The new narcissism: why am I addicted to my own Facebook profile?

I’d like to admit something, and ask politely that none of you judge me. We are all friends here, in the cozy and confidential circle of trust that is the internet, aren’t we?

Right then, here goes. My name is Lauren, and I Facebook-stalk myself. I am ashamed of the amount of time I spend looking at my own profile.

Not just Facebook either – Twitter too, and Instagram, and an occasional session on LinkedIn when the bossy emails get too much. I don’t always do it consciously, you understand – often I just look down at my phone and realise I’ve been mindlessly scrolling through my own life for the past seven minutes when I should have been doing something productive, like crossing the road or putting my leg in the other leg hole of my pants. And it’s not that I think my own life is especially attractive, or in fact attractive at all, even as the person who’s living it.

No, it’s more like digital caretaking. A form of damage limitation I must perform, eternally checking and assessing what kind of impression I’m giving to the world in case it’s accidentally gone a bit wrong. Am I achieving the right ratio of food photos to sunny views to photos that I’m actually in? Have I been sharing too many links to listicles and not enough to thoughtful columns on the economy? How many times have I tweeted about sweat this week? Are people beginning to think I have a gland problem?

Each time a new person adds me on Facebook, I find myself having a cursory glance through my profile to see what THEY are seeing (‘please don’t find my life lacking, person I did ballet with when I was seven!’), and if anyone vaguely important ever follows me on Twitter it’s like the virtual equivalent of giving the house a frantic clean before your posh auntie comes round.

Of course, I’m only admitting this in public because I think you probably do it too. Do you? DO YOU?

And if you do, if we’re all quietly stalking our online selves on a shamefully frequent basis, is this a whole new type of narcissism for us to freak out over? There have been plenty of column inches devoted to the amount of time we spend taking photos of our own faces recently – but what about the amount of time we spend looking at them afterwards?

Surprisingly, there’s evidence that it might be less sinister than it sounds. A study by Cornell University in 2011 showed that, unlike trawling through the smug weddings-and-babies-and-mortgages soup of the average news feed, looking at your own Facebook profile actually boosts your self esteem.

‘Unlike a mirror, which reminds us of who we really are and may have a negative effect on self-esteem if that image does not match with our ideal, Facebook can show a positive version of ourselves,’ said Professor Jeffrey Hancock, who co-authored the report. ‘We’re not saying that it’s a deceptive version of self, but it’s a positive one.’

So in these modern times, when anyone can broadcast themselves like a celebrity, it makes sense that social media is our equivalent to Michael Aspel’s big red book. It’s the edited highlights; the glamorous stuff and the fun stuff and the funny stuff without a load of everyday blah in between. What a nice life I have!’ we say, looking at the evidence, and then all the everyday blah seems a bit more bearable.

Provided Jeffrey is right and we’re not duping the world with a self-image that’s less filtered and more, well, fraudulent, a spot of fond navel-gazing might actually be a healthy thing.

There’s more evidence too – last year, researchers at the University of Portsmouth found that looking at photos of ourselves on Facebook helps to improve negative moods, especially among participants with depression. The ‘self-soothing’ method could even form the basis for a new kind of therapy, apparently, and contradicts many of the ‘BAH HUMBUG social media’ reports we’re used to reading.

‘Facebook is marketed as a means of communicating with others, but this research shows we are more likely to use it to connect with our past selves,’ said Portsmouth’s Dr Clare Wilson, ‘perhaps when our present selves need reassuring.’

So maybe THAT’s what I’m doing on my daily caretaking rounds – reminding myself that I still exist, and that I do nice things, and that while I might not be making waves in the weddings-and-babies-and-mortgages soup, I’m doing pretty well in the areas of brunching, shoe-buying and park-dwelling instead. It’s just a digital cheer-up. A counting of blessings.

Of course if I start liking my own posts too, then we might have a problem.


Image: Narcissus by Caravaggio. With a Macbook.

Lauren Bravo