The Danger of Social Media: Schadenfreude

According to Emma Young, schadenfreude, which is to take pleasure in another person’s misfortune, may turn you into a temporary psychopath. I think social media takes it one step further. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter are the four most widely used social media platforms. Facebook, more so than the other three, tends to be the platform in where everyone becomes “friends” with people from middle school and high school. In truth, you rarely, if ever, talk to any of these people. Moreover, you probably didn’t speak to them much in the past either. So why do we add these people on Facebook or allow them to follow us on Instagram, Snapchat, and/or Twitter?

It’s a specific kind of schadenfreude that Young calls rivalry schadenfreude. Young explains:

“Rivalry schadenfreude” is related to some extent, but is rooted in personal competition – the desire to do better than your peers. Envy can have a part to play in this, and Wang’s team note that both schadenfreude and envy emerge around 7 years of age (in fact some work has found jealousy, and subsequent schadenfreude toward the target of that jealousy, even in two-year-olds).1

Given this, most people don’t add their old middle school and high school classmates on Facebook because they have fond memories with them. They add their former classmates because of this personal competition. If you’ve started a family, you want to see if that guy who ended up dating your high school crush started a family. You still hold that against him! He took the girl of your dreams. Perhaps a part of you wants to see if they’re still together.

You also want to see where they are in their careers relative to where you are. You want to get some idea of how much money they’re making. Social media has become an arena for an array of comparisons, all designed to evaluate whether or not you are successful. The less successful people in your past serve to make you feel better about yourself while the more successful among them not only make you feel less successful, they make you feel as though you haven’t accomplished enough. Phillip Ozimek states that “users who use social networks passively, i.e. do not post themselves, and tend to compare themselves with others are in danger of developing depressive symptoms.”2

It’s likely that these (mostly teen) users’ depression is rooted in rivalry schadenfreude. The ensuing feelings of low self-esteem come from the fact that they evaluate themselves as being less successful than others. Unfortunately, this personal competition is an obvious addiction, so rather than delete any and all social media accounts, users continue to log on. It’s to the point that there’s a built in iOS app that monitors screen time. While there doesn’t appear to be any relevant statistics on general social media use, Locke Hughes admitted the following:

Like most people with social media accounts, I’ll confess that I spend way too much time staring at a small illuminated screen in my hand. Over the years, my social media usage has crept up-and up, and up-to a point where my iPhone battery usage estimated I spent seven to eight hours on my phone as a daily average. Yikes. What did I do with all that extra time I used to have?!3

Yikes indeed! It’s probable that other people’s experience align with Hughes’. There is another side to this coin. Social media runs the risk of increased narcissism, which although a tetrad category of its own, is a hallmark feature in psychopaths. Tetrad personalities have egoism in common: “This is the excessive need to put your own needs first at the expense of others. In philosophy, egoism means one’s self is the motivation and goal of all their actions.”4 This excessive desire to put your needs first, even if it’s at the expense of others, is precisely why rivalry schadenfreude is so deeply rooted in many social media users.

Though more research is needed to establish any link between narcissism and social media use, a recent study suggests that a person becomes “friends” with as many people as possible because they are a grandiose narcissist.

Grandiose narcissists are encountered more frequently in social networks than vulnerable narcissists. Moreover, a link has been found between the number of friends a person has and how many photos they upload and the prevalence of traits associated with narcissism. The gender and age of users is not relevant in this respect. Typical narcissists spend more time in social networks than average users and they exhibit specific behavioural patterns.5

So while rivalry schadenfreude might partly serve as motivation for adding old classmates, the greater motivation is in narcissistic behavior already present in such individuals. In other words, such a person doesn’t add old classmates for sake of comparison, but rather because they want to be seen by as many people as possible. S/he wants to broaden his/her audience and is not so much interested in the success or failures of others, but derives pleasure from people seeing his/her success.

In any case, the motivations for excessive social media use aren’t good. There appears to be, on one side, narcissists delighting in rubbing their success in people’s faces and, on the other side, people delighting in schadenfreude, awaiting the fall of their rivals. Then there are the vulnerable people in between, who have no real stake in this game and are pulled in by algorithms reminding them that its someone’s birthday, telling them they’ve received a message, and advertising a recently viewed eBay or Amazon product to them. What’s clear is that social media drags people away from the real world, from real human connection, all while serving as a mirror to an unsettling and repulsive vanity. It may be the best way to see who you truly are because it makes manifest unconscious or subconscious behavioral traits. It would appear that a large segment of “Generation Me” needs to hold itself accountable.

Works Cited

1 Young, Emma. “Schadenfreude may turn you into a temporary psychopath”Big Think. 10 Aug 2019. Web.

2 Ozimek, Phillip. “Depressed by Facebook and the like”Eureka Alert!. 18 Jul 2019. Web.

3 Hughes, Locke. “I Tried the New Apple Screen Time Tools to Cut Back On Social Media”Shape. ND. Web.

4 Dodgson, Lindsay. “The 9 dark personality traits of narcissists, psychopaths, and sociopaths — and what they mean”Insider. 8 Oct 2018. Web.

5 NA. “Narcissism and social networking”Science Daily. 18 Apr 2017. Web.

Featured Image: “What It’s Like to Spend 20 Years Listening to Psychopaths For Science”


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