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Four Downsides to Selfies

Why we should put the camera away and just be in the moment.

Recently, I was visiting a major tourist attraction in Spain. Over the years, I’d gotten used to vendors hawking knock-off designer bags and sunglasses, but new to me were the numerous displays of selfie-sticks – you know, those extendable devices you attach to your smartphone in order to take better self-portraits. It just goes to show how popular the selfie has become as a means of self-expression, particularly during travel. But before you turn the camera your way, consider the following:

Selfies are distracting. “How do I look?” Is this the best angle?” “Is there anyone in the background?” Taking a good selfie pulls you out of the experience you’re there to have. Alright, I’ll admit it. I bought a cheap selfie-stick while on a recent trip and there were a few times I was happy to have it. But…using it was a huge pain! Attaching the phone, setting the camera timer, getting the angle right. It was a project that took me away from all that was unfolding around me.

Selfies make it all about us. When you're standing before the Grand Canyon, Great Wall of China, or ancient Greek ruins, it’s not about you. It’s so much bigger than you. It’s about millions of years of geologic activity, or the back-breaking labor of thousands of people many lifetimes ago. So much of what we see when traveling can inspire awe, if we let it. Focused on taking that perfect selfie in front of something remarkable diminshes the opportunity, all but destroying the chance at a deep emotional experience. Also, consider the recent finding that sharing selfies on social networking sites is related to - but not necessarily the cause of - narcissism and psychopathy (Fox & Rooney, 2015)!

Selfies are annoying. Selfie-sticks have eliminated the need to awkwardly ask a stranger to snap a photo for us, but that doesn’t mean selfie-taking doesn’t intrude on others. Selfie-sticks have been banned from a number of attractions, ranging from Brazilian soccer stadiums to British nightclubs to the Guggenheim museums. Also, sharing selfies - and extraordinary experiences more generally - can create an emotional gap between you and others who aren't having such a good time (Cooney, Gilbert, & Wilson, 2014).

Selfies can be dangerous. Because taking selfies can be so engrossing, we can forget where we are and what we’re doing as we set them up, sometimes with unfortunate consequences. Recently, some tourists attempting to take a selfie with a bison in the background were so distracted by the process that they were attacked by the bison! A rare occurrence, certainly, but something to consider.

Of course, selfie-taking doesn’t necessarily make us jerks. But it’s a trend worth questioning, both in terms of its causes and its effects. Is it just a habit we mindlessly subscribe to? Or is there a deeper reason why we we need photographic evidence of being in a place? Why do we feel such a compulsion to share these images with others via social media? What need does it fulfill? And when we’re in a special place, what does selfie-taking really do to our enjoyment and absorption? Is there a healthy balance here? I ask these questions of myself as much as I do of others.


Cooney, G., Gilbert, D. T., & Wilson, T. D. (2015). The unforeseen costs of extraordinary experience. Psychological Science, 26, 903-914.

Fox, J. & Rooney, M. C. (2015) The Dark Triad and trait self-objectification as predictors of men’s use and self-presentation behaviors on social networking sites. Personality and Individual Differences, 76, 161–165.