What Your Selfies Really Say About You
The “selfie,” originally just a slang term bandied about amongst social media users, has grown into such a phenomenon that it’s officially entered common lexicon. The August 2013 edition of Oxford Dictionaries Online marked the expression's official debut, defining it as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website."
Since the day smartphone cameras gained the capacity to face both outward and backward, selfies have pretty much taken over social media outlets. If your kid is over the age of twelve and has an iPhone, there’s a good chance he or she has at least a few of these photos on display on his or her various accounts. And it’s not just teens, tweens, and young adults who’ve become selfie-obsessed. People of all ages use these photos as a medium for personal expression.
Pretty unsurprising, as this photo format allows the user complete control over how they present themselves to the world. The subject chooses the image they want to project, whether it’s funny, powerful, sexy…you get the picture. As user sanctioned close-ups, these photos hold a strangely poignant sense of intimacy.
And the crowd goes wild for them. Something about their intimate nature plus the fact that they’re designed to illicit a positive response from the viewer means that these pictures tend to garner the most “likes” on social media accounts, especially Instagram. (Unless you’re a celebrity, in which case even a picture of your crumpled up candy wrapper is destined to go viral.)
Why all the fuss over these posed snaps? Peggy Drexler, Ph.D., a research psychologist and Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, criticizes selfies as “a manifestation of society’s obsession with looks and its ever-narcissistic embrace. There’s a sense that selfie subjects feel as though they’re starring in their own reality shows, with an inflated sense of self that allows them to believe their friends or followers are interested in seeing them lying in bed, lips pursed, in a real world headshot. It’s like looking in the mirror all day long, and letting others see you do it.”
Sure, it takes a certain amount of pride in yourself and your body image to post these photos, thus, to a certain extent, they’re an indication of a healthy self-image. We’re not knocking that aspect of the trend, and neither is Drexler. However, research shows that the excessive narcissism indicated by compulsive selfie-posting can have some seriously negative repercussions in the long term.
A recent study conducted in the U.K. demonstrated that the selfie phenomenon may be harmful to real world relationships. According to the researchers, over-zealous sharing of photos of this nature can make people less likeable and cause others to feel more self-conscious in your presence. On a personal level, sharing selfies constantly can exacerbate self-esteem issues, since people feel the need to be “camera-ready” every time they leave the house. Plus, it can heighten feelings of competition between friends. What, if anything, is the value of these photos? Some sort of virtual proof that others approve of your appearance?
When you talk to your kids about the proper use of social media, emphasize the importance of reflecting before they hit "send." Are they posting because they find it empowering? Are they putting forth new ideals of beauty? Or are they missing the moment, because they’re too busy capturing it on camera? Are they reinforcing the notion that looks are everything? It’s not just a matter of Internet safety, or out of fear of future employers that we need to exercise caution when navigating the virtual world. Too much involvement in a constructed persona can cause you to forget how the social media world and the real world intersect and differ. And, at the end of the day, it’s your kids’ flesh and blood relationships they should be concerned with, not their follower count. In an era where they’re plugging in at younger, more impressionable ages, it's easier to lose sight of this distinction. Heck, even we find ourselves getting too caught up on occasion.
For more on the implications of self-portaits and social media, head over to Peggy Drexler's blog on Psychology.com.