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Social Media Is Turning You Into a Sociopath. But It May Not Be Your Fault. Here's Why.

by Jacqueline Kehoe Aug 20, 2015

MY FRIEND IS SAYING SOMETHING TO ME, but I’m not paying any attention to her.

Right now, I’m too busy lining up my latte on the rail of her porch, grabbing her vase of purple flowers, and thinking about what filter to use. I snap the photo, happy to know I have something to post later, but thinking to myself,

“Oh, God. I’ve turned. I’m an asshole. Just like everyone else, I’m a basic white girl asshole.”

I don’t even want to post photos like this. It might get me a few followers, but then I’ll politely follow them back, and they’ll immediately unfollow me the next day. Every time I catch someone doing this, I get a little blast of dopamine in the form of sweet, sweet, unfollow-right-back, it’s-all-I-can-do revenge. But I still feel played.

I definitely don’t want to try to get the approval of people who aren’t genuine enough to make a two-day attempt at not sucking, so why all the effort? What is this world I’m so connected to, so addicted to, and yet I can’t stand? Why can’t I stand it? Am I the only one who’s convinced we’re all turning into douchebags?

The answer? Turns out we are. We are all turning into dicks.

Do me a favor and picture a magical world called the late 2000s. There, social media had good intentions. In this world, we interacted with people we otherwise wouldn’t have known existed, we stayed in touch with old friends, we saw the world through a flipbook of ever-changing pictures, and we got into 140-character tweet fights, feeling like our voices were finally capable of being heard.

But then we started realizing that our friends’ trips to Macau and Paris were making us depressed. The ratio of our dolled-up/this-is-my-gym-t-shirt selfies to those of us crying on the phone to our moms didn’t accurately reflect real life. Taking pictures of our food didn’t make anything more delicious, it just made the dish a few degrees colder.

And unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. While we’ve analyzed and analyzed social media’s effect on us, our Pinterest addictions, our Facebook depression, we’re only now getting to our effect on social media and our effect on other people on social media. In short, the results aren’t pretty: we’re all becoming a bunch of narcissistic assholes putting our narcissistic assholery out into the world and inflicting it on, sometimes, thousands of people. Probably not social media’s intention, nor ours. But the question is: Who’s at fault, where did it start, can it be stopped, and am I one of those assholes?

For the record, no, we’re probably not talking about you. But we could be talking about you. Or your best friend. Who we’re definitely talking about is a significant portion of the people you interact with online, and odds are you already know who they are.

Our effect on social media

Let’s start out with a simple premise: The me-me-me generation is more narcissistic and less empathetic than any generation before. Few people would refute this, but let’s back it up: In a study out of the University of Michigan, it was found that college students today are 40 percent less empathetic than those of 30 years ago, with numbers taking a huge dive after 2000. “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me” and “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective” are statements many students disagree with. Disagree. The statistic is alarming enough, but the details are downright terrifying.

And what goes hand-in-hand with a lack of empathy? Well, besides sociopathy, narcissism. When you lack the ability to be concerned about anyone else and how things affect them, the only person you’re able to care about is yourself — hello, excessive self-love. And what goes with narcissism? Apparently, being active on social media.

A Canadian study at York University found that the people who used Facebook the most tended to have legitimately narcissistic and/or insecure personalities. Similar findings were had in a 2014 study by High Point and Appalachian State University: They found that narcissism dictated activity level, it being the primary driver of social media updates (especially on Twitter). In other words, that friend of yours that posts 15 times a day may actually have some serious issues.

Crazily enough, since a lack of empathy and narcissistic behavior is so prevalent nowadays, many experts are even considering redefining the word. “Narcissism” used to be looked at as a disability, but since so many narcissists are not only existing but thriving — at the expense of everyone else — it’s no longer seen as such. It’s simply a trait — and a very common one at that.

Right now, it’s not looking so good for the social media arena, is it? Hold on, because matters actually get more startling. In a study out of the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Miami, it was found that — at least with Facebook — the more you post, the more emotionally unstable you’re likely to be, too. As if narcissism wasn’t enough. So while technology and the world at large are already breeding sociopaths, social media is quite clearly their addictive playground, skewing the numbers even further. Maybe we all should’ve been warned before we signed up.

