Monday, April 2, 2012

Facebook--Neuroscience and Behavioral Science

A recent post on the Committed Sardine Blog had the headline “Facebook's 'Dark Side': Study Finds Link to Socially Aggressive Narcissism.” The sub-title read, “Psychology paper finds Facebook and other social media offer platform for obsessions with self-image and shallow friendships” (”. Among the key findings:
·         Researchers have established a direct link between the number of friends you have on Facebook and the degree to which you are a "socially disruptive" narcissist;
·         People who score highly on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory questionnaire had more friends on Facebook, tagged themselves more often and updated their newsfeeds more regularly.
·         narcissists responded more aggressively to derogatory comments made about them on the social networking site's public walls and changed their profile pictures more often
A number of previous studies have linked narcissism with Facebook use, but this is some of the first evidence of a direct relationship between Facebook friends and the most "toxic" elements of narcissistic personality disorder.
I’m not really the right person to comment on Facebook. I’ve been on it once, and that was to help my wife figure out how to cancel her account. Yet I suspect that many of you are seeing these findings and, like me, feel not the least bit surprised.
It’s not as if self-centered exhibitionism is anything new. Not that long ago in the past, however, it was reserved, in one example, for the drunken fan who decides to run onto the field during a ballgame. I assume regret came with sobriety. Now, the hope is 10,000 fans video the event and it goes viral before the end of the game. Most of our popular tools and social media encourage such self-centeredness. We use i-devices (albeit with a lower case i) to regularly update our status. Success is measured in terms of “friends” and “followers,” however loosely we use the term. And how many of the bits floating through cyberspace are worth someone’s two cents. Think about this currently popular picture that “explains” social media:

While not focused strictly on Facebook, Nicholas Carr considered these implications in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. Carr begins by allowing that there are enthusiasts and skeptics regarding the Internet. He writes: “What both enthusiast and skeptic miss is what McLuhan saw: that in the long run a medium’s content matters less than the medium itself in influencing how we think and act” (Kindle edition, Loc 123). In a wonderful analogy, Carr reflects upon how his own way of processing information has changed: “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski” (Loc 182).
The analogy calls to mind the mythological origins of the term used for the psychological disorder we call Narcissism. Despite being wooed by the beautiful Echo, Narcissus is incapable of turning away from his own reflection in the waters of a small pond. Eventually he changes into a flower. While we can feel pity for him, the real sadness comes from the way his behavior leads to Echo wasting away to nothing but a hollow sound.
Meanwhile, while the Facebook findings do not surprise and are explored in some detail, it was another line in the article that hit me: “The research comes amid increasing evidence that young people are becoming increasingly narcissistic, and obsessed with self-image and shallow friendships.”

                So as an educator, certainly I’m concerned about the implications of all this technology. Of course, like Carr, I’m worried about the adverse effects it may be having on our brains, particularly those of young people who are in key formative periods. But I want to fire another warning shot. We had better also think very hard about questions of character.

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