News broke today that the word “selfie” has been added to the Oxford dictionary, but have you ever noticed how old photos, ones you can actually touch and feel, never seem to be “selfies?” Sure, there are plenty of Polaroids that show two people with their arms around each other; one holding out the camera to capture the gleeful moment, but there seem to be very few Polaroid “selfies.” It’s also difficult to find selfies that pre-date 1990 or so. In other words, the popularity of the selfie is indicative of the fact that our gazes have turned inward, to focus on ourselves and exclude other people. The selfie is a symptom of the narcissism epidemic in America.
Think about the last time you went through a huge box of old, black and white pictures with your grandma. How many of those photos were “selfies?” Probably not very many. Just from looking at social media sites, it’s clear that the selfie has grown in popularity over the last couple of years. But let’s not rely on anecdote; let’s take a look at what scientists have to say.
We don’t have to look very far; PEW researchers have figured it out for us. In 2006, 71% of people posted photos of themselves online. In 2012, that number had jumped to 91%, so it’s unquestionable that the popularity of the selfie has grown tremendously in the last seven years alone. Prior to that, it just wasn’t as easy to take selfies because the technology itself was prohibitive of self-portraiture. But besides technology making it easier, what else has caused this rise of the selfie to the extent that it has been added to the Oxford Dictionary?
The first issue is that social media, where most selfies are published, is a “magnet” for narcissists. A recent study out of the University of Michigan showed that younger people who scored higher on a narcissism scale tended to post more often on Twitter than their less narcissistic peers, while older people who were more narcissistic tended to post more often on Facebook. So, in a nutshell, social media sites are ready-made to attract narcissistic people. Instagram, for example, is one of the prime sites on which selfies are published. It’s no surprise that there are 51 million photos on Instagram with the hashtag “#me.”
This is just the most recent study of a growing body of data showing the link between social media and narcissism. Psychologist Jeane M. Twenge, in her book “The Narcissism Epidemic,” points out that narcissism has been rising dramatically over the last ten years. Social media and our constant attachment to our gadgets reinforces our cultural obsession with our own image and concerns. This epidemic of self-admiration can be readily seen in the explosive growth of the selfie.
Unfortunately, selfies aren’t good for us, nor are they good for our relationships. In a study conducted by Dr. Amy Slater and Professor Marika Tiggemann of the School of Psychology at Flinders University in Australia, researchers found that:
…of the 96 percent of girls who had some access to the Internet at home, 72.1 percent upload pictures of themselves. These same women are more likely to experience body shame, dissatisfaction with their weight, and lower self-esteem, according to the survey, and of the 1096 girls surveyed, 40.1 percent said were dissatisfied with their bodies and one in two were terrified of gaining weight.
Doctor Amy Slater, one of the lead researchers on the study, said:
We set out to investigate the role of media in adolescent girls’ self image. We were interested to find out how adolescent girls were spending their free time and how different activities related to how they felt about themselves and their bodies. Our findings demonstrate a worrying correlation between excessive media use, particularly social media and the internet, and lower self-esteem, body-esteem and sense of identity and higher depression.
Selfies are also bad for our relationships. A recent study performed by Dr. David Houghton, a researcher at the Heriot-Watt University in Scotland found that:
… People, other than very close friends and relatives, don’t seem to relate well to those who constantly share photos of themselves. It’s worth remembering that the information we post to our ‘friends’ on Facebook, actually gets viewed by lots of different categories of people: partners; friends; family; colleagues and acquaintances; and each group seems to take a different view of the information shared. Increased frequency of sharing photographs of the self, regardless of the type of target sharing the photographs, is related to a decrease in intimacy.
Selfies cause low self-esteem, body image problems and also take a toll on our interpersonal relationships, so why has the selfie become so popular? The answer lies in the narcissism epidemic we are facing as a culture. It’s a self-regenerating downward spiral of turning our gazes inward, regardless of the costs to ourselves and our relationships.
UK psychology Dr. Jessamy Hibberd takes this a step further by saying that selfies are outright damaging and that they leave young people, especially, vulnerable to abuse:
Images are a way for young people to seek approval and attention from their peers, however they can also lead to cyber bullying and issues with self-confidence… The majority of teens post the photos in search of assurance and compliments, but they are also making themselves vulnerable to negative comments and abuse. It’s all about comparison and young people are using social media to measure themselves against others. If a teenager posts a picture and it doesn’t get any ‘likes’ or if it is their birthday and they don’t receive a certain number of posts they see that as an embarrassment. It is seen as an indication that they are not popular. There is an expectation now amongst young people that they should get comments on all of their posts and images…Everyone is different but seeking approval in this way could be damaging to the confidence of young people. It could warp their perception of themselves in later life.
The selfie has been added to the Oxford Dictionary, but it is a symptom of a greater issue, which is the narcissism epidemic in our society, and unfortunately, narcissism is unhealthy. Judging from the opinions of the medical community, especially psychologists, so is the selfie.