Front-facing camera working overtime? Maybe take a break
Our preoccupation with selfies is clearly going nowhere. But whether it’s a postworkout snap to send to your trainer or a full pout and head tilt on a Saturday night, is your weakness for selfies playing havoc with your sense of self?
Not since the Spice Girls fuelled that 1990s international epidemic of dodgy platform trainers has a celebrity trend caught on quite as obsessively as the selfie. It’s been four years since it was named word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries and we now take more than a million of them every day; a colossal 24 billion were stored on Google Photos in 2016. But while your favourite habit might be helping your Insta profile pop, could it be having a detrimental effect on your mental health? A German study published earlier this year revealed that while 77% of participants interviewed admitted dipping a toe in the current pose-and-post culture – and loving every minute – the majority (67%) also said selfietaking had a negative effect on self-esteem. So if you know that they could be doing more harm than good, why do they still account for one in every three photos you snap? ‘Selfies are generally linked to a need to measure popularity,’ says Andy Phippen, a professor of social responsibility in IT. ‘There can be a compulsive element to sharing them – you’re seeking validation from other people that you measure up, that you’re attractive and popular.’ In some cases, selfie obsession can reach extreme proportions. In 2014, UK teen Danny Bowman made headlines as the world’s first ‘selfie addict’. The anxiety Danny associated with achieving perfect self-portraits caused him to drop out of school, lose 2st and, at his lowest point, attempt suicide. Okay, so you’re unlikely to take it that far, but there is evidence that constantly posting your pics – and looking at other people’s – is leading to a change in the behaviour of the average person. The Selfiecity London project found women are the most prolific posters worldwide, and are 50% more likely to add a head tilt (the shame). And this obsession isn’t doing the cosmetic surgery industry any harm. Stats from the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery reveal that over 40% of surgeons said looking more attractive in socially shared selfies was an incentive for patients seeking surgery.
It’s easy to assume the desire to take, and publicly post, photos of yourself is driven by nothing other than narcissism. And the science is there to back these assumptions: Korean researchers found people who demonstrate a higher degree of narcissism are more likely to post selfies and engage with comments left on their posts, without leaving feedback for others. To take it a step further, a study from Ohio University investigating male participants determined a connection between psychopathic traits, such as a lack of empathy or a tendency towards impulsive behaviour, and serial face sharers. But let’s not write off every prolific selfie-poster as a selfabsorbed dickhead – as experts suggest, while that link between egotism and filling your feed with your own face is real, there may be other motivations at play. ‘There are two main reasons why people post selfies,’ says Dr Femke Leathes, a clinical psychologist (leathespsychology.co.uk). ‘Yes, they can be a fairly clear indicator of a narcissistic personality; these are the people who post selfies to seek admiration, to an excessive extent, in order to boost their selfesteem.’ And while she suggests it wouldn’t be fair to say taking selfies causes narcissism – as that personality trait has its roots in childhood – there’s an assumption that social feeds can become a channel through which the trait flourishes. ‘However, many use selfies in a more innocent manner, to maintain friendships, promote “face-to-face” contact when distance doesn’t allow it and to share legitimate achievements or experiences,’ she adds. So it seems the motivations behind sharing the selfie love can be more complex than you might assume. For Steven Holiday, researcher at Texas Tech University, it’s this
impetus behind posting selfies that indicates whether they could be damaging your mental health. ‘There’s no denying selfies have become ingrained in our culture as a means of communication, and it could be that we can use them to help add a sense of tone to text messages, which are often difficult to infer meaning from,’ he says. ‘But if your motivation is to seek approval, that’s an unhealthy behaviour.’
LOOK, DON’T TOUCH
Categorically not hooked on staring back at yourself on your phone screen? An aversion to taking selfies doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. ‘I work with a growing number of women and girls who are significantly and negatively influenced by the selfies they see on social media, independent of whether they choose to post any themselves,’ says Dr Leathes. ‘The trouble is, these selfies have likely been heavily filtered and only represent a small, highly biased snapshot of the subject’s life, so the comparisons they trigger are entirely unrealistic and irrational.’ Indeed, a 2015 study from Penn State University confirmed that simply looking at selfies was associated with lower self-esteem and reduced life satisfaction. Dr David Houghton of the University of Birmingham has researched the effect of Facebook selfies on personal relationships, and thinks the site’s algorithm for populating your news feed can exacerbate the problem. ‘Selfies can be a bit of a wormhole and lead to a narrow viewpoint,’ he says. ‘If you’re being fed the feeds of celebs and seeing nothing but glossy images of the “champagne lifestyle”, it stops being a networking tool and instead becomes an echo chamber. And if you already have a tendency to feel insecure, there can be a danger of dismissing the wider world.’ However – much like with booze and burpees – #balance seems to be key in managing your selfie obsession in a healthy way. The findings of Dr Houghton’s study supported the idea that camera-flipping can reap rewards for your friendships. While casual acquaintances reported being irritated by repeated pictures of people clogging up their social media feeds, actual friends didn’t feel the same way. ‘There was a significant link between close friends and partners viewing selfies and experiencing an improvement in relationship quality with the poster,’ he says. Furthermore, US research* found that, as long as participants eschewed duckface for a genuine smile, sharing selfies with friends actually increased their happiness levels. So, if you can get to a place where you’re camera-flipping to boost your friendships rather than your own esteem, and swap the pout for showing off your pearly whites, perhaps a penchant for selfies isn’t all that bad. Smile (no head tilt, though).
‘SELFIES ARE LINKED WITH REDUCED LIFE SATISFACTION’