Social Media Relationship Status: It’s Complicated

Personality and habits can influence whether social media is good or bad for an individual Karen E. Dill-Shackleford

Being a media psychologist, something I notice is the tendency to jump to conclusions about social media use. Some see social media use as a mostly positive endeavor—a boon to one’s social life and a pleasant way to spend free time. Others see it as much more negative—proof that relationships as we know them are disappearing along with our social skills.

A more accurate view of the role of social media in our lives is a bit more complex. If someone asks you whether social media will bring us to tears or to glory, tell them it depends on your personality and how you use social media.

The Selfie Paradox

Take, for example, a phenomenon known as the selfie paradox,1 or the research finding that sharing self-portraits on social media is a common habit that offers both opportunity and risk. The paradox about selfies is that, although they are so common, people malign them more often than they praise them. There is a tendency to want to present yourself in the best possible light, but also not to seem narcissistic. When surveyed,2 research participants said they believed the negative characteristics associated with selfies more than the positive ones. Negative characteristics include creating a false sense of everyday life by posting only the most positive images of yourself, while positive aspects include the quest for relatedness.

In light of the contradictions of selfies in pop culture, my colleagues and I3 designed a study to shed some light on the specific patterns of behavior associated with sharing various types of selfies on social media. We studied young women because they are a group who post a lot of selfies and are vulnerable to objectification and its consequences, which include physical and psychological issues.

In our research, we asked these young women to report on their selfie habits and the feelings they experience while viewing their own and others’ selfies. We also measured three different types of personality factors we thought were relevant: narcissism, self-efficacy and a specific type of self-worth that is related to one’s looks.

Different Personalities and Selfie Posts

Narcissism or Healthy Self-esteem?
Let’s back up a bit and talk about what each of these personality types indicate. We were not measuring clinical narcissism, but rather nonclinical narcissism. Clinical narcissism is a serious psychological disorder. People who score higher on nonclinical narcissism might be called more self-focused or entitled rather than grandiose. Joe Pierre notes it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between healthy self-esteem and real narcissism, but the former is adaptive and the latter is dysfunctional.4

Self-efficacy: Yes, You Can
We also measured self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is a sense of personal agency. In other words, someone who is high in self-efficacy believes they have a reasonable amount of control over the problems they confront in everyday life. If a problem arises, this person believes they are able to do something to make a difference in the situation.

Your Looks Are Your Greatest Asset (Literally)
Finally, because we were interested in self-images of young women, we wondered how much they thought their self-worth was based on their looks. This is a problem that can hamper the health of this population. Some people believe they are only worthwhile if they are considered good looking by their peers. Some people realize their value lies in other things besides just what’s on the outside. Even for good-looking people (or people who think they are good looking), the problem is that, like your mama told you, looks don’t necessarily last. Therefore, you’re building your house on the sand.

iconIn our study, 88 percent of participants took selfies on a daily basis.

Psychologists Love Surveys

We measured each of these three personality factors via surveys. For example, for self-efficacy we asked participants to rate how much they agreed with statements such as: “I can always manage to solve difficult problems if I try hard enough.”5 To measure nonclinical narcissism, participants rated how much they agreed with statements like, “I love showing all the things I can do.”6 Finally, we measured how women’s looks factored into their sense of self-worth with items like, “My sense of self-worth suffers whenever I think I don’t look good.”7

Different Predictions for Different Types of Selfie Styles

Our participants were roughly 200 women between 18 and 24 years of age. Almost all (88 percent) took selfies on a daily basis and, on average, posted 3.3 selfies per day, with 73 percent posting the photos on Facebook. The most common type of selfies were photos taken at special events (33 percent) followed by beauty shots that concentrate on hair, makeup or outfit that show you looking your best (31 percent) and photos in which you are hanging out with friends (29 percent).

Because of our interest in how posting various types of selfies might be related to different feelings and personalities, we categorized the types of selfies young women posted as either focused on their looks or not. We called these two categories appearance-focused (for example, beauty or sexy selfies) and non-appearance-focused (for example, event or friend-related selfies). We also categorized the feelings the young women reported having while looking at selfies as either gratifying or insecure.

Our results paint an interesting picture of the relationships among young women’s personalities, their thoughts and feelings about selfies, and their social media habits.

Personalities Predict the Types of Selfies Posted (and Vice Versa)

We learned that young women who were in the habit of posting selfies that weren’t focused on appearance had higher self-efficacy than those who habitually focused on appearance. Think about this finding for a moment in terms of casting selfies as a negative or positive habit, because these findings tell a more complex story. All selfies are not the same. We may think of the stereotypical selfie posted by young women as scantily clad, or with a “duck face” or pouty pose. That’s part of the picture. But other young women are telling us where they went and with whom they are spending their time.

