It was shortly before church, Easter Sunday, 1993, and though Mom said I was dressed to the nines, I didn’t think so. I enjoyed dressing up, but something about my 8-year-old snappy attire and overall appearance that day didn’t sit well with me; this included a pair of black, spit-shined shoes, black dress pants, and jacket, carefully coordinated colorful purple socks which matched my freshly ironed purple, button-down dress shirt, and a freshly cut haircut to top it all off. I wasn’t happy though. I stood in front of the bathroom mirror unamused, as I just couldn’t put my finger on what was bothering me. Was it the uncomfortable dress socks suffocating my legs? Was it the renegade ‘Alphalpha’ pieces of hair coming apart from the intentional part in my hair? Maybe the color of my shirt? Maybe the fact that a smile eluded me upon seeing myself in the bathroom mirror? Regardless, I made it clear to Mama that this little man didn’t like what he saw looking back at him in that reflection. As I left the bathroom, walking down the hallway in a frustrated huff, I remember hearing her in the kitchen say to my Daddy in a hurriedly, pleading hushed voice, “Please, tell him he looks good!”
Though looking physically appealing is ingrained in us all, social media has instilled into many an alarmingly high level of self-absorption. These digital platforms provide men and women of all walks of life the opportunity to advertise themselves. They do this most notably through words in comment threads, status updates, private messages and group messages. However, the overall general consensus for communicating most clearly in these digital settings is through pictures. No longer is the picture being taken solely for memory purposes, so much as it is being taken for self-promotion purposes. Many are experiencing life simply to snap the right photo in an effort to receive likes and comments to support their self-absorbing, egotistical agenda; or, in other words: narcissistic personality.
Attributes of narcissism are grandiosity, an absence of compassion for others, and a desire for high regard from others. Though there are varying degrees of narcissism, brought on by even more factors, it can be spread through culture, similar to a virus. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve gone into the bathroom at my gym only to watch others walk out without washing their hands. Then, seeing them handle the same free-weights as me. Germs spread this way. Fact. The same goes for self-absorption. As men and women post consistent self-promoting photographs, and others observe them doing so, they too can catch this ‘bug.’ Before long, the large majority of society is posting self-promoting photos at a heightened rate, and those not posting, well, they’re the outcasts, rebels even.
Social Media’s Agenda
Social media offers photo-editing filters providing an opportunity to achieve an illusion of physical appearance. Many appeal to self-ego when these filters are applied; they feel good with these altering tactics that help them look extra physically fit and happy, and it feels even better when comments from others confirm this.
Fifteen years ago, if you were to take your Nikon CoolPix camera (which was the cool camera to have of course) and begin taking self-photographs of yourself, sending them to your friends and family every day, you’d be labeled some sort of a lunatic. Yet, what has happened, is that social media has tapped into culture’s individual and collective desire for celebrity-like status. That is, promotion through the continual posting of self-images, paints many as their own celebrity for their own social network circle, may it be 200 or 200,000.
When you post habitual pictures of yourself on social media— whether through bathroom selfies, the latest adventure, endless vacation photos, married date nights, gym-progress photos, Starbuck’s outings, a child’s baseball game; the list is endless—picture comments from others easily fuels unhealthy self-validation needs, rather than healthy affirmation needs that could be filled during these actual real-world activities. Social media knows you—how you think, feel, and act—it has a need: to garner advertisers. It knows your need: to feel valued.
Social media centers around one primary goal: promotion of the self. Posting pictures, which visually communicate the self endlessly, provides you the opportunity to set yourself on the pedestal of promotion. When you do this, your identity can easily be found in likes and comments from those in your online social networks. Your brain can be physically conditioned to thrive on validation, filling your proverbial cup of self-worth, from likes and comments. When your cup runs empty of likes and comments on particular days compared with, say, high amount of likes and comments from a previous day, you may begin to question your level of self-worth. The cup of validation is from culture; its levels are never consistent, and rarely in your favor.
It is easy to become slaves to online validation, wearing chains in the form of smartphones. The opposite of validation would be affirmation, which is hardly ever the culprit. In fact, affirmation is a manner in which many receive unconditional, face-to-face love the best, including yours truly. However, validation is affirmation’s evil twin. When you begin to rely on text messages, comment threads, private messages, tweets, and other social media communication to validate your self-worth, you can become easily addicted with the need to satisfy this validation need day and night by posting strategically taken self-photographs: whether they are solely of yourself, yourself with others, yourself doing adventurous things, yourself doing ideal things that paint you in a positive light, yourself in just the right pose to show off your physical body just right, and so on. Though posting one too many selfies is not [yet] labeled a disorder, the addiction, however, is real.
