“Do I Look Good Enough in this Picture?” – Selfies, Social Media and Mental Health
‘Selfitis’ is not a real disease, but the mental health aspects surrounding selfies are not to be taken lightly.
Selfie, a word that made its way to become the word of the year in 2013, as described by the Oxford English Dictionary is defined as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media” by the same. The obsession with self-portrait photographs which initially began as a trend among the youth quickly gained wider popularity among all age groups. However, a survey found that selfies make up 30% of the photos taken by people aged 18-24 years.
Much of its popularity was attributed to the ease and speed with which photos of oneself could now be taken without the need for mirrors or help from others. The sharp rise in selfie usage was approximately 17000% from 2012 to 2015, which lead to the discovery of the evidence of direct relationships between selfies and self-esteem, self-image, and even narcissism. This created a stir, giving rise to arguments against considering the obsession with selfies as a mental disorder which was aggravated by a hoax created by a parody APA website which stated that obsession with clicking selfies is confirmed to be a mental disorder called “Selfitis”.
It seemed to have taken much of this world by surprise to know that an act of clicking photos of oneself had become a global phenomenon but the sudden importance given to selfies has been supported by accidents, injuries and deaths that have occurred to individuals while in the act. Such recklessness caused by the act of taking selfies has only worsened the negative attention surrounding it. Due to a series of such events and discussions steered by its popularity, intensive research has been made on a variety of topics regarding selfies ranging from the use and gratification of posting them on social media to even calculating the different angles at which they are captured! Few reasons that people click selfies include boredom, to boost self-esteem, to enjoy the perks of social media or to grab others’ attention.
Some people even feel that posting selfies online helps them validate their existence, a reason that blends with the concept of low self-confidence as posting selfies online may end up augmenting their personal insecurities. Obsession with selfies also has biological evidence. Studies have shown an increase in dopamine levels while receiving feedback information from others and behaviors relating to selfie-taking like uploading content online has been strongly related to activities in the sympathetic nervous system. This enhances social communication which when lost eventually will lead to loneliness. Selfies and loneliness have been correlated multiple times with studies that point out to those participants who post more selfies while scoring low on intimacy measures. This directly contradicts the central idea of social media which was initially aimed at building rapport with each other and not decreasing intimacy in relationships.
The interplay between selfies and social media has been an interesting one, highlighting various human characteristics and behaviours. The definition of a selfie does not limit itself to the mere act of people creating a self-portrait but also the critical aspect of sharing the selfie on social media. Uploading selfies on social media provide the most ideal platform for people to portray themselves in a desired manner which will not heighten their social anxiety but will dampen their fear of embarrassment. Digital media, the future of communication, is now being extensively used for information as well as entertainment and hence it has a wide user base. Social media enables us to transmit selfies to virtual locations via hashtags but many argue that hashtags can act as constraints because we end up describing ourselves as metadata.
Photo by Bruno Gomiero on Unsplash
Different modes of social media like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr and the most popular selfie destinations – Snapchat and Instagram, help selfie uploaders have access to the opinions, judgments and appraisals of other individuals which in turn provide an opportunity to the uploaders to develop their self-image and identities. This idea correlates with the psychological concept of the “looking glass self” which suggests that we develop our sense of the self based on the perceptions of those we interact with. The frailty of this practice is that the youth especially, have begun to feel that their best, singled out selfie is the perfect representation of their online selves. Over a period of time, they become indifferent to the fact that they are actually looking at themselves while viewing their selfies and in this process, end up creating multiple versions of themselves. They also fall a prey to the temptation of manipulating their selfies by using “filters” that accentuate our desired features. They have the liberty to tweak their content to their liking so as to remain consistent with this self and end up creating a separate identity or identities that contradict with their real self in this process. This is the image with which they want to identify and strive to become eventually.
Immediate responses and reactions to selfies on social media lead people to crave more of others’ approval and this sort of validation strengthens our perceptions of our physical attractiveness. Social media also helps us to view selfies uploaded by others which may put us in a competitive position, trying to over-compare ourselves with others to be noticed, appreciated, and recognized. Such a process can lead to the feeling of immediate empowerment on behalf of the individual but this can become a never-ending habit of fishing for reassurance in the pressure to maintain a certain number of “likes” and comments on their selfies. But selfies on social media can also make us appreciate our sense of self and increase our self-esteem, encouraging a positive outlook and attitude. Fixation and an unhealthy obsession with social media are what will lead to the depreciation of our mental state regarding our self-image.
The most common people who fall a victim to this happen to be teenagers and young adults, who for the most part are millennials. A generation that is keen on exploring the technological revolution may not necessarily be tagged as self-centered in haste. In an attempt to be self-empowered, millennials explain their over-use of social media and selfies as a technique to portray themselves positively. The idea behind this may also be to shatter the illusions of an overly demanding society that is filled with expectations of idealistic body images and instead display their imperfections as a form of art through self-portraits. With their lives rooted in a digital world, it shouldn’t be surprising to witness millennials using the internet in different ways to manifest their thoughts and ideas, even if it is in the form of selfies. It may be understandable if millennials find common ground in such expression and are able to relate to one another or even understand and accept differences without friction. Millennials have always agreed upon the use of technology to be progressive and any form of communication to be ultimately productive.
This begs the final question – is an obsession with taking selfies classified as a mental disorder? The answer is – no. Despite the rumors in the past, “selfie addiction” is not a criterion listed in the DSM but it can be problematic if taking numerous selfies helps to feed pre-existing narcissistic tendencies in an individual and an obsession with clicking selfies can occur as a comorbidity to other mental disorders. There have been speculations regarding the future of selfie addictions being considered as a psychological disorder but as of today, it is fairly unlikely.
Shruti Venkatesh is the National Co-Lead (Mental Health) at One Future Collective.
Charoensukmongkol, P. (2016). Exploring personal characteristics associated with selfie-liking.Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 10(2), article 7.
Diefenbach, S., & Christoforakos, L. (2017). The Selfie Paradox: Nobody Seems to Like Them Yet Everyone Has Reasons to Take Them. An Exploration of Psychological Functions of Selfies in Self-Presentation.Frontiers in Psychology,8, 7.
Hughes, L. (2018, April 04). For People With Social Anxiety, The Internet Is A Blessing And A Curse. Huffpost.
Jarrett, C. (2017, November 17). Millennials are narcissistic? The evidence is not so simple. Future.
Khanna, A., & Sharma, M. K. (2017). Selfie use: The implications for psychopathology expression of body dysmorphic disorder.Industrial Psychiatry Journal,26(1), 106–109.
Saroshe, Satish. (2016). Assessment of Selfie Syndrome among the Professional Students of a Cosmopolitan City of Central India: A Cross-sectional Study. International Journal of Preventive and Public Health Sciences (IJPPHS). 2. 1-4. 10.17354/ijpphs/2016/25.
Seiter, C. (2016, August 10). The Psychology of Social Media: Why We Like, Comment, and Share Online.Buffer Social.
Tatomirovic, T. (2018, March 30). Selfie: It is not a novelty in the human desire for (self-) expression. Thrive Global.
The Allure of the Selfie. (2014, October). Network Notebooks 08.
Whitbourne, S. (2016, August 27). Are Selfie-Takers Really Narcissists? Psychology Today.
Fatness in Urban India: Desiring and Being Desired
Public spaces of education: The complicated nexus of shame, agency and resistance
16 days of Activism, 2022 at One Future Collective