The Rise and Rise of the Selfie
Do any of these statements apply to you? How about to anyone you know, including any clients?
- “I gain enormous attention by sharing my selfies on social media.”
- “Taking different selfie poses helps increase my social status.”
- “Taking more selfies improves my mood and makes me feel happy.”
- “I become a strong member of my peer group through selfie postings.”
The above statements come from the Selfitis Behaviour Scale recently produced by Dr Mark Griffiths and Dr Janarthanan Balakrishnan (2018). They wrote it in response to the explosive rise of what some regard as “obsessive” selfie-taking. Their own research with 400 students found that over half their sample (223 respondents) reported taking between one and four selfies a day, with more than a quarter (141) taking between five and eight selfies per day. Incredibly, nearly 10% of the sample (36 students) took more than eight a day (Balakrishnan & Griffiths, 2018).
This article explores the motivations for all the photos of ourselves, and poses the question of whether, as mental health professionals, we should be worried about the phenomenon. Is there any connection, we can ask, to the darker side of our human nature?
First, let’s be sure we’re thinking about the same thing. ‘Selfie’ has been defined in the Oxford English Dictionary (online) as: “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media” (Oxford English Dictionary, n.d.). The term ‘selfitis’ in Balakrishnan and Griffiths’ assessment scale came originally from a 2014 article appearing on a website entitled the Adobo Chronicles that claimed the American Psychiatric Association had classed selfitis as a new mental disorder. The article said that it is “the obsessive-compulsive desire to take photos of one’s self and post them on social media as a way to make up for the lack of self-esteem and to fill a gap in intimacy” (Griffiths, 2018).
The story, re-published on a number of news websites around the world, later turned out to be a hoax, but Balakrishnan and Griffiths realised that the term might be useful in their quest to examine whether there was any substance to claims that taking selfies can be a time-consuming and potentially obsessive behaviour: the stereotype the researchers claim underlies the credulity the story had for many people. So let’s look at the evidence. What have researchers found to date about this 21st-century pursuit? Is it obsessive? And if it is, is that a problem?
Selfie psychology: What’s the motivation for all the pics?
There seem to be almost as many schemas for understanding selfie motivation as there are studies — and not all are of equal quality.
Griffiths and Balakrishnan: Genuine and perceived identity
Griffiths, writing about the research mentioned above, notes that it turned up six motivations for taking selfies:
- Self-confidence: to feel more positive about oneself (e.g., the comment of respondent Tess: “I admire myself and gain extraordinary confidence, when I see myself in selfies”)
- Environmental enhancement: to feel good and show off to others in specific locations (e.g., the remark by Nila: “Taking selfies in a specific environment helps me to remember the moment for a long time”)
- Social competition: to get more ‘likes’ on social media (e.g., the response by Lakhsmi: “I feel I am lost when my friends get more likes and comments for selfies than me”)
- Attention-seeking: to gain attention from others (e.g., the comment by Murthy: “I spend at least twenty minutes editing and grooming the picture before uploading it in social media”)
- Mood modification: to feel better (e.g., Precilla’s remark: “I take selfies to relax and energize my mood to a positive temperament”)
- Subjective conformity: to fit in with one’s social group and peers (e.g., the quote from Aashik: “I try to show the best of my of creativity by taking different selfies, which uplifts my social status among my friends”) (Griffiths, 2019)
Griffiths’ comment on the motivation was telling; he noted that these motivations enable individuals to create genuine or perceived identities: the former expressing who the selfie-taker is and the latter showcasing who they believe they are or want to be. There is a world of difference between the two.
Kowalczyk: Managing impressions
Caroline Kowalczyk, referring to 2016 research she published along with Kathrynn Pounders and Kirsten Stowers in the Journal of European Marketing, reported that in-depth interviews with 15 millennial women (aged 19-30) turned up three main reasons why people (especially, female millennials) post selfies. They’re all about managing impressions and thereby managing self-esteem: reasons Griffiths and Balakrishnan would undoubtedly refer to as motivations enhancing perceived identity.
- To convey happiness. Posting selfies as a way of collecting happy moments can also serve selfie-takers as a reflection of their hoped-for lives, inasmuch as they post only photos which highlight the best parts of their lives, but never from times when they are sad or upset. Because selfies reflect how women would like to be perceived, selfies that are indicative of happiness develop that desired identity.
