Narcissism and Social Networking Sites: The Act of Taking Selfies

By Taylor M. Wickel
Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications
2015, Vol. 6 No. 1 | pg. 1/2 |


This study focused on why the act of taking selfies and posting them to the Internet is a factor leading to an increase in narcissistic and selfish behaviors. This study examined whether the Millennial Generation believes the selfie phenomenon is a contributor to the rise in narcissism. A 12-item survey was administered to 93 female college participants. A single open-ended question asked whether respondents found their behavior in posting selfies to be narcissistic. This study found that 55% of participants agreed that posting of selfies to different social networking platforms encouraged their narcissism and selfish behaviors.

I. Introduction

Named Word of the Year in 2013 by the Oxford English Dictionary, the term “selfie” has become ubiquitous in the vocabulary of nearly every teen and young adult in the technological world. A selfie is defined as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media” (Oxford Dictionary, 2013). For the Millennial Generation (Gen Y), the act of taking selfies and overall usage of various social media platforms are an integral part of life. The Millennial Generation’s comfort with social platforms has given this specific age group a more positive view of how social media might be affecting their lives. Studies, however, link social media use in young adults to various behavior development issues (Noor Al-Deen & Hendricks, 2012).

Millennials, aged from 18 to 33, are hyper-connected, but typically exhibit little awareness of or concern for others except as an audience. A study by San Diego State University professor Twenge shows that narcissism levels have risen steadily during the past few decades, making the Millennial Generation, also known as “Generation Me,” more selfish and self-absorbed than any other previous generation (Firestone, 2012). Narcissism is typically illustrated as a tendency to believe one’s self to be superior to others’, to persistently pursue admiration from others, and to participate in egotistic thinking and behavior (Panek, Nardis & Konrath, 2013). Taking selfies and sharing photos on popular social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are considered to be one of the biggest contributors to the rise in narcissistic behavior among Millennials. According to a study the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project using a nationally representative phone survey, adolescents in the United States are sharing more personal information than ever on social media.

An additional study investigating the relationship between social media use, empathy and narcissism found that for both males and females, posting, tagging, and commenting on photos were associated with higher narcissism scores (Alloway, Runac, Qureshi & Kemp, 2014). Buffadi, a postdoctoral researcher at the Universidad de Dueto in Bilbao, Spain, wrote, “Narcissists use Facebook and other social networking sites because they believe others are interested in what they’re doing, and they want others to know what they are doing” (Firestone, 2012).

This study aimed to examine how social media has changed our developmental and behavioral personalities, and how social media, specifically the act of taking and posting selfies, is deemed to be a main contributor to the rise in narcissistic behaviors in recent generations. Additionally, this study explored how the Millennial Generation thinks about the act of taking and posting these self-portraits to social networking sites.

II. Literature Review

Defining and Measuring Narcissism

Narcissism is characteristically illustrated as an affinity to believe one’s self to be superior over others, to incessantly pursue adoration from others, and to participate in egotistical thinking and behavior (Panek, Nardis & Konrath, 2013). Escalations in narcissism prove to be a potential risk to developing young adolescents in terms of their emotional and psychological health. Narcissism is recognized in conjunction with the use of personal communication as a method for self-enhancement and self-promotion, inhibiting individuals from establishing lasting intimate connections (Panek, Nardis & Konrath, 2013). Consequently, this can damage an individual’s ability to shape healthy, mutually beneficial relationships (Alloway, Runac, Qureshi, and Kemp, 2014). Additionally, those with elevated narcissism levels tend to be more prone to respond with violent and aggressive behavior after being critiqued. Online relationships often appeal to narcissists, who are characteristically not able to, or unwilling, to form meaningful friendships that demand any time or emotional investment (Carpenter, 2012).

History of the term “selfie”

Despite “selfie” becoming a phenomenon of the 21st century, the act of sharing a selfie with friends pre-dates the Internet. The act of distributing “cartes de visite,” or pocket sized photo cards, dates back to the 1860s (The Economist, 2014). In 1880, the photo booth was introduced, which attracted people to take self-photographs just as they still do today. The invention of the self-timer in the late 1880s allowed for any individual taking a photograph to preset their camera and allow themselves 5 to 10 seconds to get into a shot. This is believed to be the inception of what is now known as a selfie, or self-photograph.

In 1948, the first Polaroid camera was sold. This camera could be held at an arm’s length, which encouraged individuals to take more intimate self-photos (The Economist, 2013). The slang expression “selfie,” however, first appeared in 2002 in an online post from Australia. Since then, society’s use of the word selfie has increased 170 times, thus encouraging the Oxford English Dictionary to announce it as Word of the Year in 2013 (Day, 2013).

