Should You Post Another Selfie?

Why you might want to reconsider sharing too many selfies online.

Posted Dec 26, 2018

CCO/Pexels
Source: CCO/Pexels

The results of a rather unsurprising study published last month proclaimed excessive posting of selfies on social media was associated with an increase in narcissism. Researchers at Swansea University and Milan University found that “those who used social media excessively, through visual postings, displayed an average 25 percent increase in such narcissistic traits,” which include grandiose exhibitionism, entitlement, and exploiting others.

In contrast, social media users who primarily posted text posts (e.g., Twitter) did not show this change.

The results of the study suggest “posting selfies can increase narcissism,” according to the study’s lead author, Phil Reed. Based on these findings, “about 20 percent of people may be at risk of developing such narcissistic traits....”

The Rise of the Selfie

The word “selfie,” first coined in 2002 on an Australian website, didn’t enter the pop culture lexicon until about a decade later, catalyzed by the rise of social media. In 2013, selfie was named the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year. Not surprising, considering it was the same year that selfies with the Pope became a global trend, and President Obama faced criticism for taking a selfie with other world leaders at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. Shortly thereafter, talk show host Ellen DeGeneres’s star-studded selfie taken at the Academy Awards would become the most retweeted photo on Twitter (holding the record for three years), and “queen of selfies” Kim Kardashian would publish her selfie photobook, aptly titled Selfish.

There’s nothing unusual about why famous people enjoy taking selfies — celebrities are regularly stereotyped as vain and attention seeking. Plus, being photographed and ogled by the public has always been part of the job.

CCO/Pexels
Source: CCO/Pexels

For regular people, however, a vehicle to instantly and publicly show off their best (or worst) angles is an invention of the last few years. Selfies have since become a powerful social currency and the primary source of income for many established and fledgling online “influencers.” These aren’t small paydays either. A Forbes story finds an Instagram influencer with 100,000 followers can command up to $5,000 for one sponsored post. Meanwhile, YouTube stars with followings of seven million can command up to $300,000 for a video brand partnership.

Who wouldn’t be seduced by the potential to make tons of cash and gain hundreds of thousands of adoring fans — all for taking a few selfies?

In this landscape, vanity is not stigmatized like it once was. Once a deadly sin, it has evolved into a self-empowerment tool which enables us to control and promote our own personal brand. This idea is further validated by all the likes and comments an image then receives.

The Selfie Addiction, Explained

Psychologist Terri Apter describes selfies as a “kind of self-definition.” Wanting to be in control of our image and  desiring attention are not new human traits. Since the 15th century, “people who had access to self-representations were keen to make use of them.” Back then, only the wealthy and elite could afford to commission and display self-portraits, yet these status symbols were essentially the Instagram posts of the era.

CCO/Pexels
Source: CCO/Pexels

Now anyone can show off their real status or an imagined one, with the help of filters and beautifying apps. There are obvious downsides to this type of mainstream self-promotion, however. As the earlier study points out, posting too many selfies can to encourage narcissistic tendencies — the more rewards we earn from a selfie, the more likely we continue to post them.

This follows the Hook Model approach to habit-forming behavior, which is a looping pattern that starts with a trigger (e.g., desire to get attention), which is followed by an action (e.g., post selfie on social media), then a reward (e.g., money, likes, social currency), and finally an investment (e.g., gaining new followers, customizing their profile, learning how to use filters), which sets off another trigger (e.g., desiring more attention), thus repeating the cycle. Tech companies like to use this model to build addictive products — and oftentimes, it works.

Getting hooked on selfies sounds ludicrous, but it may already be happening. In fact, the desire to appear “cool” and get validation from others has already cost people their lives. Since 2011, more than 250 people have died taking selfies, according to a study published in the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care. Selfie deaths skew young — 23 is the average age. They also tend to occur in high-risk situations, such as posing before being washed away by waves on the beach, in front of oncoming traffic, or with a firearm that accidentally goes off.

Selfie-related casualties also seem to be on the rise. In 2011, there were three selfie-related deaths. In 2016, the number jumped to 98.

This is not to say that we should never take selfies again. Of the 93 million selfies posted daily, the vast majority do not result in fatalities. And the above research specifically states that posting excessive selfies may cause harm. The truth is some selfies just make us feel, well, better about ourselves. A 2016 study published in The Psychology of Well-Being found taking genuine smiley selfies can give people a boost of confidence — which is a good thing.

Still, it’s worth considering — while taking that next selfie probably won't kill you, will it make you want to take another? Then another?