As is often talked about of late, social media is designed to be highly consumable, engaging, and hard to put away. People, particularly those who struggle with obsessive or compulsive behavior, can get hooked on certain types of social media content in a way that is not helpful or healthy. An especially addictive topic that currently is grabbing the attention of users is toxic relationships, specifically with narcissists. Our Founder and Clinical Director Matt Lundquist recently spoke to Buzzfeed about the limitations of social media’s examination of toxic relationships, as well as how some people may need to moderate—or abstain completely—from social media.
In “If Your FYP Is Full of Videos About Toxic Relationships, Here’s Why It Might Not Be Good for You,” Matt articulates a shift in social media as users move away from constructing idealized lives online. “If you didn’t know better,” he says, “you would think that everybody was dating, married to, or raising children with an ex who was a serial killer.” Most of this content centers around “pathology” rather than, Matt notes, “offering helpful guidance to people in how to reconceptualize how they’re living their lives, or God forbid, take more responsibility for how they’re living their lives.”
In particular, the social media narcissism explosion of the last several years is fascinating. While not in the article, narcissists have become the latest in a long line of boogiemen in the American zeitgeist, joining, most recently, finance bros, Pharma bros, “nice guys,” and sociopaths (It’s important to remember that for much of American history Black men were often put into the position of boogiemen and, in many ways, still are even though the zeitgeist has found other descriptors, whether “flash rob,” crack dealer, or “superpredator”).
The posts focusing on narcissists on platforms like TikTok are frequently, Matt says, “reductionist.” There tends to be a presumption in these videos of “I’m going to warn you about these types of individuals that can be quite seductive and tricky.” Matt reveals, “It casts the subject, the person who’s being warned, as this completely hapless and unwitting individual who, at any moment, is going to have some dangerous person pounced upon them.”
What these videos don’t raise are the critical questions asked by good therapists after a patient comes in with a string of bad or toxic relationships: “What is it about these individuals that was compelling to you? How did you find yourself in these relationships?” This is not to victim blame but, as Matt explains, to relate “to an individual who has been mistreated by somebody, as somebody who nonetheless was a choice maker.” He continues, “…part of the work of recovery, learning from these experiences, and not making the same mistakes, is to reflect upon your own choices and not merely the choices of someone else.”
Unfortunately, social media is not primed for the nuances that these conversations require. “Sometimes as therapists,” Matt describes, “you’re encouraging people to put certain kinds of content away. But often, that tends to be the kind of content that is really quite popular.” There are patterns in what content is hardest to ignore but also times of the day or even seemingly your mood. These algorithms that companies spend (literally) billions of dollars to perfect want your attention. Not coincidentally, for people who struggle with getting stuck on certain types of unhelpful content, their therapist and their go-to social media platform are working at cross-purposes like a Narcotics Anonymous sponsor and a drug dealer. While some people can moderate their social media intake (just as some can moderate their relationship with alcohol), for others abstinence or highly controlled access is the only way to have a healthy relationship with social media.