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Study links Facebook to narcissism

By Megan Gross
On April 28, 2011

Social media has come a long way since it first caught the attention of Internet users. From the introduction of MySpace in 2003 to the explosion of Facebook shortly after in 2004, sites such as LinkedIn, Twitter and other profile builders have become common to many college students.

Pitt Derryberry, associate professor of educational psychology and human development at Western Kentucky University, and Meghan Saculla, a Flagler College adjunct professor, teamed up to research how social media has changed the behaviors of college students over the years.

Derryberry and Saculla concluded from their research that technology is the reason empathy in college students has decreased as student narcissism increased.

"It's not as much about the usage as about the attitudes," Saculla said.

Earlier this month, their research was presented at the 2011 American Educational Research Association conference. The project's goal was to find a relationship between narcissism the individual's use of technology.

To begin the study, the researchers first observed a total of 279 students using technology and social media. Students were observed to express self-absorbed behavior by posting large numbers of pictures and continually updating their status about themselves.

In the study, men were found to do this more, even though they are assumed to use technology less often than females.

Both researchers reminded their readers the results of the study deal only with the specific usage of social media. This study was not done to research the cause and effect of technology usage overall.

Paul Many, professor of communication at UT, said the topic of social media's affect on the public is very complex.

"It's going to take another 10 years as least for all of this to shake out," he said. "It's often hard to tell from the individual's studies what the current ‘truth' involves."

Research was done based on studies in 1958 by Lawrence Kohlberg, a Jewish American psychology professor from the University of Chicago.

"Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development" is a psychological theory stating that a person's moral reasoning has six developmental stages. Kohlberg found every stage depended on how the individuals justified their actions in moral dilemmas.

The increase in narcissistic behavior began even before the expansion of technology, according to research by Derryberry and Saculla. As a result of this observation, the two researchers brought forth another hypothesis: narcissistic behavior changed how technology was used over time.

Dawn Braithwaite, chairwoman of communication studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, supported the idea of this research.

"I suspect that people choose their communication media in ways that best meet needs," Braithwaite said.

According to Braithwaite, communication in this era has become "goal-directed."

She said the manner in which media is being used and the ease of achieving user goals through social networking are the primary influences on student behavior, not necessarily the specific site students are using.

Jenna Stephenson-Abetz, a communication studies graduate student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said college students seem to obsess with projecting a likeable image on their social media profile.

"The findings wouldn't surprise me," she said, "given the thought and time that goes into maintaining the profile."

Abetz said technology provides a decrease in personal interaction and eliminates what she calls "surface conversation" or small talk about life.

According to University of Michigan researcher, Sara Konrath, this change has been going on for almost 30 years. Based on the research, psychologists have confirmed that college students seem to care less for others than they did in previous years.

There are positive aspects to social media as well.

"I think it does expand your neighborhood," Braithwaite said when discussing networking via the Web.

The fact that empathy has decreased gives researchers the proof that it can change over time, compared to what was previously thought. It also gives them the hope that it can increase again.

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