- To show beauty. If a woman posts a picture of herself looking beautiful, it adds to her desired identity, so carefully curated, as a physically attractive person.
- To enhance self-esteem. This can be both a motivation for posting selfies and also an outcome of doing so. That is, a solid number of ‘likes’ can increase a person’s self-esteem, and a lack of ‘likes’ (or even, critical comments) can negatively impact it.
This study found that the desire to manage impressions on social media was so strong that interviewees acknowledged posting both authentic and false posts in order to manage their reputations as happy, attractive people (Kowalczyk, 2019).
Al-Kandari & Abdelaziz: Appraisal-seeking and status-updating
Similarly, researchers Ali Al-Kandari and Yasser Abdelaziz found that, among their sample of 404 Kuwaiti university students, posties were taken and posted for four chief reasons:
- Appraisal-seeking self-presentation (ASSP)
- Status-updating self-presentation (SUSP)
Female respondents were more likely to be involved in selfie-related activities, and to use selfies for ASSP. Documentation was the main predictor of the activity of taking selfies, SUSP was the main predictor of posting selfies, and ASSP was for editing them. The researchers found that self-perceived attractiveness predicted the activities of posting and taking selfies (Al-Kandari & Abdelaziz, 2017).
The motive of having fun/entertaining oneself would seem to belong under a heading of “genuine identity” creation, and documentation could be. The SUSP motivation, which the researchers linked with the activity of posting selfies, seems more aligned with Kowalczyk et al’s impression management, or Griffith & Balakrishnan’s motivations creating perceived identity.
Sung et al: Enter narcissism as selfie-posting motivation
Noting that posting online pictures — particularly selfies — has become an important aspect of the online social experience, researchers Yongjun Sung and associates (2016) identified four motivations for posting selfies. They examined the roles of both the motivations and also narcissism in predicting selfie-posting behaviour. The motivations, whose congruence to other motivations can be seen, were:
- Attention-seeking: Identical to Griffith and Balakrishnan’s factor and similar to both Kowalczyk’s motivations of conveying happiness and showing beauty and the Kuwaiti researchers’ ASSP and SUSP.
- Communication: Found in Griffith & Balakrishnan’s motivations (2), (3), and (6), and to some degree in all of Kowalczyk’s, this motivation alludes to the celebration of postie-taking as the ultimate self-expression.
- Archiving: Related to documentation.
- Entertainment: Same as above and similar to mood modification.
Interestingly, Sung et al noted that all motivations except entertainment joined narcissism in significantly predicting selfie-posting intention; moreover, only narcissism predicted selfie-posting frequency (2016).
Obsessive? Pathological? Or just a fact of modern life?
While there is no actual DSM-5 chapter on a personality or mental disorder of obsessive selfie-taking (that is: the “selfitis” the hoax article discussed), when researchers begin to link a behaviour with either narcissistic traits or obsessive traits/addiction, we do want to see what’s involved in the association, especially given the hard-to-treat natures of both narcissism and addiction.
In a brief review of the literature on selfie-taking and mental health, selfie “addiction” was reported to be most associated with low self-esteem, narcissism, loneliness, and depression (Kaur & Vig, 2016). Griffiths reports that an article by Tolete and Salarda reported similar findings (Tolete & Salarda, 2017, in Griffiths, 2018). And a small Indian study of 50 adolescents by Singh and Tripathi found that narcissism and hyperactivity were positively correlated with selfie “addiction”. Self-image was negatively correlated with selfie addiction (Singh & Tripathi, 2017). Most of these studies were either too brief, had too small of a sample, or — in the case of the Singh and Tripathi work — used an instrument to assess selfie tendencies which had little to do with addiction and merely asked about typical behaviour (e.g., frequency of taking and posting selfies). It seems that there are few studies available on the relationship between selfie-taking and mental health, and that those studies which have been done have methodological weaknesses.