What kind of selfies you post predicts your self-efficacy. In other words, those who objectify themselves have lower self-efficacy than those who don’t. If you have a daughter in her teens or early twenties, this information might help you as a parent. It tells you that if your daughter is in the habit of posting sexy selfies, she’s less likely to believe in her ability to solve problems and change the world around her.

Winning the Looks Battle With a Double-edged Sword

These findings make a lot of sense. There are objects and agents in the world—those who can do and those who can’t. If you make yourself an object, you may be robbing yourself of agency. This takes me to another personality type we measured: the idea that your self-worth is based on your looks. We found a fascinating paradox here. The tendency to think that self-worth is based on looks predicted both feeling gratified and feeling insecure when looking at selfies. In other words, if you think your value lies in your looks, you may feel either of these because you think your looks matter. On the other hand, if you don’t feel your looks are what matters, you may feel neither gratified nor insecure while looking at selfies.

iconThe most common types of selfies in our study were photos taken at special events (33 percent) followed by beauty shots (31 percent) and photos showing spending time with friends (29 percent).

Those who were more narcissistic posted more appearance-focused selfies, while those who were less narcissistic did not. Narcissists spent more time looking at selfies and felt more gratified when they did. Posting selfies that weren’t about appearance was not predictive of narcissism. What does this mean? If you’re in the habit of posting images of yourself that are supposed to be about your physical attractiveness, you’re probably more narcissistic. If you’re in the habit of posting pictures of yourself showing what you’re doing or the fact you’re with friends, then this doesn’t predict narcissism.

The Selfie Story is Not Black and White

All of this is to say that there’s more than one type of selfie to post, and there’s more than one type of person who posts selfies. So, how could there be a black or white conclusion that selfies are good or bad?

It’s sort of like asking yourself whether TV shows are bad or good—or if even if books are bad are good. You’d want to know what kind of TV show you are talking about and what the viewer is like before you made any generalizations.

Ours is far from the only research to offer the perspective that when it comes to social media, you can’t make a generalization that the entire enterprise is bad or good, especially without referring to social media habits and people’s personalities. For example, several research studies have been published about social media use and depression and anxiety.

Social Media Use and Depression/Anxiety

A major review8 of the research on depression, anxiety and social media use shows the impact of social media on psychological health is likely complex. Some of the studies reviewed indicated social media use predicted depression and anxiety, while others showed the opposite.

The Actuarial Connection

Self-efficacy is a key personality trait that drives the success of products like John Hancock’s Vitality product, which is linked to Fitbit physical activity tracking devices. If you have high self-efficacy, you will respond very well to the gamification and reward components of this product, because people with high self-efficacy respond well to challenges to improve their lives.

Furthermore, whether your social media use ends up being more of a risk or an opportunity may be related to how you use social media. For instance, there’s some evidence that interacting (for example, clicking the “like” button or leaving a comment) is predictive of more positive outcomes than so-called “lurking” behavior, including monitoring your ex’s social media posts without announcing your presence.

Depression predicted negative social media interactions as well as social media overuse and social media addiction. On the other hand, those who scored low on depression scales had more friends, more positive social media interactions and were more likely to think they compared well with their social media “friends.” Negative thinking patterns predicted negative social media posts.

Social Media and Common Sense

If much of this seems like common sense to you, there’s probably some truth in that. But one problem is that conflicting findings might both seem like common sense. If your co-worker tells you social media use is bad for you, you might think he has a point. However, if your neighbor comments on how great it is to keep up with his grandchildren on social media, you probably think that makes sense as well. The research backs up both of them—there’s not just one way to look at social media. The rosy glow and the gloom and doom—neither tells the whole story. If your sister says she’s worried about her daughter’s social media use, some key questions would be to ask what her daughter is like and what kinds of things she does on social media.

Status: It’s Complicated

It may seem like a small thing, but having conversations that go beyond “it’s all good” and “it’s all bad” would represent progress in our everyday understanding of the impact of social media on our health. As a media psychologist, one thing that would make me very happy would be if in every conversation about media, people remembered that the news is not all good—but it’s not all bad either.

Karen E. Dill-Shackleford is a social psychologist who studies our relationship with fictional characters from film, television and books, and how we find meaning in the world of popular culture fiction.

Copyright © 2019 by the Society of Actuaries, Chicago, Illinois.