Virtual narcissism

Last Updated 29 June 2012, 20:29 IST

Since social networks have emerged as an important part in our social spheres, our lives have become increasingly self-centred. Meera Vijayann examines the pros and cons of this trend

In the morning, Lakshmi stands in front of the mirror, wondering if she looks alright to step outside. Then she adds a hint of tinted balm on her lips, for a little glimmer. When she meets her friends at the coffee shop, she takes photographs, uploads them onto Facebook, despite there being no special occasion. In the following hours, Lakshmi finds herself restless. Time and time again, she logs onto her account compulsively, wondering what people think of her.

If you identify with Lakshmi, you are not alone. Since social networks have emerged as an important part in our social spheres, our lives have become increasingly self-centered. Each of us are hooked on to the virtual world, looking to fine-tune our worth with beautiful pictures, making new friends and be in tune with current events around the world. Young people between the ages of 13-28 are fast becoming dependent on the web not just for their social reasons but also for their emotional well-being.

Shomit, an engineer based in Munich, explains that over the years, he finds his virtual life has become a reflection of his real life. “Ten years ago, I didn’t feel it was the same thing. In those days, it was acceptable to have a funky pseudonym, with people unwilling to publicly disclose their lives.
Today, it is different,” he says confidently. When asked whether he feels that this has changed him as a person, he admits it has. “The Internet has changed me in a positive way. Since there is so much information available on the web, it has helped me become more confident,” Shomit adds.

Hardik Singhani, a PR executive from Mumbai, on the other hand, is open about his addiction to the Internet. “There has not been a day when I have not logged onto Facebook or Twitter,” he gushes, “I get anxious when I cannot access the Internet. When I went abroad for two days, I really couldn’t take being disconnected and paid a heavy price to activate my network. The Internet has definitely influenced me.”

In March 2012, researchers established that there is a direct link between the number of friends a person has on Facebook to social aggressiveness. A study, published in the Personality and Individual Differences journal found that most Facebook users suffer from a ‘narcissistic personality disorder’ with constant updates of their profile photos, deviant self-promotion and exhibitionism (The Guardian).

The trend of using Facebook as a platform to build and the pressure to maintain an identity in a particular social group has led to depression in pre-teens, teens and young adults in several cities where lives are inevitably linked online.

Last December, a 16-year old British teen model named Gabrielle Joseph updated her Facebook status with a chilling message — ‘I am going to kill myself tonight’. Hours later, she jumped in front of a moving train, and succumbed to injuries. To the people around her, Gabby (as she was fondly known) was a bubbly, young girl who had a healthy social life, surrounded by friends and family, loved by her fans and well-wishers. Yet, no one knew that she suffered from depression. That same cold December, a 42-year old woman named Simon Back posted a suicide note on Facebook telling her friends — ‘Took all my pills be dead soon bye bye everyone’. The irony? Not one of the thousand friends on her list reached out to help her. It was nearly 17 hours before the police arrived. Unfortunately, the charity shop worker had long died, and there was nothing they could do.

Despite stories such as this, the positive impact of social networking cannot be denied, given websites such as Myspace, Facebook and Twitter have relatively bridged several communication barriers that people missed in the pre-Internet era. It is the compulsive dependency of maintaining a friend network and being accepted online, that is disturbing.

Shabari Bhattacharyya, a Counsellor and Trainer at Parivarthan Counselling, Training and Research Centre, believes that young people in general need to find a balance in their lives. “Usually with depression, individuals tend to have a negative view of themselves and so when comparing themselves to others on Facebook (for example) assess themselves negatively. This phenomenon however isn’t limited to social media and in general, people who have a tendency to be depressed tend to be negative about their own sense of worth in all spheres,” she says. Narcissism, she adds, can also be a ‘healthy trait’ because it allows a person to form a stable image of one’s self independently. “While social media can tend to make people who are already depressive further depressed, it can also be an area where young people who may have previously felt alienated or misunderstood finding others with similar interests to themselves,” Shabari Bhattacharyya admits.
Despite most young people actively engaging in social media networks, not too many feel that they are narcissist. What is noticeable, however, is that they have become more ‘image-conscious’.

Young professionals like Shomit and Hardik admit that despite using social media primarily for information and networking, they are conscious of how they are ‘seen’ in the virtual sphere. “I had registered on an Indian matrimonial site, and I used to look at profiles only if the photos of the girls were appealing,” Shomit says. Hardik on the other hand, admits that he avoids tagging himself on photos where he doesn’t look good on sites like Facebook and consciously avoids commenting on these photos so that they don’t show up on a search stream. Sonam Sarawgi, a US-based marketing professional, honestly puts forward her view, saying “Who does not want to look good all the time? I upload a pic so that I can get comments on it and it kind of massages my ego!” All three of them admit that they don’t remember a day when they haven’t logged on to Facebook.

Narcissism, by and large, seems a quality that is all prevalent yet non-pervasive. Many young people feel the need to step out of their boundary, and create a different identity for themselves. The need to be accepted and appreciated by all has increased with globalisation, making maintaining actual relationships and friendships more difficult despite being connected virtually. The trick is to confront the problem. The next time you feel that itch to upload that photo-shopped profile photo, or find yourself spending hours dressing up for a casual coffee meet, it could be a gentle reminder that you are negatively involved with yourself.

(Published 29 June 2012, 12:43 IST)

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