Social media’s effect on us

Let’s roll with the theory that this is just a specific group of individuals defaming the name of social media, a classic case of one bad grape ruining the bunch. Even if it is just a portion of who’s on the internet, their presence, this kind of self-promotional, take-no-prisoners activity takes a toll on everyone else. Not only in how we feel about ourselves, but the actions that we take to get rid of that negative self-image that we’re not on a yacht in Palau, or we’re not schmoozing Beyonce, or that our numbers simply aren’t good enough because we’re not good enough…or something.

To handle this apathetic, self-serving, solipsistic battlefield that’s practically been imposed on all of us, we’ve become a culture of “unfollowers” and a culture of “humblebraggers.”

Twitter and Instagram and Facebook — the world, really — rewards us for being selfish. After all, isn’t everyone just waiting to give us a gold star for participating? We ignore phone calls, respond to texts “when we feel like it,” and hit the mute button on whomever we want. But many of us are taking it a step further: A common practice on Twitter and Instagram is to follow a person, wait until they follow you back, and then unfollow them — all in the glory of having that higher follower number, that golden follow-to-follower ratio, and that little jolt of feeling like Regina George.

These people, this cult of unfollowers, are clicking that follow button for a person they hope is naïve and believe is inferior, thinking that they somehow deserve following, but that this other person does not. It often works, rewarding them time and time again. Sure, sometimes the other person finds out they’ve been played, and it can be crushing for them. But who gives a fuck? Not us! Am I right?

Right. We deserve the right to exercise our Machiavellian behavior on others because we’re awesome and all unique snowflakes. Who wouldn’t want to follow us? Exactly. And this attitude doesn’t just shine through in how we press the unfollow button; it’s in practically every post we write. We’re doing this so much that “humblebrag” is now accepted as one word. Even if you’ve never heard this term before, you already know exactly what it is. “Aww man, just ripped my shirt lifting,” or “How do I get this guy to stop texting me how hot I am?” just drip with genuine humblebraggadocio. It’s an epidemic that isn’t the least bit endearing, and humblebraggers are breaching etiquette knowingly so. Why? A simple circle back to the beginning of this article would do.

And while this form of “communicating” is pretty ubiquitous, there are places where it’s, well, more ubiquitous. In a new study by social platform HeyLets that surprised no one, California was the state to be found as the most boastful, the most likely to post “brag-ommendations” and to keep the humblebrag alive. For the record, Utah came in last — or first, depending on how you look at it.

How this affects our real world

If you were thinking that this behavior might solely be limited to our cyber selves, you wouldn’t be right. While the internet is widely believed to be a haven for introverts, social media doesn’t abide by the same laws. Because you’re not hiding behind a veil of anonymity, the person you present on social media is likely to actually reflect the person you are in the real world, at least according to a 2009 study from Diego Portales University in Santiago, Chile. If you’re a chronic humblebragger-tweeter, you’re probably a chronic humblebragger-talker, too.

But it’s not like we need studies to prove that it’s a two-way street: How we are in real life affects who we are on the web, sure, but technology and social media affect how we are in real life as well. Do you know anyone who’s been dumped just by being ignored? Maybe by noticing a relationship change on Facebook? How about someone who was so obsessed with getting the perfect sunset shot that they literally missed the sunset? Most of us prefer texting over calling to the point where we don’t answer phone calls, we attend events thinking about how “Instagrammable” it’s going to be, and instead of considering anyone else’s schedule, we communicate only when we choose to. When we live life behind a screen, for a screen, real interactions sometimes prove awkward (especially if that person unfollowed us). Maybe even a bit painful.

Maybe even scary.

Because beyond awkward and painful, we’re simply losing the ability to connect genuinely. More and more research is pointing to the fact that when you stop having true off-screen interaction, when you lose the ability to be empathetic, you also lose the ability to have genuine reactions to real people, real events, and real things. That sunset feels lost if you don’t bring along your phone. Not unfollowing that person feels like risking your delicate, high-status reputation. And when a good friend needs support, you’d secretly prefer it be over text.

Luckily, it’s not just you; it’s most of us. As for a solution, well, first we technically need a problem — this may just be how humanity communicates given technology at their fingertips. Hell, maybe the unfollowers have it right; after all, they’d be the ones winning steak knife sets and not being yelled at by Alec Baldwin if all of life were Glengarry Glen Ross. Is that all life is? Doing whatever you have to do to make it to the top? Your choice. You can either keep that gold star, that fragile sense of self, that entitlement and those little pings of dopamine, or you can hold onto those shreds of self-respect, feeling like you’re doing the right thing. While the latter certainly sounds more dignified, it may not prove the most lucrative.

Which route will be yours?

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