The selfie phenomenon is a pervasive part of our culture: “selfie” was even Oxford dictionary’s word of the year in 2013. Because of the widespread use of selfies by young people in social media and digital communication, it is important to examine the psychology behind the selfie as well as ways mental health professionals can talk to adolescents and their parents about these issues.
Close-up of a “selfie”
Selfies are often seen as a representation of the narcissistic stereotype of the millennial generation or even as an indicator of low self-esteem, social dependence, or attention-seeking behavior. However, in the context of the digital age, in which young people are immersed in technology and connecting with one another via texting or social media, the selfie is perhaps not always negative.
As a way to connect, selfies are often used to share important experiences and to express feelings at a particular time. It is not a new phenomenon for people to use photographs to document experiences or events. However, with smartphone capabilities, it is now possible to capture a moment spontaneously and to express mood without having to wave down a passerby to take a photo. These expressive images can immediately be shared with social circles via social media. A selfie can be more intimate than a staged photograph because it captures a moment in time that is meant to be shared with others. Many adolescents are trying to develop their sense of identity, experimenting with different looks and experiences, and deciding how they feel while sharing with their social circle. Selfies can be an important part of development within the digital age.
Social networking itself has the potential to increase self-esteem and well-being in adolescents because they receive positive feedback on their social network profile. It also gives an opportunity for affiliation, self-expression, and control over self-presentation.1 Since people control how they are portrayed in their social network profile, they are able to increase their self-esteem momentarily while presenting a positive self-view to others.2 Social networking can enhance a person’s self-esteem and positively affect his or her well-being, particularly when he or she is focused on strong ties to other people while browsing social network pages.1
Not all selfies and social media use are benign and without consequences. In fact, studies have shown that increased social media use can actually decrease life satisfaction. Researchers from the University of Michigan found that the more time spent on Facebook, the worse people felt. Researchers also found that more “direct” contact with other people, such as face-to-face interactions, led people to feel better about themselves over time.3
Researchers from Humboldt University, Berlin, found that one-third of Facebook users in their study felt worse after visiting the site, which sparked frustration, jealousy, and decreased life satisfaction—particularly when viewing others’ vacation and holiday photos. Those most vulnerable to these negative feelings were people who did not post or engage in any interpersonal Facebook interactions themselves, but who used it as an information source by browsing newsfeeds and others’ profiles.4
Perhaps a key point to healthy selfie and social media use is establishing and focusing on the digital interactions and connections made with others, rather than passively browsing others’ digital lives. Whether social media use has a positive or negative effect on self-esteem or life satisfaction can be debated. However, a clear danger often comes with the private texting of nude or sexually charged selfies, often referred to as “sexting.” When adolescents are caught sending nude selfies to one another, the issue of child pornography along with subsequent legal implications arises.
As a recent article in The Atlantic, “Why Kids Sext,” demonstrates, sexting is prevalent in high school culture.5 A 2009 Cox Communications study showed that 20% of teens reported having “participated in sexting” and a study by Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 15% of teens had received “nude or sexually suggestive” photographs on their cell phones.6,7
So why do teens sext? In a study of 617 college freshman, 30% reported sending a nude picture at some point during high school and 45% reported receiving one. The most common reason for sexting was because a date or a boyfriend or girlfriend wanted the picture: the hope was that sexting would attract that person. However, the most concerning motivation behind sexting was pressure or coercion. When a sext was sent under pressure, it was more likely to have a negative emotional impact on the person than if the sext was sent voluntarily. These pressured students were also more likely to have a history of excessive anxiety or dating violence. Luckily, 79% of the sexters reported that the picture itself caused no social or legal problems for them after they sent it.8
The cultural phenomenon of the selfie has taken many forms, whether in detailing events of our daily lives by sharing them on social media or sending nude or suggestive selfies through text messages. In our digital age, it is important for mental health professionals to be knowledgeable about the pervasiveness of social media use and sexting and to be able to talk about it with adolescent patients and their families. Exploring how an adolescent uses selfies, social media, and digital communication can be an important part of a mental health assessment, and can open the door for discussions about self-esteem, body image, healthy relationships, and digital safety.
Dr Peek is a Resident in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans. She reports no conflicts of interest concerning the subject matter of this article.
1. Wilcox K, Stephen AT. Are close friends the enemy? Online social networks, self-esteem, and self-control. J Consum Res. 2013;40. doi:10.1086/668794.
2. Gonzales AL, Hancock JT. Mirror, mirror on my Facebook wall: effects of Facebook exposure on self-esteem. Cyberpsychol Behav Soc Netw. 2011;14:79-83.
3. Kross E, Verduyn P, Demiralp E, et al. Facebook use predicts declines in subjective well-being in young adults. PLoS One. August 2013. http://www.plosone.org/article/fetchObject.action?uri=info%3Adoi%2F10.13.... Accessed November 12, 2014.
4. Krasnova H, Wenninger H, Widjaja T, Buxmann R. Envy on Facebook: a hidden threat to users’ life satisfaction? 2013. http://warhol.wiwi.hu-berlin.de/~hkrasnova/Ongoing_Research_files/WI%202.... Accessed November 12, 2014.
5. Rosin H. Why kids sext. The Atlantic. October 14, 2014. http://m.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/11/why-kids-sext/380798/?.... Accessed November 12, 2014.
6. Thomas K. Teen Online & Wireless Safety Survey: Cyberbullying, Sexting and Parental Controls. May 2009. http://ksdresources.pbworks.com/f/2009_teen_survey_internet_and_wireless.... Accessed November 12, 2014.
7. Lenhart A. Teens and Sexting. Pew Research Center; December 15, 2009. http://www.pewinternet.org/files/old-media//Files/Reports/2009/PIP_Teens.... Accessed November 12, 2014.
8. Englander E. Low risk associated with most teenage sexting: a study of 617 18-yearolds. In: MARC Research Reports. 2012. http://vc.bridgew.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1003&context=marc_reports. Accessed November 12, 2014.