Features

The Ubiquitous Selfie

We’ve become a selfie society. And, it’s not necessarily a pretty picture.  

As defined by Oxford Dictionaries, a selfie is a photograph that one takes of oneself, typically with a smartphone or webcam, and uploads to a social media website.

In 2013, Oxford proclaimed selfie its word of the year. By then, the term had infiltrated everyday language and virtually everyone’s lives. The addition of a front-facing camera on the 2010 iPhone sparked the selfie craze; a surge in celebrity selfie postings on social media ignited it. “The (selfie) fire was burning pretty hot with Facebook, and Instagram added a lot more fuel to it,” says Dr. Nicholas Rule, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto.

A few years ago, Rule and fellow researcher Daniel Re conducted a study of selfie-taking undergraduate students to better understand them and their selfie-taking behaviours. Rule reports that frequent selfie-takers can go to great lengths — adjusting the angle of the shot, using filters and so on — to capture what they feel is the perfect image.

His research found that frequent selfie-takers rated their photos higher — in terms of attractiveness and likeability — than did outsiders who viewed the selfies. As well, all selfie-takers felt they looked better in photos they took of themselves than in the ones researchers snapped. The outsiders, on the other hand, rated both images equally low.

“They actually think they look better (in the selfie), so there’s this lack of awareness. While the (selfie-taker’s) intention is to look better, they actually end up looking worse. There is an irony here in that people are trying to make a good impression and that drive to make that impression, that self-consciousness is leading them to engage in behaviours that are actually unflattering.

“In one respect, they’re seeking the praise and approval of others but the means by which they’re doing it is, ironically, causing them to lose the esteem of others,” says Rule whose research report entitled “Selfie Indulgence – Self-Favoring Biases in Perceptions of Selfies” was published in the May 2016 issue of Social, Psychological and Personality Science.

French psychoanalyst and philosopher Elsa Godart suggests in her writing that the selfie culture fosters insecurities, creates a craving for reassurance that the selfie-taker can get only from ‘likes’ and, subsequently, provokes neurotic behaviour. She cites the disparity between a selfie addict’s real and online image, as well as their isolation and loss of connection to people and their surroundings as a major concern.

Rule concurs that problems can arise if the selfies always look better than the person actually does in real life. He notes that filters — computing software algorithms — built into the phone automatically convert the photo in ways that are meant to be self-enhancing, like a sort of digital make-up. “Every time someone takes a photo they can put these different masks on that can, as Godart suggested, drastically alter over time someone’s sense of what they look like. Looking in the mirror versus an online photo of themselves, that disconnect seems like it could be harmful or dangerous.

“If all that someone sees of you, or more often sees of you, is an altered image on a social media site, then when you actually meet that person there might be challenges — even though you’ve done the best that you can physically in the real world. I would suspect that’s going to lead to some sense of fraudulence or injury to one’s self-esteem,” Rule offers.

Dr. Valerie Steeves, a professor in the Department of Criminology at the University of Ottawa, has been tracking young people’s use of technology since 1999. “When we ask them what their lives are like online, we find out things are all not well,” she says. “They’re kids in an incredibly stressful public environment that puts incredible pressure on them… to have just the right picture, just the right weight, just the right make-up, just the right clothing. Social media gives girls these fantasies to look at and be absorbed by, but you can never really pull it off in person so you end up feeling really badly about yourself.”

Steeves discovered that her young research subjects set rules for themselves regarding social media postings to avoid judgmental reactions.  They are very deliberate in choosing the photos they post in an attempt to eliminate negative consequences for themselves.

Her research contradicts the belief that selfies are ubiquitous among teens and young adults. Her subjects reported shying away from selfies — except in specific circumstances. “When we talk about selfies, we often talk about kids as if they’re narcissistic and constantly putting their private life out there. Even early on, our research indicated that kids value online privacy very, very highly. What was most fascinating is that kids are careful not to put much of themselves on social media. They post photos they think are going to get a lot of ‘likes.’”

It’s acceptable to post an image of your face as long as there’s a commercial product beside you, they told Steeves. A photo of yourself with your macchiato at Starbucks, for example, would be an acceptable selfie post.

In her three-year eGirls research (https://press.uottawa.ca/egirls-ecitizens.html) launched in 2011 with teenagers and young women, Steeves discovered this group posted selfies only when they knew the image would be positively received. “They have social rules about the kind of photos that are safe to post, that they know they’re not going to get judged for. University students know that posting a selfie of themselves drinking will generatelikes.’ When they enter the working world, however, they try to erase those photos from the databank,” says Steeves, the lead researcher for a MediaSmarts project — Young Canadians in a Wired World.

For Steeves, a significant cause for concern is that online space is wallpapered with commercial messages laden with stereotypes. “The stereotypes contained in those messages are amplified so young people will post photos that mirror those stereotypes because they know that’s what the site is asking for, but they don’t do it without caution and they’re aware it can open them up to incredible judgement.”

Young people curate their photo postings to comply with the demands of the online environment, positioning them as if they’re marketing their own lives, Steeves says. “To be successful, they have to fall into these stereotypes. The fact we’re telling kids they’re brands just indicates how strongly we’ve allowed childhood to be commercialized.”


If a student expresses concerns about posting to social media, Dr. Steeves suggests educators:

  • Ask questions about what selfie postings mean to the student
  • Use it as a means to discuss stereotypes and commercialization
  • Recognize the pressures that kids are under on social media and help them navigate that environment
  • Work through options with the student to identify protective measures (Generally, parental surveillance of a child’s social media activity is not helpful since it teaches them they’re not trusted and makes them reluctant to talk to adults.)
  • Explore resources regarding youth and digital media on the MediaSmarts http://mediasmarts.ca/ and eQuality Project websites http://www.equalityproject.ca/ 

Propose a digital fast. (See #Disconnection Challenge on eQuality site)

By: Laurie Nealin

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