An Integrated Approach to Young Adult Mental Health Rehab

Social Media Narcissism in Young Adults

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Narcissism is defined as a fixation with oneself and one’s physical appearance or public image. It’s a word that could describe many young adults, because they’re at a stage of life when they are establishing their identity and figuring out who they are in relationship to others. But is narcissism on the rise among young people today? Could social media narcissism be creating a self-obsessed generation?

Research shows that today’s young adults are more narcissistic than ever before—and social media is contributing to the problem. Jennifer Dragonette, PsyD, Newport Institute’s Executive Director in Northern California, says that receiving a like on social media “produces a physiological high by triggering our ‘reward cycle.’” This good feeling is due to a dopamine rush in the reward center of the brain, she explains. And it sends the message to young adults that how they look and how others react to them are all-important.

Is Social Media Narcissism On the Rise Among Young Adults?

Research confirms that young adults are becoming more narcissistic, and social media appears to be a significant factor. In a study published in the Journal of Personality, researchers analyzed data from 85 samples of American college students who completed the 40-question Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI).

“Receiving a like on social media produces a physiological high by triggering our ‘reward cycle. This good feeling is due to a dopamine rush in the reward center of the brain.”

They found that, between 1982 and 2006, college students’ NPI scores significantly increased by about two narcissistic answers. A follow-up study added 22 new studies to the meta-analysis and found further increases in narcissism among college students through 2008. Subsequently, the researchers proposed two reasons for this increase:

  1. A greater focus in recent years on building self-esteem in young people
  2. The internet and social media, which encourage young people to focus obsessively on themselves and their public image.

What Is Social Media Narcissism?

Because social media, particularly Facebook and Instagram, focus on sharing (and sometimes oversharing) one’s own image and opinions, young adults who use these platforms frequently are prone to narcissism. Research shows that higher amounts of social media use predict higher levels of “grandiose narcissism” (feelings of superiority). This includes time spent on social media, frequency of posts or tweets, number of friends/followers, and how often participants post pictures of themselves on social media.

In a 2018 study, researchers tracked 74 participants aged 18–34 over four months and used the NPI to quantify their narcissistic traits. Hence, they found that participants who posted large quantities of photos and selfies showed a 25 percent increase in narcissism. Specifically, those who used Facebook and other platforms that focus on images rather than words became more narcissistic over time.

Studies like this one indicate that social media narcissism has the potential to cross over into what’s known as Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). In fact, participants who showed the most significant increases in narcissism actually qualified for an NPD diagnosis.

Can Instagram Removing ‘Likes’ Help Combat Social Media Narcissism?

In response to trends in digital narcissism, social media platforms are attempting to shift toward building self-worth and authentic connection without emphasizing an idealized appearance. For example, in 2019, Instagram and the National Eating Disorders Association launched the #ComeAsYouAre campaign. The campaign encouraged young people to share their stories of accepting their bodies just as they are, a key principal in treating eating disorders.

In addition, in fall 2019, Instagram began hiding likes on its stories. Therefore, people can see who liked their posts, but they can’t compare their likes with others’. As a result, “users may find that their experience posting on Instagram begins to revolve more around their individual expression, rather than social comparison or perceived popularity,” says Jennifer Dragonette.

The Difference Between Digital Narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Showing signs of social media narcissism doesn’t mean that a young adult has NPD. Symptoms of NPD include having grandiose ideas about oneself and one’s achievements. People with this disorder constantly seek admiration from other people and society as a whole. Furthermore, they become fixated on external success. Additionally, people with NPD tend to lack the ability to empathize.

Know the Facts

Narcissistic Personality Disorders are believed to affect around 6 percent of people nationwide, but are more prevalent in young people and in males.

Narcissistic Personality Disorders are believed to affect around 6 percent of people nationwide, but are more prevalent in young people and in males. A National Institute of Health study found that 9.4 percent of Americans in their early twenties experienced episodes of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

Causes of Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Experts believe that Narcissistic Personality Disorder emerges from a combination of these factors:

  • Genetic: Inherited characteristics may influence NPD.
  • Neurobiological: NPD may be a result of miscommunication between the brain and behavior.
  • Social and environmental: Parent-child relationships characterized by excessive adoration and overprotection, excessive criticism, or severe neglect or abuse may trigger NPD.
  • Psychological: This refers to the individual’s overall personality and temperament, which may be more or less vulnerable to NPD.

Treatment for Narcissistic Personality Disorder in Young Adults

Therapy for narcissistic personality disorder is typically long-term psychotherapy with a mental health professional who has experience in treating NPD. Young adults with NPD may also seek short-term therapy to help them manage the disorder during especially stressful periods.

Psychotherapy for NPD seeks to help individuals learn to relate better to others in order to develop more intimate and rewarding relationships. Moreover, they learn to better understand and regulate their emotions, and tolerate criticism and failures. Ultimately, treatment helps young adults to begin to accept and embrace the reality of their lives and their potential.

In summary, social media narcissism is increasing among young adults. And these narcissistic traits can sometimes cross over into Narcissistic Personality Disorder. But even if digital narcissism doesn’t reach the level of NPD, it can detract from young adults’ relationships and well-being.


Psych Pop Media Culture. 2018 July;7(3):308–327.

Open Psych J. 11(1): 163–170.

J Clin Psychiatry. 2008 Jul;69(7):1033–45.

J Personality. 2008 Aug;76(4):875–902.

J Personality. 2008 Aug;76(4):903–918.

Mental Health / September 23, 2020 / by Newport Institute

Newport Institute

Sign up for the latest in mental health
and young adult treatment.

Receive a free meditation video
when you subscribe to our newsletter!

We will never share your email address.
100% privacy guaranteed. Learn more.