Elgan: Does mobile tech breed narcissism?

But enough about cultural trends. Let's talk about ME!

Technology is dangerous -- at least according to a gazillion alarmist headlines published over the past 20 years.

Yesterday's fears about carpal tunnel syndrome and cancer-causing cell phones give way to today's concerns over Internet addiction, texting that causes car accidents and laptop-induced infertility.

While everyone's on the lookout for risks, such as a Wii controller to the face, or walking into an open sewer while texting, something subtler and more pervasive may be happening. Mobile technology may be transforming us all into raving narcissists.

What is narcissism, anyway?

Narcissism, or narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), is a real mental health problem. Sufferers feel a constant need for admiration, and have trouble empathizing, relating to or caring about other people. People with NPD feel very self-important, that they are special and that their specialness can only be perceived by peers. Although they feel superior to others, they tend to be incredibly sensitive to criticism. According to the Mayo Clinic web site, NPD may be caused by a long list of factors.

In general, however, everyone goes through narcissistic phases in both childhood and teen years. Normally, we snap out of it when reality smacks us in the face at some point. People learn (often the hard way) to interact with and have consideration for other people. We learn that we can't get whatever we want whenever we want it. We develop thicker skin about criticism, and sometimes respond to it by striving to do better.

But now it appears that mobile technology, such as cell phones, social networks and mobile software, may be interfering with the natural process of growing up -- of learning to evolve beyond adolescent narcissism. It may enable us to live in a self-centered social environment devoid of both non-peers and personal criticism.

Cell phones enable teens, for example, to constantly maintain contacts with peers, and block out interactions with non-peers, such as younger kids and older adults. This process may alienate teens even further from people and hamper the process of developing healthy empathy and a feeling of membership in the larger community. Right at the moment in human development when we are supposed to grow up and face reality, mobile gadgets may shield us from it.

Social networks, for example, are actually pretty anti-social. Their main benefit is to control and limit interactions. Thousands of different kinds of Web sites, from YouTube to the news site you're reading now, allow anyone to post any sort of comment and "socialize" with other people. But only social networks enable us to create a me-centered private club.

If new technology really does promote narcissism, then younger people would be more narcissistic than older people, because they had mobile technology during their formative years, and have been shaped more by it.

You might say that young people have always been more narcissistic than older adults, but a study published a couple years ago found that college students get more narcissistic every year, and have been doing so since at least 1982. What's fueling this trend?

Too narcissistic for Twitter

One surprising trend is that young people generally don't like Twitter, but love Facebook. Why is that? Various pundits have guessed that Twitter apathy among the young is caused by the service's limited number of features, not enough people reading their profiles and lack of safety.

But I think the main reason is that younger people tend to be too narcissistic for Twitter. Wait, too narcissistic for Twitter? How can that be?

Twitter seems to be a narcissist's dream. The conventional view is that Twitter is filled with self-important people broadcasting trivial personal events as if they were of general interest.

But narcissism isn't the same as megalomania (delusions of grandeur) or egoism (total self-interest). The narcissist lacks empathy for others and is overly sensitive to criticism. Twitter is actually a narcissist's nightmare because strangers -- the "general public," potentially -- can read posts and even comment on them in public. To narcissists, non-peer groups are of no consequence and exist only as some irrelevant abstraction. So broadcasting tweets is not interesting, and being criticized in public is terrifying.

Facebook, on the other hand, is a narcissist's dream. One can admit only one's own peer group, and talk endlessly about and post photos of the one subject that matters: Me! Best of all, nearly all comments on Facebook are supportive, and if not, people can be un-friended.

The cell phone wars

It's not just about teens, though. All of us who use mobile gadgets may be at risk. You're at Starbucks, and some loudmouth is standing in line blathering endlessly into a cell phone about a conversation he had with his doctor, oblivious to the annoyed customers around him. This scenario, repeated daily everywhere, is narcissism made real. The scene combines self-absorption with disregard for others. Before cell phones, everyone was forced to interact with and have some consideration for the people in the room. But the cell phone has become an enabler of narcissism in the same way that mini-bars are enablers for traveling alcoholics.

(And while we're all annoyed by cell phone chatterboxes, nobody is annoyed more than narcissists, who can't stand to hear conversations not about themselves.)

The cell phone wars express themselves in many ways. Theater, restaurant and mall owners want cell phone jammers, as do school principals. The public generally opposes the upgrading of airplanes and the rules that govern them to allow cell phone calls in flight. States nationwide are banning cell phone conversations and texting while driving.

The source of all this conflict and strife can all be traced to a little machine we all carry in our pockets that encourages us to tune out those around us and tune in to our own little worlds. Cell phones are narcissism machines.

The decline of newspapers

Everybody laments the decline of newspapers, especially among the young. All kinds of reasons are assigned to this lamentable trend, including busy lives, online content and environmental consciousness.

But news stories are almost always about other people -- you know, the kind of people narcissists don't care about. Overall, people are reading a lot more. But they're reading content that's "relevant" -- i.e. about me or that news can benefit me in some way. When there's something going on about me and my peer group, who cares about Somalia?

Could the decline in newspaper subscriptions be caused in part by the fact that we're becoming too narcissistic for news?

I want something NOW! (There's an app for that)

The biggest trend in mobile technology right now is the rise of the cell phone app, thanks mainly to the compelling selection of often free software applications on the iTunes App Store.

Apple's TV ad suggests that no matter what you want to do, "there's an app for that." Thanks to the introduction of great third-party apps, and the convenient App store, the iPhone has become a powerful psychological engine of instant gratification. Of course, other cell phones are following suit with their own stores, development kits and other initiatives to spread the phenomenon universally.

The result of always-available app stores, however, is an acceleration of the instant-gratification trend that has been building for decades.

Where are we going?

Mobile technology is global and nearly universal, and quite possibly so is the narcissism that results from it.

In China, both the biggest country in the world and the biggest cell phone market, this trend is exacerbated by the "One Child Policy" established in 1979 and continuing to this day. Because all attention in families is now showered upon a single child, narcissism has skyrocketed in that country -- a phenomenon known as "Little Emperor Syndrome."

Mobile technology, and the narcissism-inducing features that make it so compelling, are on the rise. How will this affect divorce rates, child neglect, military volunteerism, charity work and philanthropy?

What will the world be like when almost everyone is a narcissist? And what is the solution?

I don't know. But I do suspect mobile tech-induced narcissism is more of a threat than all the Wii injuries, texting mishaps and repetitive stress injuries combined.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. He blogs about the technology needs, desires and successes of mobile warriors in his Computerworld blog, The World Is My Office. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com, follow him on Twitter or his blog, The Raw Feed.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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