Wilkernet/Pixabay.com | CC0 license
Source: Wilkernet/Pixabay.com | CC0 license

In just a few years, selfies have become ubiquitous. The term was even added to the Oxford English dictionary in 2013. As the popularity of selfies has soared, it has taken some time for scientific research to catch up with the phenomenon. Most of the early research on selfies, which I have summarized in this blog, focused on the link between selfie-taking and personality traits, like the Big 5 and narcissism. New research explores the role of selfies in our social world, by examining the effect of taking and sharing selfies on self-esteem and social sensitivity.1

The act of taking a selfie could make people self-conscious and more aware of how others view them. This may occur because the act forces us to focus on ourselves, much like looking in the mirror.2 When we become self-aware, we also become more sensitive to the extent to which we are living up to social standards and norms. If you're walking down the street minding your own business and then notice someone on the street corner staring at you, you are likely to become more aware of your appearance and actions and more concerned with how that person is judging you. This awareness of how others might be judging us or reacting to us is called “social sensitivity.”3 Online audiences can have the same effect on us as offline audiences. Consistent with this idea, studies have shown that posting information about oneself on social media is associated with more social sensitivity.4,5

Taking and sharing selfies may also affect self-esteem. Increased self-awareness generally tends to lower self-esteem,2 suggesting that taking selfies should make us feel worse about ourselves. However, presenting ourselves to others in a desirable manner tends to increase our self-esteem.6 This suggests that the act of taking a selfie might reduce self-esteem, but the act of sharing it might increase self-esteem.1

Youngsoo Shin and colleagues, from Yonsei University in South Korea, wanted to see how both the act of taking a selfie and the act of sharing that selfie with others affected social sensitivity and self-esteem.1 They conducted a laboratory experiment involving 78 students at their university. Half of the participants were randomly assigned to take a selfie, and in order to create a comparison group, the other half were assigned to take a photograph of a neutral object—a cup. In addition, half of the participants were asked to share their photo on their favorite social media platform, while the other half were merely asked to save their photo.

Next, the researchers measured the participants' levels of social sensitivity and self-esteem. They used covert measures of social sensitivity and self-esteem, rather than using typical self-report measures in which participants rate themselves on their feelings and beliefs.

Self-esteem was measured by examining the physical size of participants' signatures. People with lower self-esteem tend to write smaller signatures. So the researchers asked participants to sign their own names with a pen both before and after the experimental manipulation. Any change in the size of the participant’s signature would indicate a change in self-esteem caused by the photo-taking and/or sharing.

The researchers also measured social sensitivity covertly, using a probe detection task. In this task, participants went through several computerized trails, in which they saw an image of a face briefly flashed on a computer screen. This was immediately followed by an image of an arrow, pointing left or right. Participants were asked to press the correct arrow key on the keyboard, as quickly as possible, to indicate the direction of the arrow. Sometimes the arrow appeared in the same location of the screen as one of the face’s eyes. Other times, the arrow appeared in the location of the nose or the mouth. Previous research has shown that people who are higher in social sensitivity respond more quickly in this type of task because they are paying more attention to the image of the face.

The results suggested that both taking and sharing selfies affected self-esteem and social sensitivity. Participants who took selfies, especially those who also shared their selfie on social media, exhibited greater social sensitivity than those who took a photograph of a cup. Turning the camera on ourselves makes us more inclined to see ourselves through the eyes of others, especially if we show that photograph to our friends on social media.

The researchers also found that participants in the selfie condition who merely saved their photo showed a larger reduction in self-esteem from the start of the experiment, as compared to those who shared their selfies on social media. This suggests that the act of taking a selfie can make us feel worse about ourselves, due to the increased focus on the self. However, sharing it with others largely ameliorates this effect. Perhaps this is due to the expectation that others will like and approve of the selfie. The effects in this study might have been even larger if participants also received feedback on social media, such as Facebook likes. On the other hand, a lack of positive feedback could send self-esteem plummeting further.

It is also important to note that the participants in this study were asked to take a selfie in the laboratory, so it wasn’t a situation in which they actively chose to take the photo. Under normal circumstances people may only take and share selfies when they're in an interesting location or feel that they are looking especially attractive. The inability to show their best selves in the photograph may have increased participants' feelings of self-consciousness in this experiment. 

This study raises some interesting questions about the effects of taking selfies. The mere act of taking a selfie can cause us to view ourselves through the eyes of others, and make us more sensitive to others' reactions. Taking selfies is often viewed as the epitome of self-centeredness, and selfie-taking is, in fact, modestly correlated with narcissism. But these results suggest that sharing selfies may actually make us pay more attention to how other people are reacting.  

Gwendolyn Seidman, Ph.D. is an associate professor of psychology at Albright College, who studies relationships and cyberpsychology. Follow her on Twitter for updates about social psychology, relationships, and online behavior. Read more articles by Dr. Seidman on Close Encounters.

References

1 Shin, Y., Kim, M., Im, C., & Chong, S. C. (2017). Selfie and self: The effect of selfies on self-esteem and social sensitivity. Personality and Individual Differences, 111, 139–145.

2 Duval, S., & Wicklund, R. A. (1972). A theory of objective self awareness. New York: Academic Press.

3 Krejci-Manwaring, J., Kerchner, K., Feldman, S. R., Rapp, D. A., & Rapp, S. R. (2006). Social sensitivity and acne: The role of personality in negative social consequences and quality of life. International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, 36(1), 121–130.

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