The DSM-5 decision
Where does that leave us in terms of how we shall understand the huge popularity of selfie-taking: is it indicative of a mental or personality disorder, as we understand addiction and narcissism to be? It’s worth remembering that the mental health professionals contributing to the DSM-5 jointly did include gambling (a behaviour) as a non-substance addiction. This was because they had peer-reviewed evidence that a deepening gambling habit follows similar brain-changing reward pathways to what an alcohol misuse habit does. On those same grounds, they decided not to include other compulsive behaviours, such as shopping, sex, or gaming, because they (the professionals) were:
“unable to find a substantial number of studies supporting a relationship of the aforementioned reward-based conditions to substance use disorders, thus supporting the contention not to include compulsive buying, compulsive sex, and kleptomania in DSM-5 as behavioral addictions” (Piquet-Pessoa, Ferreira, Melca, & Fontenelle, 2014).
Selfies in colour, but our position may be grey
Unlike the high-definition, full-colour photos we so merrily post, a sensible position on this issue may be more of a nuanced grey. It seems there is not great empirical evidence today for confident assertion that frequent selfie-taking and posting is either narcissistic or an incipient addiction. BUT we need to keep several things in mind:
There may be better evidence in the very near future, given the explosion of popularity of the activity on social media sites. Our recommendation: take a wait-and-see approach, and watch this space.
Go with your gut instinct a little bit. If you have a client, friend, or family member who seems to be living for the many-times-a-day opportunity to post their next perfect pic of themselves — and then receive all the anticipated ‘likes’ — what do you pick up more generally about their mental health? That is:
- How happy or free from anxiety or depression do they seem to be?
- How robust is their self-esteem and self-confidence?
- How much do they have an inner (versus outer) locus of control?
- Do they display any known symptoms of narcissism (e.g., excessive sense of self-importance, sense of entitlement, preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, or brilliance)?
- What about their tendencies toward addiction: do they display good self-regulation with regard to addictive substances, such as nicotine, caffeine, alcohol, and drugs? Are they reasonably in control of shopping, gaming, and sexual impulses?
Concerns in any of these areas could be a red flag for further examining selfie behaviour, although taking lots of pictures is in itself benign. As always, any treatment would involve figuring out the best pathway to living more in the fullness of the client’s whole self, a state which would see the sharing of an experience via pictures as a choice (not a compulsion). It would be a choice motivated not by perceived deficits in the self, but by a genuine desire to create closer, more fulfilling relationships, including the one with oneself.
- Al-Kandari, A.A., & Abdelaziz, Y.A. (2017). Selfie-taking motives and social psychological dispositions as predictors of selfie-related activities among university students in Kuwait. Mobile Media & Communication. Retrieved on 3 September, 2019, from: Website.
- Balakrishnan, J., & Griffiths, M.D. (2018). An Exploratory Study of “Selfitis” and the Development of the Selfitis Behavior Scale. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, Volume 16(3), 722 — 736.
- Griffiths, M.D. (2018). Obsessive selfie-taking. Psychology Today. Retrieved on 4 September, 2019, from: Website.
- Griffiths, M.D. (2019). The psychology of the selfie. Psychology Today. Retrieved on 4 September, 2019, from: Website.
- Kaur, S., & Vig, D. (2016). Selfie and mental health issues: An overview. Indian Journal of Health and Wellbeing. 7(12), 1149-1152.
- Kowalczyk, C. (2019). The selfie phenomenon: 3 reasons why people love to take selfies. Emerald publishing. Retrieved on 3 September, 2019, from: Website.
- Oxford English Dictionary. (n.d.). Definition of selfie. Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved on 4 September, 2019, from: Website.
- Piquet-Pessoa, M., Ferreira, G.M., Melca, I.A., & Fontenelle, L.F. (2014). DSM-5 and the decision not to include sex, shopping or stealing as addictions. Current addiction reports, September, 2104, Volume 1 (3), 172-176. Retrieved from Springer Link, on 5 September, 2019, at: Website.
- Sing, S., & Tripathi, K.M. (2017). Selfie: A new obsession. SSRN (Social Science Research Network), 1-3. Retrieved from: Website.
- Sung, Yongjun, Lee, J-A., Kim, E., & Choi, S.M. (2016). Why we post selfies: Understanding motivations for posting pictures of oneself. Personality and Individual Differences, Volume 97, 260-265.