Three Questions to Ask Before Posting That Selfie

Why you're posting matters as much as what you're posting.

Posted Feb 26, 2018

Source: Pixabay/sonamabcd/CC0

Social media use can have both positive and negative effects on mental health. Research links the use of Facebook, Instagram, and similar platforms to depression, loneliness, and sleep disruptions. But social media use can also encourage participation in political and civic life, as well as helping to build social connections with others.

There are two clear lessons we can take from research on social media and psychological well-being. First, if your social media engagement is starting to look like an addiction, that’s bad news for mental health. Researchers define addictive social media use as “being overly concerned about online activities, driven by an uncontrollable motivation to perform the behavior, and devoting so much time and effort to it that it impairs other important life areas."

The second major lesson is that what you’re doing on social media matters. Passive consumption of social media content has a negative impact on mood and mental health, whereas supportive online interactions can help to increase positive mood and create a sense of community.

Of all the types of social media posts, selfies may be the most vilified, but the science of selfies isn’t as obvious as many imagine. For example, there’s no clear evidence that posting selfies reveals anything important about self-esteem. We need to dig a little deeper to determine when selfie-posting is likely to have a negative impact on mental health. For the purposes of this piece, I’ll use “selfie” as shorthand for any picture of yourself — even if it’s taken by someone else, and thus not technically a selfie.

Ask yourself these three questions before posting an image of yourself on social media. If you’re a parent to an adolescent, see if you can convince your teen to make these questions a habit.

1. Am I posting this image because I want people to make me feel better about how I look?

It seems natural. If you’re not feeling good about how you look, post a sexy picture and wait for the positive comments and likes to roll in. Here’s the bad news: Posting and consuming appearance-related content on social media platforms is associated with all kinds of negative body image outcomes, including increased body dissatisfaction and eating problems.

Although you might feel momentarily buoyed by those people writing, “So beautiful!” in the comments of your post, any self-esteem boost you get is likely to be short-lived at best. The more you focus on your appearance, the worse you tend to feel about it. And what if you don’t get the comments and likes you’re hoping for? Then you end up feeling worse than you did before you posted the image. Don’t let your body image be held hostage by social media. If likes and comments could truly make you feel beautiful, you wouldn’t have to keep seeking more reassurance.

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2. Am I showing the real me?

There’s a difference between the person you really are (your actual self) and the self you want others to believe you are (your ideal self). Does that picture you’re posting show who you really are? Or are you filtering and editing it to make yourself look like someone you’re not?

The pictures you post aren’t just relevant to your own mental health — they can affect the mental health of your friends and followers as well. We can’t help but compare ourselves to the images we see on social media. If those images are constantly filtered, edited, or otherwise unrealistic, we end up comparing our insides to other people’s outsides. In the real world, people have pores, wrinkles, and blemishes. We age. Some days we’re tired. Sometimes our hair looks weird. When we edit all those parts of ourselves out of the images we post, we risk spending too much energy performing for others and not enough energy fostering real, healthy connections.

Try to avoid posting social media images that don’t capture how you actually look. Stick to images that show who you really are — images that reveal something about what matters to you.

3. Am I posting this image of myself because I’m feeling anxious or depressed?

It’s normal to want to reach out to others for reassurance when you’re struggling with anxiety or depression, but posting that selfie is probably not the most effective way to reach out. When researchers studied the in-the-moment impact of social media use, they found that it increased negative mood and decreased life satisfaction. These findings are especially relevant for adolescent girls and young women, who are most likely to show addiction-like levels of social media use and to show stronger links between anxiety, depression, and social media use.

Although it might seem like getting positive reactions to your selfie could lift your spirits, there are better ways to battle depression and anxiety. Get some exercise, spend time with a pet, connect with someone you care about in-person, or do something kind for someone else. Any of these options is likely to be much more effective than seeking pictorial reassurance online. Of course, if you are experiencing significant struggles, please seek professional help.

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