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Narcissism on the Internet isn't risk-free

A new study argues that self-absorption in college students is at a new high.

"Young people born after 1982 are the most narcissistic generation in recent history," said Jean Twenge, a San Diego State University professor and lead author of the study of college students' attitudes about themselves.

That narcisissm is helping to create a generation of Internet users who don't think twice about putting private details online for the world to see.

Blogs and social networking Web sites -- such as MySpace and YouTube, where members write and post images and video about their lives and interests - are playing a big role.

"Current technology fuels the increase in narcissism," Twenge said in a statement. "By its very name, MySpace encourages attention-seeking, as does YouTube, whose slogan is 'Broadcast Yourself.'"

The authors of the study - which has tracked college students' attitudes about themselves yearly since 1982 - are not talking about pathological narcissistic personality disorder; just an attitude of "It's all about me."

"People our age really want to explore themselves and see how they compare to other people by posting up Web site profiles," says Patrick Fishbach, a student at Loyola University Chicago.

This generation is rapidly undergoing a bumpy transformation from being merely watchers of content to creators of content. They've learned the visual language of ads and TV shows but aren't remembering to target their messages.

"They're good at being an audience, but not at being the center of attention," says Nancy Baym, associate professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas. "They're thinking about, 'Who am I and how can I show myself to the world?' They're not thinking about parents, teachers, employers and all these other people who can see this."

Much like the cell phone talker who has loud private conversations in public, some users forget that their friends aren't the only ones who get the message.

"I have had friends who have written on their personal blogs about how much they hate their roommate," says Loyola student Dave Frantz, "and then act surprised when the roommate confronts them after having found the blog."

Social networks help young adults quickly keep tabs on friends. It's quicker to visit online profiles to see pictures and read short notes documenting last night's party than it is to talk about it over the phone. In the time it takes to have one phone conversation, you can flit among friends' profiles to read what they're doing and to leave notes of approval - and read notes they left for you on your profile.

"If you told someone, 'Call your 30 best friends today,' they wouldn't do it," says Kent Lindstrom, of the pioneering social networking site Friendster. "But they will use social networking to check in with 30 friends."

Besides thinking only their friends will see their posts, many social network users feel they're a small fish in an enormous pond, virtually invisible to anyone who might want to harm them.

"Some of them think, 'Who would be really that interested in my life? There are 6 million Sarahs out there. Who would pick me out of the pile?'" says Amanda Lenhart, who studies social networking for the Pew Internet & American Life Project. "It's about putting yourself out there for your friends."

"It's an obvious concept now, but it wasn't always," Lindstrom says. "It's similar to instant messaging or e-mail or search engines - there was a point where it didn't exist, and then when it came, you couldn't live without it."

Experts suggest all Internet users take a page from Apple and other large companies, and manage and protect their identities: Don't log into your profile at a public computer (you can leave behind your password for others to discover); let only people you know view your profile; and when you get an invite from someone you don't know, find out as much as you can about that person before accepting the invite.

"Having a blog or being part of a social network site doesn't increase risk," says David Finkelhor, a professor at the University of New Hampshire who has been tracking teens' online exposure to unwanted adult content. "Get filtering and blocking software, and be judicious about whom you talk to and the topics they raise."

"We should start thinking of ourselves as brands and control our message," Baym says. "That's what we're doing when we put ourselves out there. People don't have a sense of their identity as something they have property rights to."