My last post, Making Sense of Selfies , generated some interesting and spirited comments. Some were for and some against, but none neutral. For better or for worse, depending upon your point of view, the fact remains that selfies are a current trend and trends are, by definition, something that is increasing in popularity. As a society, we’re in the experimentation phase of portable, personal technologies. Many of the shiny pennies of the digital age are equipped with cameras and lenses that flip around; they invite exploration and that includes taking digital images of everything, including ourselves.
It is perfectly normal that we should experiment with things that are new, to see how they feel, try them out. This includes selfies. How long will the fascination last? One of three things will happen based on the intrinsic value of the activity. The first is that when EVERYONE is doing it, the really cool people will have to find something new to do—in other words, there was no intrinsic value beyond newness. The second is that once the thrill of newness is gone, it will become boring, just another selfie in a sea of selfies so only people who have figured out a meaningful use for them will continue on. The third is that a next new technology or new use emerges that makes something more interesting and valuable. Vine videos, with their 6 second video loop, has recently been applied as a tool for making selfies, but very few things are worth watching repeatedly, and selfies generally aren’t one of them. We see the same maturation arc in Twitter. The people who posted about their breakfast have faded, but others have figured out how to make Twitter valuable to them—from tracking breaking news to researching experts and topics. The danger around selfies and any new technology is that we worry too much about the experimentation phase and make too much of them.
Currently, the act of selfie-ing has become a sort of cultural marker. Taking a selfie is easy. They are immediate. We are in control because we can delete any image we want. We can be cavalier with images in a way we never could when we had to pay for film to be developed.
Like many “counter-culture” things, the increasing amount of attention selfies are getting, just validates their existence. If they weren’t somehow a meaningful event, why would anyone care so much? The more authority figures, like parents, teachers and Internet pundits, declare them to be a sign of depravity, self-obsession or narcissism, the more desirable they become. Think about the reactions to the Beatles’ hair or Elvis’ hips.
Selfies are a fairly harmless ways to identify with a generation. For parents, it’s awkward to make a compelling case to your teen about why selfies are bad when they are invited to connect with celebrities like Madonna, Rihanna and Justin Bieber. Even (or especially) wanna-be celebrities like the Kardashians seem to post minutely and we see political figures like Hillary Clinton enjoying selfies with her daughter or Meryl Streep.
One of the big complaints about selfies is that, as a visual medium, they emphasize looks. Historically and biologically, however, how people look matters. Humans are hard-wired to pay attention to looks and continually make both upward and downward comparisons. Social comparison is not a moral failing or an indication of misplaced values. It is normal behavior. But it’s all about balance.
All young people go through a period where experimenting with and developing their sense of self is part of emancipating in a healthy way from their nuclear family. In the process, the focus of their social antennae moves from their family circle toward their peers.
Beauty and values vary from culture to culture, of course, but we tend to be concerned about the impact of the mass media as a part of the “peer” structure setting standards for young people. In particular, research has examined the impact of unrealistic images setting standards of beauty on things like body dissatisfaction and negative self-esteem. This logic and concern has fueled ad campaigns like Dove’s Real Beauty.
However, with the advent of Facebook and YouTube and the proliferation of Instagram and selfies, the number of photographs of skinny models is increasingly dwarfed by the photos of real women. The cult of the selfie, largely female, actually celebrates ‘regular’ people and places a higher value on less-than-perfect images and clearly visible posturing of no great meaning. As a celebration of real people, selfies can be empowering and even normalizing and reaffirm the drive for authenticity that is the hallmark of social media.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that there aren’t some young people who post things to get attention, positive feedback and social validation or whose insecurities make them vulnerable and rely too much on the response of others. Selfies did not cause this and, in fact, will not be the only manifestation of that need.
Parents and teachers should take note. The silver lining is that misuse of online activities can provide an early warning system of problems that, without the publicness of the Internet, might otherwise go unnoticed. Preoccupation with selfies can be a visible indicator of a young person with a lack of confidence or sense of self that might make him or her a victim of other problems as well. Excessive and increasingly provocative selfie-ing is a form of “acting out,” a common behavioral pattern to get attention. Just like with other forms of risky or socially confrontational behavior, the attention generated is likely not the kind of attention a young person really needs, This behavior can be an unconscious cry for help.
What’s abnormal for selfies is, as with most things, a lack of balance. If you feel you are lacking balance in your use of selfies*, here are some questions for you:
(Yes or no. You can ask the same questions about social media in general, too.)
If you answer yes to one or two of these questions, it’s time to step back and evaluate your use of selfies. If you answer yes to more than a couple, it’s no longer about selfies. Overuse of selfies (or any form of social media) may mean you are using short-term gratification at the expense of more important goals.
Explore Your Feelings with a Selfie Journal
For one week, keep a journal of how you’re feeling and what you’re doing when you want to take a selfie. This will help you evaluate whether you are overusing selfies to “self-medicate” bad moods or anxiety, trying to satisfy the need for social connection, or just avoiding getting your work done. Identifying what’s going on with you emotionally when you “selfie” will help you take steps to change your behavior. Behavior change comes from small steps with small victories, not going cold turkey. Again, if you find that selfies are running your life or are your only source of self-esteem, it’s time for professional help!
If you are using selfies to improve your mood, try these instead.
If you are using selfies to get approval from others, you are giving away your own power. Make an effort to:
If you are using selfies to procrastinate:
Selfies can be valuable when they can allow you to be playful or when they trigger honest reflection. Here are some tips to keep selfies fun and keep you real:
(*Note: If you feel that selfies and/or social media use are having a significant negative effect on your life and you are unable to change your thoughts or behaviors, please seek professional help. This post is meant to get you thinking; it is not a therapeutic intervention. There is no substitute for working with a qualified mental health professional.)
Cross-posted on PsychologyToday.com at Positively Media.