Researchers at Western Illinois University recently published a study in the journal Personality and Individual Differences (my kind of journal) showing a correlation between the number of friends you have on Facebook and the degree to which you are a "socially disruptive" narcissist. Cue cries of "I told you so!" by the Facebook-haters. (To clarify: by socially disruptive, they mean "grandiose exhibitionism" and "entitlement/
exploitativeness", or being an attention-seeking, selfish tool.)

Reporting studies such as this is tricky – before you know it, the Daily Mail and assorted reactionaries will leap on the evidence and declare that Facebook is responsible for all that is ill in society. But what the study shows is correlation, not causality. So it might be that born-that-way raging narcissists are inevitably attracted to a social media platform that allows them to publish limitless pictures of themselves in states of undress, rather than that Facebook makes them that way.

It's not as if narcissism's new. Everyone knows the story of Narcissus, the beautiful boy in Ovid's Metamorphoses, "his fingers shaped as Bacchus might desire, his flowing hair as glorious as Apollo's". Narcissus was an unparalleled hottie and, as is so often the way, an idiot. When he lies by a stream and gazes at his own reflection, he falls in love (you'd think he'd seen himself before but perhaps mirrors were thin on the ground
in ancient Greece). Ovid puts it damningly well: "All that is lovely in himself he loves and in his witless way he wants himself." The inevitable happens. Narcissus, driven to distraction by his own vanity, dies and turns into a flower.

There have always been people entranced by themselves. But the recent phenomenon, say academics, is an educational emphasis on "self-esteem" that has drifted across the Atlantic over the past 30 years, since long before Mark Zuckerberg's creation. Teaching children to love themselves is better than sending them up chimneys and whipping them on the way down but it has its hazards, too, not least the risk of turning them into Ovid's witless fools. Love yourself, by all means, but don't only love yourself. And definitely don't go loving yourself anywhere near a stream.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Mission impossible