Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Narcissism and modern living: is technology destroying empathy?

A few articles recently have tackled the issue of what effect technology can have on our relations with others and the world around us. One of them, here, looks at the steps that can be taken to lessen our seemingly ever-growing reliance on tech to make us happy and make out life easier in general.

Parents have been accused of over relying on tech like tablets to pacify and keep their young children entertained. There has been research into the effects that this over-reliance can have on young children themselves, trying to analyse if this constitutes an "addiction" that young children (or the younger generation in general) are engendering towards tech. Research findings are mostly either inconclusive or the effect is too marginal to be recorded as being significant in itself.

In general, though, there has been a noticed rise in self-reported narcissism when comparing one generation to the next. What makes this eyebrow-raising is the fact that narcissists themselves enjoy self-reporting their own narcissism; in other words, a clear indicator of potential narcissism is that you consider yourself to be a narcissist - indeed, you may well be "proud" of the label as a form of identifying self-aggrandizement.
Self-aggrandizement and narcissism (and an utter lack of empathy) are features commonly found in psychopathy. Like narcissists, psychopaths (when identified) may well also see the "label" of psychopath almost as a badge of honor. There are many overlaps between the two disorders (as well as some important differences).

The reported rise in narcissism over the last thirty years may have some intriguing (and also worrying) social characteristics that relate to how society is affected by its economic structure. But apart from that, what other evidence is there pointing towards technology's effect of eroding human empathy?

Like how economic structures can affect empathy and narcissism, technology can have the same effect.
A common theme that is found with a lack of empathy (such as in narcissism and psychopathy) is a sense of "detachment". In general, people with a healthy degree of empathy are socially-aware of others' concerns and react accordingly; likewise, they also communicate in naturalistic way, giving thought to what the other person is saying.
Those with a "detachment" from others do not, or cannot, do this. How does modern technology make this more likely?

The internet is a technology less than thirty years old, but in that time has completely changed the way many of us conduct our lives. In both positive and negative ways, the internet acts as a mirror on human nature; but in some darker respects, it can act as a magnifying glass as well. In acting as an almost limitless space of possibilities, limited only by human capability and imagination, the internet can be both our greatest blessing and potentially our worst enemy.

One of the clearest examples of its negative side is the proliferation of pornography at our disposal due to the expansion of the internet. By its nature, pornography is the portrayal of sexual fantasy; the problem occurs when the fantasy on the internet becomes blurred with the same kind of expectation in reality. What effect does this have on the human mind? Research and anecdotal evidence points to anti-social consequences: an unhealthy exposure to pornography, especially at a young age, can result in misogynistic attitudes and behavior, and the objectification and exploitation of women. This then can also become culturally ingrained due to nature of social media, where the de-personalisation of women can become a game of one upmanship in peer groups.

The whole gamut of social media and its effect on empathy is probably beyond analysis by this writer, but the tendency for social media applications to become superficial vehicles for narcissistic self-aggrandizement has been well-documented elsewhere.
Tied to that is the distancing effect that social media has in general, and a feedback loop that makes the viewer more and more insecure, as it appears that everyone else is always having more fun than they are. This is where the link between insecurity, narcissism and depression/ mood swings is clear.
In a different way, others have also criticized social media as a vehicle of psychological self-reinforcement: that social media technology is used by people in need of "safe spaces" and "echo chambers". This is a form of narcissism where the viewer wishes not to be challenged, and will cite their "human rights" as an excuse.
The same point has been leveled against universities, and one wonders if the younger generation, accustomed to the "echo chamber" of social media, are simply seeking to extend the same construct of "safe spaces" from the internet into reality in academia. If so, it is a worrying precedent. This is also another form of distancing, when the individual seeks to disconnect themselves from those who would dare to challenge their point of view. Such behavior can only lead to a polarisation between groups, where dialogue with the opposing ideology is seen as tantamount to treachery; likewise, distancing from others also encourages an amplification within this closed "echo chamber", and can explain how this form of narcissism leads to ideological extremism. Looking at things from a different angle, it's also worth considering why many of the extremists in the news also tend to be narcissists with misogynistic tendencies.

The "distancing" element of modern technology such as the internet allows for another dark side of human nature to rear its ugly head: "trolling". The impersonal nature of the internet allows the ability to create "false realities": at a more mundane level, this is simply the "public window" that social media users show to the outside world: the version of themselves that they would like other to know them by.
However, "false realities" also allow for false or hidden profiles, which allows the user an amoral sense of omnipotence. They can verbally and psychologically attack others without fear of reprisal, if they know how to hide their tracks. Again, this application of technology reinforces anti-social narcissistic behavior, giving a vehicle for this dark side of human nature. It is also worth noting the potential link between the misogyny mentioned earlier with the kind of misogynistic trolling that can be seen on the internet on a daily basis.

As mentioned earlier, the internet is a mirror for human nature. It allows people to seek out and discover in a way never possible before; it also allows people to connect with others as never before. However, as we have seen, this also allows for people with malignant ideas to easily contact others of like mind. It is no coincidence that the "dark web" is used as a space for all manner of nefarious deeds.

These are just a handful of the issues that tie together narcissism with the use of technology. The article has mainly focused on the internet, but modern technology has also been blamed for bad parenting (mentioned at the start), children lacking in fully-functional social skills, and worse. As said earlier, the research is as yet inconclusive on such as wide-ranging issue. We will probably only have a better perspective on this when the next generation after comes along.

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