Why People Take Selfies: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
The rise of social media and smartphones has significantly contributed to the popularity and prevalence of selfie-taking in today’s society. People take selfies for many reasons—and did so long before digital technology and the Internet! Alongside making people feel good about themselves, smartphones can distract others from enjoying non-screen behaviours that once brought happiness. This blog post explores the good, the bad, and the ugly of selfie-taking. The pictures of selfie-takers below show some situations in which people take (and enjoy) selfies.
Who Took the First Selfie?
Robert Cornelius is said to have taken the first photographic self-portrait or “selfie” in October of 1839. One day, in the back of his family’s shop in Philadelphia (USA), he set up his camera, sat in front of it, and took a picture of himself.
Although Cornelius’ self-portrait was not called a “selfie” in its time, it is considered a precursor to the modern selfie. The image he took is a testament to our fascination with self-representation and our enduring interest in taking, viewing and sharing pictures of ourselves.
Selfies-Taking Predates the Internet
However, selfie-taking predates the Internet. In 1995, Casio introduced a digital camera with a screen for image preview & playback and a swivel lens that selfie-takers could rotate and point at themselves. This camera design arrived three years before the launch of Google. And fifteen years before Instagram let users share their photos online!
Thus, digital technology and social networking sites allow people to take, view and share selfies, but taking them predates the Internet. So, why do people take selfies? And what are the psychological consequences of taking, viewing and sharing them online?
What Is a Selfie?
A selfie is a self-portrait photograph taken by a person using a smartphone or camera, by hand or on a selfie stick. The term “selfie” became popular in the early 2010s, and since then, it has become a common practice for people of all ages and genders.
People often share selfies online and make them look candid & natural—rather than posed. They can also include other people in the frame if the picture-taker is in the group. There are also different types of selfies that people take and use to connect with others (e.g., duck face, model pout, fish gape & kissy face). And studies suggest that women typically post more selfies than men. The way different sexes take selfies also differs.
But a selfie is unique because there are differences between a self-portrait photograph we take using a smartphone and a self-portrait that an artist creates using paint on canvas.
The Differences Between Selfies and Self-Portraits?
Try to remember the last selfie that you took. How many photos did you take until you were happy with the result? Survey data suggests that people take between two and five selfies before finding a winner. Thus, a selfie has a disposable quality. It is easy to replace one image with another. But this is not the case with a self-portrait made by an artist. They want the artwork to last longer than a moment! Ideally, for others to see in a museum years later.
But ephemerality (i.e., lasting for a short time) is not the only difference between selfies and self-portraits. We should also consider the intent of the selfie-taker and the experience captured because research suggests that we take selfies to tell others “What we are doing“, “Where we are”, and “How we’re feeling.”
Thus, people take selfies as part of a conversation with others. They are like visual chats. People also use selfies to present a version of themselves to one person, which can differ from how they want someone else to see them. This kind of self-branding empowers people. And sharing selfies via social networking sites is how many people now choose to manage their identities.
Indeed, the American philosopher and psychologist William James once said: “A man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him”. And today, people use smartphones to have many different social identities!
Three Types of Selfie-Takers
Research suggests that there are three types of selfie-taker or selfie archetypes. So-called communicators take selfies to connect with their followers about good causes and beliefs. Autobiographers use selfies to document significant moments and experiences in their lives. And self-publicists (e.g., celebrities & influencers) love to log their whole lives and share their purported insights and knowledge with others.
People Take Selfies. Why?
Other research identifies three reasons why people take selfies. For example, (1) the need to validate one’s confidence or significance (i.e., self-approval). (2) The need to obey social norms to feel part of one’s environment (i.e., belonging). And (3) the need to preserve one’s memories and experiences (i.e., documentation). Contrary to popular belief, none of these motives for taking selfies is related to narcissism (i.e., excessive self-interest and lack of consideration for others). However, frequent selfie-taking and heavy social media use can increase narcissistic behaviour.
Why People Take Selfies
People often take photos to document everyday experiences and events, and research has shown that taking photos increases people’s enjoyment of everyday life, but not if picture-taking interferes with the event. Or if the experience is already engaging. Thus, photo-taking can make people happy because it increases engagement and focuses attention on the moment. So, taking selfies at a concert or gig could help you better connect with the musical experience. But the downside is that picture-taking can draw attention to negative experiences!
Taking and posting excessive numbers of selfies can become addictive and interfere with activities of daily living. Selfie addiction is when a person obsessively takes selfies several times daily and posts them on social networking sites.
Coined in a spoof news story, selfitis is the obsessive taking and sharing of selfies—not a medical term, but researchers have now confirmed that selfitis does exist. And they have developed a tool (e.g., the Selfitis Behaviour Scale) to measure its severity. While taking photos of oneself is not a problem for most people, those with high narcissism and low self-esteem take and post the most selfies. And remember, taking and sharing selfies makes people narcissistic—making the condition worse!
The camera on your smartphone lies. The selfies it takes do not always reflect how you look. For example, a selfie from 1ft rather than 5ft away increases your perceived nose size by about 30% (the Selfie Effect). Comparing yourself to filtered and misleading selfies is dangerous because edited pictures make it easy for us to blur the line between reality and fantasy.
For this reason, some plastic surgeons suggest that applying filters to selfies could trigger body dysmorphic disorder, a mental health condition where people fixate on imagined flaws in their appearance. A failure to separate reality from fantasy has led to more people requesting procedures to make them resemble their digital image. This body-image disorder is called Snapchat dysmorphia.
People Take Selfies to Promote Their Identity
We determine our sense of worth based on how we stack up against other people, which involves two social comparison processes called ‘social sensitivity‘ and ‘self-esteem‘. Studies investigating the impact of selfies on how we see ourselves show that taking and sharing selfies can make people more likely to judge others (i.e., it increases social sensitivity), but taking them and not sharing can make people less likely to value themselves (i.e., it decreases self-esteem). Thus, social comparison processes distort how we see ourselves in the real world when taking selfies.
Furthermore, selfies are often planned and unnatural, and taking them can distort how we remember ourselves because they do not reflect who we are. They reflect how we want others to see us. And we sometimes recall the past in line with who we want to be (i.e., through rose-tinted glasses). So, remembering fake images that we promote to others online may distort our identity. However, some distortion is good for our well-being because we sometimes want to forget unpleasant experiences!
Lastly, selfies have become a common form of self-expression, communication, and connection in the digital age. And their popularity shows no sign of slowing down. For most people, this is not a problem. Just make sure you know why you’re taking photos of yourself. Otherwise, you may forget who you are!
More Examples showing “Why People Take Selfies”
Thus, people take selfies to enhance personal experiences, connect with others and express themselves. I took the images of selfie-takers below as a visual reminder of the situations in which people enjoy taking selfies.
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