by Becky Walker
Social networking has taken the world, both the adult and the youth worlds, by storm. Some claim that it is a social evil, creating narcissists by the millions, the repercussions dire and imminent. Others see the opportunity for great social good, creating activists at every turn, beginning a new wave of civic involvement. With Facebook boasting over 400 million active members (Facebook, 2010) and MySpace over 100 million (Kate, 2010), there is no doubt that online social networking is a force. Whether the force of social networking is one of evil, of good, or, perhaps, not open to value judgment at all, remains to be seen but a look at both sides of the issue may shed enough light for you to decide for yourself.
Social networks are the relationships created between people. Online social networking, while similar in nature, is new in format. Online social networking sites, the most popular of which are Facebook and MySpace (though there are a myriad of others), with members from countries around the world, are sites that strive to connect people. They are also sites where, as Eric Hoover writes, “students can watch themselves endlessly,” leading researcher Jean Twenge to the conclusion that this generation, called the Millenials, is “the most narcissistic in recent history” (Hoover, 2007, pA41).
Twenge, defining narcissism as “excessive vanity and a sense of entitlement,” believes that social networking sites have “stoked the self-loving tendencies of modern students” (qtd. in Hoover). Her study of 16,000 co-eds who took the Narcissistic Personality Inventory from 1982 to 2006 finds one in four of this current “wired and coddled generation” (Hoover) are scoring over 21, indicating “more narcissistic traits” where as 20 years ago, only one in seven scored in that range (Jayson, 2009). MySpace founder Tom Anderson, while not seeing narcissism in the same light as Twenge, believes that reality television shows may be partly to blame for its increase. “Everyone wanted to be on that show [The Real World], then everyone wanted to be on reality shows, and then the Internet came along and sort of democratized the ability to reach out to many people” (Fillion, 2007, p18-19).
Hoover writes that Twenge and the other four researchers who worked on the study fear that this increase in narcissism will “harm American society.” They foretell of a future of plastic surgeried, aggressive individuals incapable of feeling empathy for others, who will put their “individual pursuits” ahead of “group or collective action” (Hoover).
This coming scourge, according to Twenge, could also be caused by the self-esteem movement endorsed by teachers and parents alike to help build children’s self confidence (Hoover). The self-esteem movement encourages parents and educators to tell kids that they are special and unique and social networking sites gives them the ability to tell the world how special they are.
Other researchers disagree that the Millenials are especially narcissistic. David P. Haney argues that this generation, just like the baby-boomer generation, is more complicated than Twenge’s conclusions suggest. “In the late 60’s, we all wanted to go into teaching and saving the world. And at the same time wanted to stare at our navels and do our own thing” (qtd in Hoover). He believes that the increase in narcissism is only a perceived increase due to the increased opportunities students have to reveal their narcissism publicly (qtd. in Hoover, 2007, pA41).
Current trends in volunteerism among high students seem to support Haney’s conclusion. While there is no question that teens and young adults spend massive amounts of time on social networking sites, they are doing more than just promoting themselves. John Pryor, of the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, found that volunteerism among high school seniors has increased in recent years with 83% of college freshmen reporting having volunteered during their last year in high school as opposed to 66% in 1989 (Koch, 2008, p. 03a). According to Robert Roads, who teaches history of student activism at the University of California, Los Angeles, activism among college students is at a 10 to 20 year high. “There’s a greater political consciousness among students,” Roads explains. “The internet has played a role in that.” (qtd. in Koch).
Online communities have also spurred things such as Facebook’s “Causes” which, as Peter Frick-Wright reports, raised close to $400,000 for non-profit organizations in its first three months and MySpace’s stepgreen.org application which allows users to “track and reduce their carbon footprint” (Frick-Wright, 2007, p. 36). Jeff Burman, MySpace’s Vice President of Marketing, observes that students are finding new ways to do good through the internet. He finds their creativity to be “off the charts” (qtd. in Koch, 2008). Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at the University of Maryland, declares that “their savvy, abetted by the Internet, has created ‘a new mold’” (qtd. in Koch).
This “new mold” is being applied to the political arena as well. Anita Harris, referring to the large amounts of activism and campaigning for social justice that happens on social networking sites, writes that “MySpace has over 30,000 ‘government and politics’ groups.” She quotes M.E. Kann et al. who suggests that the combining of online social networking with “online politics” could weave “political discourse” into the everyday lives of today’s youth. (Harris, 2008, p.490). Kann et al. consider social networking and other DIY online culture (blogs, ‘zines, etc) avenues to encourage “openness,” a key principle of democratic involvement (qtd. in Harris, 2008, p. 492). It is this openness that helps to introduce new people, new ideas, and new cultures to our youth, bringing democratization to their desktops. (Harris. p. 487).
Volunteerism and activism, while changing form, are increasing. Another such increase is in the environmental movement.
Environmentalism is entering the digital age with sites such as GoLoco and Climate Crossroads. Steven Levy introduces us to GoLoco.org, an organization started by entrepreneur Robin Chase. GoLoco uses the framework of social networking to facilitate ride sharing among users. Much like a Facebook or MySpace profile, users share information and pictures about themselves only instead of posting what movie they watched or what they had on their pizza last night, users post planned car trips. Other users can then request to carpool along, even offering to share in the cost of the trip. (2007, p. 36). Climate Crossroads is the Seirra Club’s take on social networking. They hope to take some of the 3 billion hours (wordwide) spent every day on social networking sites and apply them towards positively affecting climate change. Adam Kapp purports that Climate Crossroads “empowers people to do something good for the planet.” Options for good range from signing petitions against coal plants to learning how to “go solar at home” (Kapp, 2009, p. 77).
Increased volunteerism, political activism, and environmentalism – these are not words that are normally associated with narcissism. In fact, Houston Dougharty, Vice President of Student Affairs at Grinnel College in Grinnel, Iowa, believes “today’s students are altruistic and care about helping others” (Jayson, 2009). However, Twenge suggests that the increase in volunteerism among high students is done for selfish reasons and not for altruism. She argues that students are simply trying to fulfill graduation requirements and impress colleges, which it no doubt does.
But one must ask: How much does motive affect the sustenance gained from a meal at a local soup kitchen? Perhaps the environmental movement is spurred by a sense of entitlement – an entitlement to breathe clean air and to live life without feeling guilt for damage done to the planet. Perhaps the self-esteem movement gives kids and young adults an inflated vision of their importance to the world at large. Perhaps this inflated view of self leads youth to believe that they can change the world, giving them the confidence to try. Further study is no doubt necessary before one can say with assurance that social networking sites cause narcissism but I think it is fair to say that a little narcissism could do the world some good if properly channeled into making the world a better place for all people – narcissists included.
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