing narcissistic qualities, lets delve into the common tendencies narcissists partake in on

social media, or the practices that can eventually turn someone into a more narcissistic

individual. Not surprisingly, Barry et al. (2017) report that, research has revealed that

individuals scoring high on narcissism tend to post a higher quantity and more revealing photos

of themselves (p. 49). More specifically, narcissists are more likely to post self-photographs,

or selfies, which have seen a 17,000% growth in popularity since 2012 (Barry et al., 2017).

The selfie, which is a perfected image of just one single individual, is the perfect opportunity

for narcissists to engage in behavior that will be 100% focused on them. When you combine the

meaning of the selfie with the affordances of social media platforms, such as Instagram for

example, theres nearly no way to escape feelings of narcissism, entitlement, or over-confidence

because people who like or comment on the picture are directing it completely at you. Unless, of

course, it is the other extreme and nearly no one likes or comments on the picture, causing

significant self-esteem issues.

In Bergman et al.s study, they wanted to distinguish the relationship narcissism had with

two different platforms: Facebook and Twitter. Their findings suggested that, narcissism was a

stronger predictor of Facebook friends, than Twitter followers (p. 219). This finding relates

back to McCain et al.s (2016) statements about narcissists seeking to gain the greatest social

network, rather than form relationships. Requesting a friend on Facebook is simple, direct, and

most importantly, mutual, so that if someone accepts your friend request you both are friends and

can interact with one anothers profiles. Accumulating Twitter followers, on the other hand,

comes down to creating interesting content, that people will find engaging, and will therefore

follow. The biggest difference is that on Twitter, one must put forth an effort to have someone

follow them back- rather than simply directly adding them to your network like on Facebook.

These findings add an interesting dimension to the reasons more narcissistic people could be

engaging in certain platforms.

In terms of whom these people are adding and following on social networks, narcissists

seem to attract and seek out other narcissists. Barry et al. (2015) describe narcissistic individuals

to perceive similar others to be more likable and successful, and they indicated that they would

be more likely to choose such individuals as friends (p. 252). This idea most likely stems from

their larger than life idea of themselves, that if they believe they are so great, then they will

also believe that people similar to them on social media are the same, and worthy of their

friendship. This also means that these individuals understand that people similar to them will

give them the attention they want and need, through feedback on social media, and vice versa.

Original Idea Synthesis

When writing this paper, and reviewing all of the research, I was forced to question my

own level of narcissism, a quality that I never would use to describe myself. And I think that

many people find themselves in a similar position, caught up between: being humble enough to

accept 11 likes on an Instagram post, or adopting some narcissistic qualities and choosing to

always post the right picture, with the right filter, at the right time of night to ensure they receive

the most optimal feedback. I ultimately believe, aside from generational differences, that every

person that makes the decision to use social media platforms regularly have to possess at least a

mild to high level of narcissism. Whether or not this quality refers to both the individuals

virtual self, online, and real self, offline, is another big question that I have.

The relationship between social media and narcissism that I found in my research,

reminded of an example in our book referred to as technological determinism, the perspective

that technology determines the nature of human communication (Humphreys, 2016). This idea

raises the question- do we structure technology or does technology structure us? Yet, as I kept

reading, I realized that the relationship between narcissism and social media can also take on a

constructivist approach, that we use technology for a variety of reasons and we construct it in a

way that will achieve personal and social goals, similar to the uses and gratifications theory (p.

14). My assumption would be that in terms of technological determinism, social media as an

entity is a bold force behind many peoples levels of narcissism, and even morals and values. In

every little way, these platforms are changing not only how we communicate, but how we see

ourselves. All our lives we have been told not to become a follower, but on social media, how

else can we interact? All our lives we have been told that nobodys perfect but social media

allows us to perfect every image of ourselves. All our lives we have been told to be a friend to

everyone, yet we have the power to block, delete, and unfollow on social media. Thus, social

media, in some ways, has determined the way we should lead our lives, even if it goes against

how we were raised. On the other hand, I believe that we equally construct social media in a

way that we will benefit the most from it, and this is what causes high levels of narcissism to

develop. Going off the idea that my research suggested, that social media encourages

narcissistic behavior, is why I believe anyone who chooses to engage in it, must have some

motivation to self-promote themselves to some degree. For example, in class another student

mentioned that social media, particularly Instagram, is basically a highlight reel of our lives.

Social media gives us the opportunity to pick and choose which photos we want to include in our

albums on Facebook and which photos wed rather leave out. It encourages us to filter images in

order to make them seem better than they may have been in real life. It encourages us to

showcase how many people like us literally, and figuratively. So in many ways, social media

constructs, and is constructed by each of us.

Moving forward, I think a valuable research study could be to determine the different

motivations for why certain generations use social media, and compare that with their levels of

narcissism. I think of my mom on Instagram, compared to myself, and see many differences.

My mom is only following a select amount of people, who mostly consist of family, friends of

hers, and friends of mine, whereas I am followed by, and following, nearly 700 people, some of

which I may not even consider close friends. A majority of my mothers posts do not even have

her in the picture, and she certainly never posts selfies, whereas nearly 100% of my posts

feature myself, and several, especially during my time abroad, were just single shots of me.

Lastly, when comparing the generational differences in my Instagram posts and my moms, there

is clearly a difference in the effort that is used in editing the posts. Some of my moms are not

even filtered whereas mine are particularly filtered in a certain way. These little details all lead

to a major difference that I believe defines this generational gap. My mom posts to connect with

family, such as myself while Im away at school, and inform her followers of whats not only

going on in her life, but more importantly, her families lives. And I, unfortunately, post to self-

promote, to gain likes, to enhance my social capital, to build the confidence in who I am; all of

which are the exact qualities that I have outlined as narcissistic. Even through my own personal

experiences I have been able to confirm that my actions on social media, as a millennial, differ

from my moms and are more narcissistically motivated. Therefore, I think future research could

definitely develop this idea further to get more answers about the relationship.

To conclude, I was able to cover both the meaning and relationship between narcissism

and self-presentation, and the role that social media plays in that relationship today. It is clear to

say that the relationship between narcissism and social media is a mutual one: that social media

platforms, and their affordances, encourage and enhance narcissistic behavior, and at the same

time, narcissists seek out these platforms because of their affordances, such as the ability to gain

a huge social following easily, and without putting forth much effort, and posting things, like

selfies, that will gain a lot of attention and feedback. As a millennial, it is important to be aware

of these findings in order to not get too caught up in things like social media. The fact that there

is evidence out there that proves that the levels of narcissism have increased in our generation

should be a reality check on how powerful technology can be over its users. It is important to

take this knowledge and try to approach the way we use social media in a more humble manner.


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Barry, C.T., Doucette, H., Loflin, D.C., Rivera-Hudson, N., & Herrington, L. L.
(2017). Let me take a selfie: Associations between self-photography,
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Bergman, S. M., Bergman, J. Z., Davenport, S. W., & Fearrington, M. E. (2014).

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University Press.

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