Scrutinizing the ‘Selfie’: Self-Confidence or Self-Obsession?

Boy using digital cameraCelebrities do it, regular folks of all ages do it, and several articles and blog posts have been written discussing and analyzing the fascinating trend that is the selfie. It’s a word that has become synonymous with social media, self-love, and in some cases, shocking levels of self-obsession. Justin Bieber, a pop star and trailblazer in the selfie stratosphere, is currently backing a new camera app called “Shots of Me,” which is devoted entirely to the ongoing proliferation of the selfie. And the Oxford Dictionaries Online officially dubbed “selfie” 2013’s Word of the Year.

In case you’ve managed to remain unfamiliar with the term, the selfie consists of any photo taken by the self, of the self, and then posted online, typically via social media sites like Facebook and Instagram. It’s the modern-day self-portrait, and anyone who has access to a camera and the Internet can partake. Over 31 million photos tagged with “#selfie” have been posted to Instagram to date (Walker, 2013), and according to a “nationally representative” report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, teens are especially caught up in the selfie hype. Approximately 91% of those surveyed have posted at least one selfie (Madden et al., 2013).

Considering the very nature of social media is largely self-focused, with profiles catering to personal descriptions, interests, status updates, photos, and pretty much whatever else a person feels inclined to reveal to the masses, it doesn’t come as a huge surprise that selfies have become so popular. But their prevalence still begs the question: Why are people so obsessed with snapping photos of themselves and posting them online—and what does this say about those who do it?

Selfies: The Good …

Many theories have been shared regarding the widespread popularity of selfies, as well as the context in which some of them have been taken. Some take a more positive slant than others.

An article on Slate.com suggests that “selfies are good for girls,” as they encourage young girls, in particular, to be proud of who they are (Simmons, 2013). Author Rachel Simmons posits that despite the many advances in gender equality, many young girls still grow up with the understanding that being submissive and humble are desirable traits and that to have self-confidence is often seen as being conceited. In contrast to this, the selfie empowers females to celebrate not just their looks but also their accomplishments by shooting “tiny bursts of pride” into cyberspace, thereby encouraging other young women to do the same.

In a New York Times article, Jenna Wortham writes that the selfie is merely a mode of self-expression, and a means of communicating and connecting with others (2013). She also touches on the empowering nature of the selfie when she describes an old black-and-white photo she procured in an antique store of “a female pilot on a mountaintop,” in which the camera is most definitely being held by the woman in the photo.

Wortham stumbled upon a selfie taken decades before the word officially existed, which shows the longstanding human desire to capture ourselves in our moments of personal satisfaction and triumph, with or without the Internet.

… The Bad …

Others, however, view the selfie as a much more problematic reflection of where society stands with regard to self-obsession and sexual objectification. A recent article on Jezebel.com describes them as a “cry for help” (Ryan, 2013).

“Selfies aren’t empowering; they’re a high tech reflection of the… way society teaches women that their most important quality is their physical attractiveness,” writes Erin Gloria Ryan. A Teen Vogue article similarly delves into the “unexpected consequences of selfie-obsession” (Walker, 2013) by examining the potential dangers of a person’s sense of self-worth being tied to pictures posted online and the comments that go along with them.

Researchers in the United Kingdom recently reported that overdoing the selfies may also damage relationships, romantic and otherwise (Miller, 2013). Though it can be intriguing to see the person you’re interested in or involved with feeling confident enough to post selfies, it can also be a deterrent if that person posts too many self-portraits online. According to the researchers, friends, family members, and colleagues may feel alienated if an individual appears overly self-obsessed in social media outlets.

… And the Unsightly

Some even post selfies en route to and while attending funerals, a phenomenon so curious it has its own Tumblr blog: selfiesatfunerals.tumblr.com. The site was created by Jason Feifer, who quite simply states in his introductory video, “There’s some things a man should never do at a funeral.”

The funeral selfie trend doesn’t seem to be more popular with one sex over another; one of the photos on the site depicts a teen girl with styled hair and pouty pink lips sitting in an attention-attracting pose. The words underneath her picture read, “You never appreciate what you have til its [sic] gone. R.I.P. Grandpa, you will be missed,” followed by a sad face and a heart.

Does Selfie Analysis Promote Sexism?

