Psychology of the selfie
In 2015, there were 24 billion selfies posted on Google's servers – and that doesn’t include the plethora of other social media networks to which we upload millions of pictures every day. Clearly we’re in love with the medium, but at what cost?
Let’s first look at how we arrived at this place. The first recorded selfie was taken in 1839, 12 years after the birth of photography. It was taken by Robert Cornelius, an amateur chemist and photography enthusiast from Philadelphia. The trigger for the modern-day selfie trend came much more recently, however, with the arrival of the iPhone’s front-facing camera and the subsequent explosion of social media.
The answer to why photographing ourselves became so popular may seem easy: we take pictures to create a memory of a moment we enjoyed. But that’s not the true reason. If you want to really be honest with yourself, you would admit that you take selfies to showcase yourself. This is your opportunity to show your friends what you look like and what you’ve been up to lately.
And this is why we choose only the selfies that depict us at our best. Those ‘spontaneous’ selfies can take a typical teenage girl in the UK an average of twelve minutes to perfect, and it takes an average of seven selfies before you find the right one. If you measure your self-worth on the number of likes you receive then this is certainly time well spent or wasted, depending on your view.
Some will say that this is only an extension of what we’ve always done. People through the ages have been taking ‘selfies’ in the form of self-portraits. From as early as the 1400s, those who had the means to do so would commission artists to create a self-representation on canvas that would showcase their social status. What makes the difference between the 1400s and the modern day, however, is the magnifying effect that social media has on the popularity or demonisation of such images – and how this affects our self-image.
This leads us on to the argument that today’s social media selfies are a product of a narcissistic or a psychopathic personality. I do not know how much truth there is on such claims. But selfies do undoubtedly change the way we see ourselves. Many argue that posting a selfie can boost self-esteem as you portray yourself in your best light and consequently you are proud of the picture you share. At the same time, if you consider the time that goes into taking and editing the right selfie, I doubt how strong the self-esteem statement really is.
I also wonder about the effect of spending hours on social media looking at other people’s selfies. A recent study at the University of Strathclyde, suggests that spending time on Facebook looking at selfies is linked to negative feelings about body image. There is also a negative correlation between the number of selfies we post and the levels of connection we feel with out friends, in other words the more selfies you post the more likely it is your friends will dislike you.
My view is that the proverb “a picture is worth a thousand words” is now more relevant than ever. With the online world being saturated with photographs it takes a very special picture to be actually worthy of a thousand words. Maybe that’s why we spend all this time altering them to try and make them special. I’d argue that these changes only serve to depict a filtered side of our reality.
And here’s why this point matters. In an age where life tends to be about comparing ourselves to others, it is easy to perceive the grass as being greener on the other side. This, of course, is a perception and not necessarily always reality. Selfies are not necessarily a true reflection of people or their daily life, they are merely a collection of their best moments.
We would do well to remember that fact and concentrate instead on winning our own race, rather than continually looking over our shoulders at what we think the rest of the field is doing.
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Sophia Fromell is a certified Life Coach with a degree in Life Coaching Skills and Practice from Newcastle College, UK and a member of The International Coach Federation (ICF)