Much addiction research is beginning to support that many cannot be apart from their smartphone, which connects them to their ‘social’ network, for too long before exhibiting withdrawal symptoms similar to drug, alcohol, and gambling withdrawal symptoms. It has been documented that many regular social media users cannot go longer than a few minutes without feeling the need to click the home button on their smartphone, just to see if they’ve received a social media update.
Additionally, a growing amount of alarming research greatly supports the notion that social media app developers are harnessing the power of the brain, specifically our cognitive processing, in an effort to further prevent us from pulling ourselves away from online social networks when we’re on the go. Smartphone app. algorithms will withhold likes and comments for pictures that you post of yourself for a predetermined period of time. At just the right moment, this algorithm that has been created just for you, based on your individual social media behavior, will disclose these likes and comments in order to stir the release of dopamine in your brain. That is, this same “pleasure hormone” that is released during sex, when gambling, and using drugs, is the same hormone social media app. developers, seek to tap into to continue to harness your continued use. In turn, your personal and relational life is adversely affected.
When you post a picture to social media, over and over and over again, reading comments and likes, over and over and over again, you are fulfilling the need to receive validation from others for the photographs you post. Much research indicates this may alienate you from your face-to-face affirmation opportunities from others—either giving or receiving—as you can easily become caught up in receiving online validation instead—caught up in your own self-glorification, rather than inspiring others in your day-to-day relationships.
A key element of thriving relationships is the laying down of the self—promotion, absorption, advertisement, esteem, and advancement. Social media has a hidden agenda. They can achieve their goal when self-promotion supersedes otherness—that is, focusing on the needs of a spouse, child, family member, friend.
Avoiding posting pictures on social media like the plague is NOT what I am saying. What I am saying is this: participating in real-world events and activities solely so you can post them on social media distorts perceived understanding of your reality. When you cannot go but a few minutes without checking your phone, let alone a few hours without posting a picture to social media, you venture into dangerous waters of addiction, and in this addiction, as with substances such as alcohol, drugs, and gambling, you harm others in your face-to-face relationships.
Much research indicates smartphone, social media, digital media usage damages, and often, destroys relationships. Just as it took much research into proving the devastating physical effects of cigarette smoking, before the American people and Surgeon General caught on decades ago, so it will be the same for electronic media on the brain and relationships for people to realize there's an issue needing addressing.
In practical terms, marriage relationships lack opportunities to strengthen when smartphones lack will power to be put down. Parent-child relationships suffer when the parent or the child desires social media profile time over family hang-out time. Potential marriage relationships cannot develop properly when smartphones dominate the conscious minds of each partner during a conversation. Friendships remain largely in cyberspace through the exchange of pictures through social media. Vulnerability and disclosure needed to develop and maintain these relationships are sacrificed when a greater emphasis is put on social media communication than on face-to-face.
So, what should you do?
Should you stop posting pictures to social media? Not necessarily. The answer is stewardship. Self-photograph communication needs to be stewarded well so as to take the focus off of the self. It is so easy to become self-consumed that you take your eyes off of others and off of living your life authentically and intentionally.
Here are a few steps you can take to help take the focus off the self, though it will take work:
Social media picture posting is not in and of itself detrimental to self-growth. But, when not stewarded well, as with anything, it can be the destruction of the self and relationships with others. Many need to re-evaluate where their identity is being placed, whether in the validation from others on social media through pictures or through the affirmation that can be obtained from more substantive areas of life.
Halpern, D., Valenzuela, S., Katz, J. E. (2016). “Selfie-ists” or “Narci-selfiers”?: A cross-lagged panel analysis of selfie taking and narcissism. Personality and Individual Differences, 97, 98-101.
Leung, L. (2013). Generational differences in content generation in social media: The roles of the gratifications sought and of narcissism. Computers in Human Behavior, 29:3, 997-1006.
Rosen, L. D. (2012). iDisorder: Understanding our obsession with technology. New York: MacmillianRosen, L. D. (2012). iDisorder: Understanding our obsession with technology. New York: Macmillian.