Facebook, Twitter and Smartphones

The increase in media and technologies that allows society to engage in social media has brought about an increase in the amount of narcissism expressed by Millenials. The growing use of technology, specifically the increase of smartphones, has allowed users to access any type of social networking site with just a few swipes of a finger. Nearly 40% of cell phone holders will use a social networking site on their mobile device at any point in time, and nearly 28% state that they access social networking sites on a typical day. Adolescents, African Americans, Hispanics, individuals with a higher education, and individuals with a greater annual household income are the more likely to use social networking sites on their phones than anyone else (Smith & Zickuhr, 2012). Adolescents are well aware of their online reputes, and tend to actively manage the content and presence of their social networking profiles. In a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, teens expressed that Facebook is an extension of their social communication and an essential component to their social life. Teens responded that online profiles help determine one’s social status. Specifically, teens measure their status through the number of “likes” a photo or a status update garners. As a way to acquire the maximum number of likes, Facebook users will manipulate and change their profile content. If users do not achieve the number of desired “likes” on a photo, they may remove the photo from their profile (Duggan & Smith, 2013).

Managing and revising one’s online profile content is a vital aspect of an adolescent’s online identity and “e-personality” (Aboujaoude, 2011). As a way to manage the content on one’s online profile, “59% have deleted or edited something that they posted in the past, 53% have deleted comments from others on their profile or account and 45% have removed their name from photos that have been tagged to identify them” (Duggan & Smith, 2013). In addition, this same study found that nearly 52% of adolescents online express they have had an experience through a social networking site that boosted their confidence (Duggan & Smith, 2013).

In addition to Facebook, Millennials have increasingly relied on Twitter over the past few years to express their desire or curate their online personas. Nearly 24% of online youths used Twitter, up from 16% in 2011 (Duggan & Smith, 2013). Teens who expressed interest in sites, such as Twitter and Instagram, stated that they felt like they could better express their social identity on these platforms because they did not feel the pressure of upholding the same social expectations that Facebook generates (Beasley, B., & Haney). Some Millennials tend to pay more attention to other social networking sites, such as Twitter, as a way to escape the drama and pressure they feel that Facebook elicits. Nevertheless, these same teens still manage to stay active on Facebook, in addition to other social profiles (Smith & Zickuhr, 2012).

Narcissism on Social Networking Sites

Social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, offer an easy way to participate in the attention- seeking, self-important behaviors of narcissists. It is important for narcissists to share their experiences because they believe all of their followers and social networking friends are genuinely interested in knowing what they are doing (Carpenter, 2012). Social networking sites give narcissistic individuals the chance to keep the focus of their profile’s content specifically on themselves. In doing this, they post status updates, comments and pictures that depict only themselves, and not others, perpetuating their self-interested nature (Aboujaoude, 2011).

Research indicates that those who use these types of social networking sites tend to develop their online profiles to achieve a type of social identity they wish to portray (Gabriel, 2014). In doing this, an individual will exaggerate certain character traits, and present a persona that they believe is appealing to the general public (Alloway, Runac, Qureshi & Kemp, 2014). This unrealistic self-presentation is possible through different social networking platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, because each individual has complete and total control of their profile content. Previous research suggests that narcissism may be positively related to posting different types of self-promoting content on social networking platforms (Alloway, Runac, Qureshi & Kemp, 2014).

After completing a literature review, the following two research questions were asked:

  1. Does the act of posting selfies on social networking sites, specifically Facebook and Twitter, encourage selfish and narcissistic behavior in teens and young adults?
  2. What do members of the Millennial Generation seek to gain from posting self-portraits on social media sites, and how does it benefit them?

III. Methodology

For this survey, the author emailed a link to an online survey to all of Elon University’s on-campus female Panhellenic Greek organizations, which included nine sororities. Female students involved in Greek life were selected after considering that these college students tend to prioritize social interaction and relationships. The supposition here is that this sample of women would have a surplus of experience with taking selfies and tend to have a higher-than-average involvement in their generation with social networking platforms. The email recipients were asked to complete the 12-question survey as honestly as possible to help the author obtain a broad understanding of how the general population thinks in regard to this subject. All participants were promised confidentiality to ensure honest responses.


The survey questions asked if participants think that the selfies they take contribute to potential narcissism, and the extent to which they think that social media encourages such behavior.

Other survey questions include:

  • How often do you post selfies to social networking platforms?
  • Do you determine a person’s social standing and popularity based on how many likes or comments they receive on a photo or status update?

If you do not receive the amount of likes you had hoped on a photo, will you take it off the social networking platform? (For the entire questionnaire, refer to Appendix A.)

One open-ended question -- Do you think that posting selfies to different social networking platforms encourages you to partake in narcissistic and selfish behaviors? – was asked to elicit participants’ personal responses on motives for posting selfies. Each response was coded to determine the most common reasons behind why or why not participants thought that posting selfies to different social networking platforms encouraged their narcissism and selfish behaviors.

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