Social-networking sites offer users easy ways to present idealized images of themselves, even if those ideals don't always square with their real-world personalities. Psychology researcher Soraya Mehdizadeh has discovered a way to poke through the offline-online curtain: she has used Facebook to predict a person's level of narcissism and self-esteem.
Mehdizadeh, who conducted the study as an undergraduate at Toronto's York University, gained access to the Facebook accounts of 100 college students and measured activities like photo sharing, wall postings and status updates; she also studied how frequently users logged on and how often they remained online during each session. Her findings were published recently in Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking.
After measuring each subject using the Narcissism Personality Inventory and Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale, Mehdizadeh discovered narcissists and people with lower self-esteem were more likely to spend more than an hour a day on Facebook and were more prone to post self-promotional photos (striking a pose or using Photoshop, for example). Narcissists were also more likely to showcase themselves through status updates (using phrases like "I'm so glamorous I bleed glitter") and wall activity (posting self-serving links like "My Celebrity Look-alikes").
Self-esteem and narcissism are often interrelated but don't always go hand in hand. Some psychologists believe that narcissists—those who have a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, a need for admiration, as well as a lack of empathy—unconsciously inflate their sense of self-importance as a defense against feeling inadequate. Not enough empirical research has been produced to confirm that link, although Mehdizadeh's study seems to support it. Because narcissists have less capacity to sustain intimate or long-term relationships, Mehdizadeh thinks that they would be more drawn to the online world of virtual friends and emotionally detached communication.
Although it seems that Facebook can be used by narcissists to fuel their inflated egos, Mehdizadeh stops short of proclaiming that excessive time spent on Facebook can turn regular users into narcissists. She also notes that social-networking sites might ultimately be found to have positive effects when used by people with low self-esteem or depression.
"If individuals with lower self-esteem are more prone to using Facebook," she says, "the question becomes, 'Can Facebook help raise self-esteem by allowing patients to talk to each other and help each other in a socially interactive environment?' I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing that people with low self-esteem use Facebook."