Selfies…the Greatest Menace to Modern Society! Just Ask These Mental Health Professionals!


Recently an article was posted to my Facebook feed that I wish I hadn’t seen. Unfortunately, once seen, things cannot be unseen, and although I strongly expressed my opinion with regards to this little nugget at the time and location of its post, I find myself ruminating on the matter and felt that it required somewhat more formal redress. The article that was posted was actually quite short and poorly written, so I won’t bother to post that particular link, but therein was cited a source with more comprehensive, and sadly more disturbing information.
Basically, as the URL states, a handful of so-called experts are claiming that the taking of selfies can cause, or are indicative of, a host of mental illnesses. If you’re behind the times, a “selfie” is a photo that a person takes of themselves or possibly two or more people (if they can fit more) by holding the camera away pointed at themselves, or by taking a photo of themselves in a mirror. This article is expounding on the dangers of taking selfies, and of online media in general, stating that selfies cause or are indicative of narcissism, low self-esteem, attention seeking behavior, self indulgence, actual addiction to taking selfies and in this extreme case they cite, a suicide attempt.
Now, I’m sure many of you have that one friend or acquaintance on a social media site who is constantly posting selfies and waiting for the compliments to roll in, so these declarations may not seem all that far from the mark, but first, let’s take a look at this article and get some facts straight.
The case that is cited in this article is about a man with Body Dysmorphic Disorder who is taking hundreds of selfies a day in the attempt to get the perfect one, which he is of course unable to do, because he has Body Dysmorphic Disorder! Whatever flaw he believes himself to have will always show up in his pictures, so he could take them for hours and hours and never take one that he found acceptable, which is exactly what he did. His parents, who are cited as “mental health professionals”, deemed his constant picture taking an addiction. Mental health professionals could mean anything. Are they case managers, counselors, aides at a hospital? Do they know how to diagnose and/or treat a mental illness? My guess is probably not on the latter if they believe his excessive selfie habit is an addiction. The term addiction is used rather loosely amongst laymen to mean any general activity or behavior done to excess, but let’s make one thing clear here. Something done to excess does not necessarily an addiction make. Addictions are all about reward responses. A person is rewarded, either biochemically, psychologically, or both, to continue to engage in a particular behavior. Yeah, over time they often come to hate their addiction because it pretty much takes over their whole lives and ruins their health, livelihood and relationships, but they didn’t start engaging in that particular behavior because they hated it, they did so because they enjoyed it and continued because they couldn’t stop. A person with Body Dysmorphic Disorder who has an issue with their physical appearance would not enjoy looking at pictures of themselves. It would be extremely disheartening, frustrating, and likely to cause, or deepen preexisting, depression. Each photo amplifying for them the terrible flaw they cannot hide no matter how hard they try. For this particular person, he wanted so badly to take just one image of himself that he could feel was acceptable, and the most comfortable way to do this would be to take the photos himself, (how are you going to enlist a friend or hire a photographer to take over 200 pictures of you a day, and of course only you can look over them because you wouldn’t want anyone to see the bad ones, right?, then tell that person that none of them were any good, let’s do it again tomorrow), but because of his preexisting mental illness, the Body Dysmorphic Disorder, there was really no way he’d ever take an acceptable photo. So with each new photo he becomes more frustrated, more depressed, more upset, until finally he becomes hopeless and attempts suicide. A very sad story, but not an addiction. Addiction to activities, such as video games or sex, or in a case of taking selfies, have a very specific pattern. That activity becomes the focal point of one’s life because that person wants to engage in that activity, even when they don’t want to, because on some level they gain some manner of satisfaction from it. A person doesn’t skip work because they stayed up all night playing video games, or neglect their child because they’re too immersed in their game world, because they hate playing them. They may hate the fact that they can’t stop playing them, that they’ve become such a destructive and disruptive force in their lives, but they keep playing them because they enjoy it and when they’re not playing them that’s all they think about doing. This poor guy didn’t take hundreds of selfies a day because he loved it, he didn’t attempt suicide over an addiction, he did this because he had a delusion regarding the image of his body that was not going to go away.
Now, moving on to some of the other points of the article. “Taking of selfies is indicative of narcissism, attention seeking behavior, self indulgence and low self-esteem.” I love how the article constantly lumps narcissism and low self-esteem together. Which is it? You can’t really be both at the same time. However, both narcissistic people and people with low self-esteem may be prone to attention seeking behavior for very different reasons, and what better way to gain attention than to snap a flattering photo of yourself and post it on your social network of choice, right? Well, what if one of these people happened to be out on the town with friends and handed a camera to one of them to take their picture with everyone so they could post it. Is that any different? What if they were on vacation? “Take a picture of me in front of the Eiffel Tower!” Narcissist. Attention seeker. What if they just got a new haircut and wanted to show their friends but there was no photographer handy? Or…what if there was? How are these two scenarios any different? To me this seems like a lot of scaremongering. People don’t know what to make of the changing landscape of technology and social media. It’s certainly a LOT easier to take and distribute images of oneself now than it ever has been, and people don’t know whether this is a good or bad thing, so they’re nervous about it. I can say that I have “selfies” of myself and a friend in Disneyland when I was 19 taken with a regular film camera. We eventually found someone to take our picture in front of the Disney castle, but prior to that we just put our heads together, held the camera at arm’s length in a very familiar pose that is seen often nowadays and took the picture. The only difference was that we had to go develop the film before we could see it.
So, let’s try looking at this from a different perspective. They seem to want to mention those with low self-esteem, and the attention seeking behavior, as a bad thing. But has anyone stopped to think that perhaps this method of self expression is healthy? Liberating, even? Imagine this person with very low self-esteem who has always hated to be photographed and never posted pictures of themselves online or sent pictures of themselves out with their Christmas cards or whatever the case may be. Now it’s the digital age. They can take as many photos of themselves as they desire in the privacy of their own home. Examine the photos at length, find angles that are flattering, see things about themselves that they never realized that were positive attributes, and eventually they manage to take a photo that they not only find acceptable, but can actually be proud of! They post it on their site, and all their friends tell them how good they look. What a major accomplishment! This person, who previously believed that their appearance was of little consequence, to say the least, suddenly is able to safely and comfortably choose a photo on their own terms and actually receive praise. It’d be a great boost to their self-esteem, and give them more confidence in themselves and their appearance.
As with many things in mental health, context is everything. I find it just appalling that people who call themselves mental health professionals would make such blanketed statements about an activity that’s mostly innocuous, at worst may fuel the flames of a narcissistic person’s ego and at best could be a very healthy and empowering activity. The particular case cited in this article is obviously not the norm, otherwise they would have cited multiple instances of “addiction” and suicide attempts linked to this activity. For all you psych types out there, remember your stats and research methods classes? We’d call cases such as these “outliers”. They do not fit the regular pattern or curve.
It’s taking pictures of yourself. That’s all. It’s not really indicative of anything concrete other than the indisputable fact that a person desired to have a photo taken and considered themselves to be their own best photographer. There’s no reason for anyone to believe this to be anything more than it actually is.


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