Fourth Industrial Revolution

What does age reveal about the personalities of social media users?

Christian Jarrett
Cognitive Neuroscientist, British Psychological Society\'s Research Digest Blog.
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This post first appeared on the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest Blog

Media headlines frequently link young people’s widespread use of Facebook with the narcissism of their generation (e.g. “Facebook’s ‘dark side’: study finds link to socially aggressive narcissism). A new investigation involving hundreds of US college students and hundreds of members of the US public has found that it’s actually the older generation for whom this claim is more accurate. However, use of Twitter tells another story.

First to challenge those Facebook headlines. Shaun Davenport and his colleagues found that students (average age 20) who scored higher on narcissism (measured by the Narcissistic Personality Inventory) were no more likely to post Facebook status updates, nor did they tend to have more Facebook friends.

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By contrast, among the general public recruited online (average age 32), higher narcissism was linked with more use of Facebook, in terms of number of updates and number of friends. The researchers speculated that for young people who have grown up with Facebook, it’s common practice to use the social network regardless of one’s personality type. For older generations who did not grow up with Facebook (the age range for the public sample was 18 to 75), Davenport and his team said sending status updates was “not part of their social norms” and may instead be driven by narcissistic motives.

What about Twitter? Analysis showed that for the students, higher narcissism was associated with more active usage of Twitter. Moreover, higher narcissism was associated with students’ motives for using the site. More narcissistic students were likely to say they posted updates to attract followers and to gain admiration on the site. There were associations between student narcissism and vain motives for using Facebook too, but these links were weaker than for Twitter. “This pattern of results suggests that college narcissists prefer Twitter to Facebook and narcissism predicts reasons for usage as well as active usage,” the researchers said. They added that Twitter may have a number of features that particularly appeal to narcissists, including the fact that relationships need not be reciprocal (people can follow you on Twitter, without you having to follow them).

For the general public, higher narcissism was also linked with more active Twitter usage (more so even than Facebook usage). However, for this sample, links between narcissism and vain motives for using Twitter were weaker than for links between narcissism and vain motives for using Facebook.

A strength of this study is the use of two large samples covering different age groups. A weakness is its correlational design, which means we can’t know for sure if one factor (say, narcissism) is really driving a second factor (e.g. more Twitter updates). It’s possible the relationship works in reverse or that some other factor or factors are at play. “We concur with other researchers who have called for a greater use of experimental designs,” said Davenport and his team. “Given the early stages of SNS [social networking site] research, such methods would allow for greater control to isolate variables and allow for tests of causality.”

Shaun W. Davenport, Shawn M. Bergman, Jacqueline Z. Bergman, & Matthew E. Fearrington (2014). Twitter versus Facebook: Exploring the role of narcissism in the motives and usage of different social media platforms. Computers in Human Behavior DOI:10.1016/j.chb.2013.12.011

Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Christian Jarrett, a cognitive neuroscientist turned science writer, is editor and creator of the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest blog. His latest book is Great Myths of the Brain.

Image: People are silhouetted as they pose with mobile devices in front of a screen projected with a Facebook logo, in this picture illustration. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic.

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