The selfie craze has been in full swing for a year or two now.
Instagram, vine, facebook, tumblr, Flickr, youtube – the selfie portals are ubiquitous, and selfies are unavoidable. Even our former Prime Minister loves selfies!
What is a selfie?
For those who aren’t completely absorbed in their smartphones and apps, a selfie is a ‘self-portrait’, usually taken by with a camera phone. Urban dictionary defines it (humourously) as:
“A picture taken of yourself that is planned to be uploaded to Facebook, Myspace or any other sort of social networking website. You can usually see the person’s arm holding out the camera in which case you can clearly tell that this person does not have any friends to take pictures of them so they resort to Myspace to find internet friends and post pictures of themselves, taken by themselves. A selfie is usually accompanied by a kissy face or the individual looking in a direction that is not towards the camera.”
How common is the selfie?
Until a few years ago, selfies were unusual. With digital photography and smart phones so prevalent, today the selfie is de rigueur – strictly required!
Jump onto instagram and explore the #me tag and you’ll find over 90 million selfies. The #selfie hashtag (and its similar tags like #selfies, #selfiesunday #selfiesaturday #selfienation, etc) account for at least another 40 million pictures. Obviously not every selfie gets these hashtags, but by these numbers selfies are just about the most popular photo online. Selfies are more popular than pictures of the ocean, babies, sunsets, and even cats.
The cult of the selfie exists principally among teenagers (and tweens) – and mostly girls. The stereotypical teen girl poses with the #duckface, which means she puts on a pout as though she wants to kiss the person viewing her picture. The #duckface is often complemented with a peace sign. Teen girls also practise their provocative poses in their selfies, which probably explains at least part of the outcry about selfies.
Common complaints about selfies
There are a small handful of significant ‘concerns’ with selfies:
Selfies breed narcissism
Narcissus was a Greek God who, walking past a pool of water, fell in love with his own reflection. Anyone with a teenager will have seen how obsessed some of them may become with checking for ‘likes’ after posting a selfie. If 20 people haven’t double-tapped their screen to register their approval within 90 seconds, some people will dive into despair, concerned their appearance somehow fails them in this photo.
Selfies promote looks over everything else
Some people are concerned that our children may be basing their sense of worth on the number of likes their selfies garner. Likes can be thought of as indicators of worth, and what is ‘hot’ or ‘sexy’ or, at the very least, ‘pretty’ is what gets likes.
Selfies are sexualised
While selfies on the major photo-sharing sites are not ‘indecent’ (or they’ll be removed), many selfies are shared with the intent to be seductive or provocative. Not all sites have the same standards of decency (tumblr, snapchat, anyone?), but a large proportion of selfies are designed to promote an idea of sexual availability and accessibility. Sex sells, and our teens know it.
Selfies invite social comparison
One of the surest ways to send ourselves into a spin, whether through stress, anxiety, depression, or all three, is to compare ourselves to others. The social media photo-sharing platforms invite social comparison in the most public (and sometimes humiliating) of ways.
In defence of selfies
But is the selfie craze evil? Here are a two central reasons we might think about settling down about selfies:
Identity development, and trying on new ‘selves’
Teens may be the main selfie sharers because this is the time they are trying on new identities. It can be fun to take a snapshot of ourselves to see how we’d ‘be’ if that were really us. These are years where identity exploration is a central task. Teens have always been self-obsessed and self-absorbed. The selfie craze is simply a new vehicle for expressing and developing the ‘self’.
Selfies have always existed
We love those little photo booths in shopping centres where (usually) teen girls (and some grown ups) pose for photos with friends and family. Four fun shots shoot out of the machine and we put them on the fridge to stare at. We love to stick our heads into the holes sawn into Western scenes at theme parks, taking photos of ourselves in unique or unusual settings. And few people have ever been called narcissistic for having their portrait taken. While not strictly selfies, the self portraits here are close enough, but never caused any problems.
What does research say?
It’s too early to have any meaningful, high quality empirical research related to selfies per se. That hasn’t stopped many people claiming the sky will fall because of selfies. Those who claim narcissism is rising because of social media (and by implication, because of selfies) are ignoring the research that indicated narcissism was on the rise well before the Internet took off. (Although the Internet may be enhancing it.)
While selfies are certainly about image and looks, two points should be made.
First, society has always valued things deemed to be ‘attractive’. Yes, it’s true that our value is far more than our looks. Yes it’s true that we shouldn’t be so superficial. But history – and biology – clearly demonstrate that looks matter. It is normal behaviour.
Second, the majority of selfies we see are not beautiful. They’re photos of ordinary girls (and boys). Yes, in many cases they are trying to be seductive. Some might argue this is related to objectification, sexualisation, or pornification of femininity. In some cases they would be right. In other cases, it’s just a girl trying to be cool. There’s nothing more to it.
What do we do about it?
Trends come and go. They are driven by how intrinsically valued an activity is. Yo-yo’s were fun, but went out of style. Flares were cool once – everyone had them. Justin Bieber used to trend, but now he doesn’t. And there aren’t too many people that still post pictures of their meals to twitter or instagram either. It’s not trendy anymore.
Like all trends, once the newness wears off, they’re no longer trendy. They lose their impact. People gloss over them. Already there are so many selfies that many are starting to flick past them without a second glance.
My prediction, the selfie craze is just that – a craze. A trend. It will slow down. And end. And then we’ll wonder why it was such a big deal.
But my kids are addicted to selfies. What do I do?
There is a dark side to the selfie. The serious concerns raised earlier can become genuine issues in some of our lives (or the lives of our children). When our children are posting photos to get attention, obsessing over the amount of likes they receive, and becoming insecure if they don’t receive enough social validation we may need to help them. (But I would add that these kinds of problems existed before selfies and will exist after selfies have become passe.)
The excessive emphasis on selfies some teens display may be a signal that your child needs some extra attention. Ask your teen a few questions like these:
- Do you find that you’re always thinking about selfies and how you can take another one, or do one differently next time?
- Are you wanting to take selfies all the time – more and more?
- Do you take selfies as a way of proving that you’re as good as, or better than, others?
- Do you use selfies to procrastinate from other important things?
- If your selfies don’t get likes do you feel depressed or unworthy?
- Do you feel like you need to be sexy in your selfies – or to be someone you’re not really?
- Can you get through the day without taking a selfie?
- Do your selfies give you a sense that you matter?
Keep calm and take a selfie
The selfie is new and trendy. It is polarising and provocative. It is visual and in your face. Do we need to worry about it?
Sometimes selfies are a symptom of dysfunction. They’re a way for our teens to seek and obsess over social validation, looks and appearance, and sexual accessibility. In these instances, we need to act – gently but clearly – to help our teens develop a sense of self that is separate to their looks and the ‘likes’ they’re receiving.
But for the most part, selfies are safe and fun. They’re a way for our teens to relate, socialise, and even try on, explore, or expand identities. In these situations they’re really no big deal. Instead they can be a celebration and recognition of everything that’s normal in youth. And they can empower our kids to be themselves, even when people are watching.
ADDENDUM – A little while ago I saw a thirty-something year-old woman driving down the freeway at 110km/h taking selfies of herself, doing the #duckface, and posing with those in the back seat. #notcool #overdoingit #narcissimepidemic #thatisaproblem #justpointingoutthedifference