Arnold Ahlert / March 5, 2018

Tech Addiction Breeds Narcissism

Millions of Americans are now more concerned with their “online presence” than their real world one.

We are becoming a nation of narcissists — one technological addiction after another.

Unsurprisingly, parents have become the chief enablers of this trend. A whopping 85% of them allow their children under six years of age to access and use technology, and the amount of time American children eight years of age and younger spend in front of mobile screens tripled between 2013 and 2017.

And like a hand in a glove, much of what these children access with that technology is social media. Social media that “has taken neoliberalism’s self-centered mantra and pumped it full of cocaine-laced steroids,” asserts columnist Aleks Eror, who adds that it has also “bloated humanity’s capacity for self-obsession to new extremes.”

It has also driven hypocrisy to new extremes. Many tech titans who enriched themselves getting other peoples’ children to embrace their hardware and software took a decidedly low-tech approach with their own children. Microsoft’s Bill Gates even prohibited his three children from owning a cell phone until they were 14.

What do they know that most parents seemingly don’t? Last November, Sean Parker, Facebook’s founding president, illuminated the highly disturbing reality. “The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them … was all about: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’” he stated. “And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content, and that’s going to get you … more likes and comments. It’s a social-validation feedback loop … exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”

Psychologist Adam Alter, who authored a book on technology addiction entitled Irresistible, reveals the origins of that feedback loop, citing a 1971 experiment conducted by psychologist Michael Zeiler using hungry pigeons. Zeiler discovered that when the birds were haphazardly rewarded for good behavior rather than consistently rewarded for it, the pigeons would work twice as hard to get that positive feedback. “Decades after Zeiler published his results,” Alter notes, “a team of Facebook web developers prepared to unleash a similar feedback experiment on hundreds of millions of humans.”

How? By creating their like button. “It’s hard to exaggerate how much the like button changed the psychology of Facebook use,” Alter explains. “What had begun as a passive way to track your friends’ lives was now deeply interactive, and with exactly the sort of unpredictable feedback that motivated Zeiler’s pigeons.” And just like pigeons “we’re more driven to seek feedback when it isn’t guaranteed,” he adds.

And just like Facebook, like buttons, or their equivalent, have become a ubiquitous part of the social media fabric.

With all the addictive qualities intended. As “design ethicist” Tristan Harris warns, personal willpower is competing with “a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job it is to break down the self-regulation you have.” People who know that technology — replete with almost limitless mobility — is virtually impossible to avoid.

San Diego State University professor Jean Twenge was studying self-esteem when she partnered with Keith Campbell, who studies narcissism. They sought to discover if younger generations of Americans were more narcissistic than older ones. Analyzing data from 15,000 American college students, they discovered that people born in the 2000s were significantly more narcissistic than those born in the ‘80s and '90s.

Twenge acknowledges that 18- and 19-year-olds tend to be narcissistic per se. Nevertheless, she insists the increase is inarguable, and cites the over-emphasis on a child’s self-esteem as part of the mix. “There’s a perception that we have, especially in western culture, that self-esteem is very important, that it is the key to success, but it turns out it’s not,” she states.

No doubt that will come as a surprise to legions of “helicopter parents” and their oh-so special “everyone gets a trophy” offspring, but Twenge has some sage advice for such people. “People often ask me, 'If I’m not supposed to say to my kid that you’re special, then what should I say?’ And my answer is, ‘Say I love you,’” she states. What about narcissism? “I think the first thing that we have to do as a culture is realize that narcissism is not beneficial for success, in the workplace or in relationships,” she adds.

We also have to realize technology’s deleterious effect on children. According to a survey from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the number of adolescents who have experienced at least one major depressive episode since 2010 has risen by 60%. A study published in 2017 by the Association for Psychological Science reveals that “adolescents using electronic devices 3 or more hours a day were 34 percent more likely to have at least one suicide-related outcome than those using devices 2 or fewer hours a day, and adolescents using social media sites every day were 13 percent more likely to report high levels of depressive symptoms than those using social media less often.”

And while it is possible that correlation is not causation, the number of people using social media suggests otherwise. In 2017 more than eight in 10 Americans had a social media profile, compared to only 24% as recently as 2008. Moreover, as of January 2018, the four largest social networking sites — Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger — had a combined 6.2 billion active users worldwide.

Users who are still pushing the narcissist envelope. In 2014, the term “selfitis” — as in the compulsion to constantly take photos and post them on social media — became part of the psychological community’s lexicon.

How obsessive is this particular expression of narcissism? Since 2011, more than 175 people have been severely injured or killed, in the effort to “boost their confidence, seek attention, improve their mood, make memories, conform with their social group and be socially competitive,” as British tabloid The Sun puts it.

Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook’s former vice-president for user growth, sounds the alarm going forward. “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works,” she warns. “No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. This is not about Russian ads. This is a global problem. It is eroding the core foundations of how people behave by and between each other.”

In short, millions of Americans are now more concerned with their “online presence” than their real world one, firmly convinced much of their self-worth is determined by the number of “likes” they receive from other Americans.

Americans just as narcissistic and socially dysfunctional as they are.

This nation has survived dark periods in its history, but it remains to be seen whether we will free ourselves from the bonds of rampant narcissism, or continue devolving into a society of “pigeons” looking for their next high. As of now one thing is certain: The kids are not alright.

And neither are a lot of adults who should know better.

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