Remember a time when “selfies” didn’t exist? The newly-coined term has become a popular teen obsession that is time-consuming and may lead to mental health issues. Psychologists have noticed a rise in narcissistic personality traits, insecurity, self-objectification, addiction, damaged friendships, body dysmorphic disorder, and depression that coincide with the increase of selfies. Selfies may seem innocent in moderation, but overindulgence may lead to social media narcissism and other mental health issues.
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The word narcissism comes from a Greek fable about a handsome young man, named Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water.
Narcissism is defined as a long-standing preoccupation with one’s self creating an overwhelming need for admiration. Common characteristics of narcissists are:
Narcissists will also lack empathy for others and have a strong desire to look down on others with scorn or find pleasure in depriving or hurting others. While narcissistic tendencies may seem apparent, narcissists are often difficult to identify.
Selfies can create an increased preoccupation with “self” just like the man in the Greek fable who fell in love with his own reflection. Many studies suggest that social media encourages blatant self-promotion and creates an obsession with physical appearance.
How we see ourselves does not come from who we really are, but rather from how we believe others see us.
– Charles Horton Cooley, American sociologist
Taking and posting many selfies triggers self-indulgent and attention seeking behaviors that fall on the spectrum of narcissism and allows teenagers to relish in the attention their pictures receive on social media.
“Now that we can interact with hundreds — no, thousands — of people simultaneously, we’ve strengthened the impact that others have on our self-value.”-Dr. Letamendi
Selfies are easy to take and even easier to share. 55% of “Millennials” have taken a selfie and shared it on social media; almost double that of the next closest generation. Teens that have social media accounts are more likely to share their selfies with their friends and followers.
Technological advances can be credited for the rise of the selfie culture. The first use of the hashtag “selfie” (#selfie) appeared on Flickr in 2004, but the trend exploded when Apple released the iPhone 4 in 2010. The iPhone 4 was the first mainstream phone with a front-facing camera, making selfies extremely easy to do. Products like “the selfie stick” appeared on the market shortly after. By 2013, “selfie” was the word of the year.
Responses to selfies are immediate, and whether comments are positive, negative, personal, or anonymous—the attention creates a desire for more. Receiving notifications over social media actually releases dopamine, the chemical associated with reward and motivation response, throughout the brain.
Selfies are being snapped and shared at such a high rate because the responses meet a basic human need to be noticed, appreciated, and recognized. As more selfies are shared and more attention is generated, teens develop a need for even more attention and desire more approval from their peers. The chain reaction causes even more selfies for even more attention and can lead to social media narcissism.
Where do these selfies end up?
Almost 300 million Instagram photos contain the tag “selfie,” but the most popular selfie trends are:
While the trends above seem innocent, dangerous selfie trends are become popular. The United States Forest Service officials in Lake Tahoe have issued numerous warnings about taking selfies with wild bears. Daredevils are also making headlines by climbing to the top of skyscrapers to take their selfies. Risky selfies have consequences and are taking their toll. More people have died from taking selfies than from shark attacks during 2015.
Selfies are not always an accurate representation of a person. An estimated 36% of selfies are digitally altered or enhanced. The most retouched areas of selfies are:
Editing and manipulating photos is more convenient than ever. Instagram features 22 filters and a variety of photo editing tools; Twitter has 8 filters and Facebook has 6.
The extra effort to tweak selfies often attracts the desired attention as selfies featuring a person’s face are 38% more likely to be liked and 32% more likely to attract comments and photos with filters are 21% more likely to be viewed and 45% more likely to be commented on.
When teens gain attention from their edited selfies, they begin experiencing the “looking glass self-theory” and wonder what their ideal appearance is to others, what judgments others are making, and how others feel about them. As they search for reassurance and attention, they continue self-indulgent behaviors such as posting numerous selfies to social media.
Many people value physical appearance on social media. This fosters narcissistic behaviors like:
Danny Bowman represents the dangers of selfie addiction. Danny became so obsessed with taking the perfect selfie that he spent 10 hours a day taking 200 photos of himself. He wasn’t happy with any of his selfies, became depressed, and attempted to take his life.
Doctor David Veale noticed a correlation between Body Dysmorphic Disorder and selfies: “Two out of three patients who come to see me with Body Dysmorphic Disorder since the rise of camera phones have a compulsion to repeatedly take and post selfies on social media sites.”
Teens taking excessive selfies can alienate their friends by displaying a self-centered mentality. Selfies can also cause teens to focus on an aspect they may feel is flawed.
Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center sheds light on the issue: “Selfies frequently trigger perceptions of self-indulgence or attention-seeking social dependence that raises the damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t specter of either narcissism or very low self-esteem.”
Social media narcissism may be displayed through many of the following traits:
While schools may teach teens about cyberbullying and online predators, it’s important for parents to educate their teens on the mental dangers of selfies and social media addiction. If your teen is displaying narcissistic personality traits, the “3 Rs of Selfie Control” can help.
Dr. Michele Borba has four additional tips for parents who feel their teen is exhibiting narcissistic behaviors:
In moderation, selfies and social media can be positive tools for self-expression. Social media can encourage healthy communication and allow teens to share passions and figure out who they are. Alice Marwick, co-director of Fordham University’s McGannon Center for Communication Research said “Teens use the internet to experiment with things. They try on identities, they posture, and they perform. And many of those things, when parents take them out of context, may seem problematic, but when you actually see what the young person is doing, they’re experimenting with an identity, which is a very typical and healthy part of adolescent development.”
Monitor your teen’s social media use and self-indulgent behavior. If you see something inappropriate or cruel, communicate that that behavior will not be accepted. If you feel they are displaying selfish and narcissistic tendencies, have them follow the three Rs and try out Dr. Borba’s methods to help break their selfish and narcissistic trends and teach them empathy and consideration towards others.