Much of the discussion about selfies is centered on women and young girls who take them, regardless of the reality that plenty of teenage boys and grown men take them, too. One group of guys posted a YouTube video called the “Selfie Song” (Mippey5 Music, 2013). In it, a handful of young men take selfies in various locations and repeat the chorus, “I’m bored, so I’m gonna take a selfie. I’m obsessed. It’s unhealthy. Click, share. I don’t care that I’m a man. I’m gonna take another pic and I’m gonna post to Instagram.”

And yet, attention remains largely focused on the young girls and women who engage in selfie posting.

In September of this year, Kimberly Hall, a mother and women’s ministry leader in Austin, Texas, wrote a letter on her blog “Given Breath” to the teenage girls who post selfies. Hall expressed obvious disdain for the seductive nature of girls’ photos. “Wow—you sure took a bunch of selfies in your skimpy PJs this summer!” wrote Hall.

Although she has since removed the photo, she originally posted the letter with a picture of her three sons on the beach wearing only their swim trunks. Many readers found the photo highly inconsistent with the content of her post—even hypocritical—and following outcry, Hall replaced the photo with one that showed her sons fully clothed and smiling.

The indignant tone of the letter remains online, however. Hall shames girls who photograph themselves in their bathing suits and bedrooms and reprimands them in the name of the purity of her teenage sons. Hall didn’t mention whether her sons had any male friends who were posting summertime selfies, but considering what we know from teen selfie stats from earlier this year, she probably did see several selfie posts from young men. Were those pictures less offensive or worrisome?

Self-Obsession: Who Are You, Anyway?

Self-exploration and analysis are ongoing themes in social media, life in general, and in the field of psychotherapy. Examining our ideas of self and where they originate is a trademark of traditional therapeutic sessions, in which self-love, self-acceptance, and self-compassion are widely encouraged, and each of these traits requires time spent evaluating and developing a deeper understanding of the self.

But what about when someone is so confident—or confused—that he or she feels compelled to post constant selfies in an attempt to gain approval, attention, admiration, and validation? When does the desire to attain self-acceptance via social media shift into a potentially destructive form of self-obsession?

Studies conducted in previous years have attempted to assess whether Facebook promotes narcissism as well as the extent to which narcissistic traits are connected to low self-esteem (Parker-Pope, 2012; Tucker, 2010). In 2010, using the Narcissism Personality Inventory and the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale, psychology researcher Soraya Mehdizadeh measured the Facebook activity of 100 college students.

Mehdizadeh’s findings suggest that those with narcissistic behavior and those with low self-esteem are likely to spend over an hour a day on Facebook, and that those who inflate their own reputations or identity in their photos and status updates may very well be doing so to compensate for feelings of inadequacy. Along these lines, yet another concern surrounding selfies is the extent to which the images can be altered and manipulated to project a person’s ideal identity as opposed to his or her real identity.

A nationwide survey of 1,000 girls between the ages of 14 to 17, conducted in 2010 by the Girls Scouts of the USA, revealed that nearly 74% of those asked believe their female peers use social media to make themselves appear “cooler than they really are.” The survey also shared the view that most young women “downplay” their positive traits like intelligence and kindness on their social media profiles. Instead, what gets the bulk of the attention is physical appearance, as is reflected in the selfie.

Of course, the ability to create an online profile that reflects the ideal versus the real you does have a strangely enticing allure: Create a page devoted entirely to yourself; post photos on that page that reflect exactly how you want to be seen, often with carefully calculated camera angles, lighting, and edits; and share this work of social media art with whomever you  choose. In other words, you are in control of who others think you are, which may or may not be who you actually are.

Ultimately, the reality is that regardless of the authenticity or lack thereof displayed in people’s profiles, social media sites like Facebook and Instagram are well established as outlets for self-expression and social connection, and they don’t appear to be going anywhere any time soon. Perhaps some simply need a reminder to use them wisely and simmer down on the selfies. After all, there are other people who are worth photographing, too.

References:

  1. Girl Scouts of the USA. (2010). Who’s that girl? Image and social media survey. (New York, NY). Retrieved from http://www.girlscouts.org/research/publications/stem/image_and_social_media_survey.asp
  2. Hall, K. (2013, September 3). FYI (if you’re a teenage girl). Given Breath. Retrieved from http://givenbreath.com/2013/09/03/fyi-if-youre-a-teenage-girl/
  3. Madden, M., Lenhart, A., Cortesi, S., Gasser, U., Duggan, M., Smith, A., and Beaton, M. (2013, May 21). Teens, social media, and privacy. Pew Internet & American Life Project. Retrieved from http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2013/Teens-Social-Media-And-Privacy/Summary-of-Findings.aspx
  4. Miller, T. (2013, August 12). Too many selfies on Facebook can damage relationships: study. New York Daily News. Retrieved from http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/selfies-damage-relationships-study-article-1.1424830
  5. Mippey5 Music. (2013, January 22). Selfie song. YouTube

    . Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_O7aM0J3CI

  6. Parker-Pope, T. (2012, May 17). Does Facebook turn people into narcissists? The New York Times. Retrieved from http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/05/17/does-facebook-turn-people-into-narcissists/?_r=0
  7. Ryan, E. G. (2013, November 22). Selfies aren’t empowering. They’re a cry for help. Jezebel.com. Retrieved from http://jezebel.com/selfies-arent-empowering-theyre-a-cry-for-help-1468965365
  8. Tucker, J. H. (2010, November 2). Study of Facebook users connects narcissism and low self-esteem. Scientific American. Retrieved from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=status-update-im-so-glamorous
  9. Walker, M. (2013). The good, the bad, and the unexpected consequences of selfie-obsession. Teen Vogue. Retrieved from http://www.teenvogue.com/advice/2013-08/selfie-obsession
  10. Wortham, J. (2013, October 19). My selfie, myself. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/20/sunday-review/my-selfie-myself.html
  11. Simmons, R. (2013, November 20). Selfies are good for girls. Slate.com. Retrieved from http://tinyurl.com/munjlpo

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 9 comments
  • Leave a Comment
  • Pete

    December 3rd, 2013 at 4:06 PM

    The selfie phenomenon is weird to me.
    Who needs to spend that much time taking and posting pics of themselves?

  • sandy

    December 28th, 2013 at 10:45 AM

    Vanity……

  • kimmy

    December 4th, 2013 at 4:49 AM

    I don’t see the problem with a cute selfie every now and then. If you are feeling good about what you look like that day or are doing something fun that you want to share with others then why not? So I get it that this can be seen as kind of narcissistic sp? but for me it is just a way to say something like you like my new haircut? How about this outfit? Stuff like that, not meant to be taken all serious and such.

  • Wills

    December 5th, 2013 at 5:00 AM

    I fail to see why there are just those people, and you know who they are because we all have them in our lives, why they think that I am always going to e interested in every thing that they do and every new thing that they own. Add to that all of the pompous little self portraits that they are posting and sharing with us all o ver social media? It just feels a bit much.

  • monique

    December 8th, 2013 at 4:33 AM

    I hadn’t given much thought to this until I read the article but now that I have I think to my own instagram and facebook friends and it seems that the ones always posting the most pictires of themselves are quite frankly the people who are the most needy. It almost feels like they are looking for compliments and when they get them this just drives the need for getting and receiving more and more. They are those people who look for followers and friends just to drive up the number count, like that is some kind of validation of who they are or how good they are. I would hate to think that I had to depend on all of that to boost my own confidence.

  • Exasperated

    December 22nd, 2013 at 11:20 PM

    I find this article very interesting, I have friends who constantly, and when I say constantly,I mean friends who are addicted of taking selfies. I find the whole thing very uncomfortable and irritating not to mention ODD!
    The unnecessary pouting, the trying to look natural- when clearly they have taken the picture at the minimum of 30 times before they find the one that suits their approval! Especially, if they have met a guy who they have on either their Whatsapp, Instagram, or Facebook- the selfies come in thick and fast!! I’ve been in public places such as restaurants and all of a sudden as I’m in mid sentence,their dreaded phone comes out and the selfie starts! Is there a cure out there for these girls who are a victim to this dreaded illness??!!

  • Dr. samuel

    May 25th, 2014 at 6:55 AM

    I feel ppl click selfie everytime n update their status n what they are doing in ever second on whatspp or facebook etc is sometimes psychs becose they usually want to flaunt that they are super happy or doing many excited stuff which in real is untrue and make people jeolous. So if u r really happy u will feel it and others will also comes to know rather. Generally people fake as they need a serious help from a proffessional treatment to not to carry this lifestyle which could be damaging their lives in future. An there are people who does may be becouse they have very less friends or may b just to make others jeolous. Be happy and spend time being happy rather then flaunting or you seriously need help.

  • puja

    September 17th, 2015 at 11:41 PM

    its not really narcissism. its just a way to show others that you are happy or feeling sad depressed euphoric or anything. but on the downside, 2 much of a good thing is not appreciable.

  • shrishti

    December 2nd, 2016 at 8:53 AM

    Nyccc topiccc ………….intrsting

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