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American idols: When a nation falls in love with itself
No Caption - photo by Emmilie Buchanan-Whitlock
Editor's note: This article is part of "The Ten Today," a series that examines the Ten Commandments in modern society. This story explores the second commandment: "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images."

Melissa Thurm started a religious blog in October to share her thoughts about her faith. But when she noticed her mounting obsession with checking for page views and new comments, Thurm realized it was taking a hit on her self-esteem.

"I felt down on myself if I didn't get any feedback. I realized I had turned it into wanting to be famous instead of doing what (God) wanted me to do," she said.

Thurm, a resident of Rexburg, Idaho, is a self-described social media addict. She can't go a day without checking her Facebook account.

She's not alone. According to a survey from Pew Research, 72 percent of all adult Internet users are plugged into some form of social media. In 2012, Pew reported that 83 percent of adults between the ages of 18-29 pegged as millennials use social media, and they are the most likely age bracket to do so.

While researchers say social media has many positive uses, such as staying in touch with family, there's also growing unease that sites like Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat fuel an intoxicating sense of narcissism.

There's perhaps no better manifestation of this than the "selfie," a picture taken of yourself (often with friends) that's then posted on a social media site, hoping to generate "likes" and shares. Most Baby Boomers have never taken a selfie (in fact, according to the Pew Research Center, only about six-in-ten Boomers and a third of the Silent Generation even know what a selfie is), but Millennials, derisively called Generation Me, have fallen hard for the fad: More than half have shared a selfie.

The trend has become such a rage that the Oxford Dictionary declared "selfie" the word of the year in 2013.

Millennia ago, two stone tablets bore the decree "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images." But the digital world poses a new question: Are social media-ites becoming the graven image through status updates and Instagram filters, worshiped by a congregation of retweeters and plus-oners? Has social media given rise to an insidious new form of self worship?

Rewarding idolatry

For Thurm, posting pictures is easier than ever thanks to her iPhone, and she admits that she's been guilty of excessive social media sharing.

"If you think of something clever and you put it on Facebook, you want to see how many people thought you were funny. If no one comments or likes my post, I'm like, 'Great, now I feel like everyone hates me,'" Thurm said.

According to a recent psychological study, Thurm's reaction to social media sharing isn't self-obsession it's only human.

A 2012 Harvard study found that humans have an intrinsic desire to disclose their thoughts to others. Researchers conducted several experiments supporting their hypothesis: Because of the natural desire to share personal information with peers, the experience of doing so self-disclosure is subjectively rewarding.

Researchers tested the mesolimbic dopamine system the portion of the brain that responds to rewards such as food, money, humor or sex and found that it reacted strongly when talking about personal experiences or opinions rather than discussing other people. Additional experiments found that participants were even willing to give up money to talk about themselves.

These results indicate that the human desire to share personal information or experiences may arise from the intrinsic value that comes from self-disclosure.

According to the study, between 30 and 40 percent of spoken communication between humans is spent informing others about subjective experiences. On social media, the percentage jumps to upwards of 80 percent.

This is because, for people like Thurm, the result instant gratification can be intoxicating.

"It's a literal addiction. That's why I'm obsessed with Facebook," she said. "You get validation and feedback instantly. People are addicted to instant gratification."

Shameless selfies

Social media opens a door for self-worship, said psychologist Jean Twenge, author of the book "Generation Me" and other psychological studies focused on narcissism. But it's not all bad.

"Thats what is so interesting about narcissism as a trait," Twenge said. "Wanting to be a leader, extraversion, being outgoing are good things until they are not."

On of the main causes of narcissism, Twenge said, traces back to a shift in recent years in parenting styles. Twenge said parents who praise children incessantly, even when praise may not be merited, run the risk of developing children who think the world revolves around them.

For Twenge, reality TV is the most obvious way media have promoted a narcissistic attitude. This is especially true on shows such as American Idol that tell kids if they just try hard enough, they too can hold court on center stage with all the world paying attention to them. Other shows emphasize fame as life's greatest achievement. Second is the Internet, with social media and all the ways users can seek attention and validation for themselves online.

"People who show high in narcissism have more friends on Facebook and more followers on Twitter," Twenge said. "When people use Facebook or MySpace or another social media, it increases their self-views."

Twenge is not saying that people who post selfies are always narcissistic. To test one's personal level of narcissism, Twenge suggests the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, which asks questions that determine the level of narcissistic behavior in people, such as how much they enjoy looking in the mirror, showing off their bodies, or manipulating people to get what they want all traits common to some of the most successful reality TV stars on shows such as Big Brother or Survivor.

A change in perspective

When it comes to worshiping self over maker, not all experts agree that narcissism, the Internet and shameless selfies are to blame.

Media psychologist Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center in Boston, doesn't subscribe to the ideology that America is turning into a nation of narcissists because selfies are, in a way, what she calls a highly freeing experience.

"The first reason people take selfies is because they can," Rutledge said. "It's the first time you can be the photographer and the subject at the same time. You don't have the self-consciousness you have the control."

A study by Common Sense Media, "Social Media, Social Life: How Teens View Their Digital Lives," took a sample of 13- to 17-year-olds who have a profile on a social media site and found that 59 percent of those surveyed said they love posting pictures of themselves.

Thirty-five percent worry about their friends posting an ugly photo of them, and 22 percent said they feel bad if they don't get a lot of likes on their photos, the study reported. Seventeen percent reported they have edited a photo of themselves before posting it.

For Rutledge, photos, especially selfies, are more of a visual journal than a representation of self.

"Visual images are so rich when compared to just a text. Just imagine the difference between seeing someone at the beach you can see a little bit of sun, sand and waves and a text of them saying 'I'm at the beach,'" she said. "It's communicating in a very rich way that makes people closer. It's the glue between our relationships."

According to the study from Common Sense Media, of the teens surveyed, the majority said social media had positive effects on them.

More than one in four teens on social media reported that their social media usage made them feel more outgoing (28 percent) and less shy (29 percent). One in five said it helped them to feel more confident (20 percent), more sympathetic to others (19 percent) and more popular (19 percent).

Additionally, 52 percent said their social media usage improved their relationships with friends, 37 percent said it strengthened (non-parental) family ties and 8 percent said it boosted relationships with parents.

After all, Rutledge said, teenagers have been finding ways to spend hours communicating for decades.

"Teenagers are famous for talking on the phone for hours," she said. "We wrote letters, stood around the water cooler, met at corner stores, held quilting bees, hung around for a social after church. People will communicate in any way they can, and they'll do it in the best way possible and the one that feels the most connected."

Finding the balance

These days, Thurm is still blogging about her faith and her relationship with God, but six months in, she's made some adjustments.

She no longer checks how many people are reading her blog. Instead, she tries to focus on her real purpose in creating the site.

"It's no longer about how many people read what I write," Thurm said. "For me, it's more about the message and if people relate to what I'm saying. When I get a comment from someone saying they really got something out of something I wrote or that it helped them in some way, I feel like it's achieving its purpose."

"It's not about me, and once I realized that, it changed everything," she said.
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