The rise and fall of the selfie
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In a world where we’re continually bombarded by the message that our image is – or should be – everything, it’s hardly surprising that virtually overnight the selfie became an icon of the social media phenomenon gripping our society. But has our egocentrism gone too far?
Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Pinterest, Whatsapp, text messaging – there’s an endless selection of possible platforms for our selfies of choice and hashtags galore, not to mention all the readily available gadgets the platforms depend on to help us snag that ideal angle or perspective. An incredible 17 million people flood our social media channels daily with their visuals, showcasing the selfie identity they want to share with their family, friends and ultimately the wider online community. Individuals often feel obliged to document their daily lives minute by minute to keep up with their peers. The term selfie became so popular that in 2013, the Oxford English Dictionary named it word of the year; their research showed its frequency had soared 17 000 percent in just 12 months.
It’s not only the media and power-hungry celebrities who are smitten and spearheading the craze, including Kim Kardashian and her derrière, Beyoncé with her trendsetting hairdo, Justin Bieber with his new monkey clambering over him or Ellen DeGeneres at the Oscars last year. More austere high-profile figures are also taking to their social media accounts to spread the word, demonstrate their cultural savvy and capture a moment, including Pope Francis, posing with some new acquaintances at the Vatican. David Cameron and First Lady Michelle Obama have broken with protocol to play along, and now the White House has even set a precedent by allowing visitors with phones to snap away to their hearts’ content.
It seems our narcissistic quest for perfection knows no bounds. Selfies are no longer about simply showing we’re content with our hairdo, makeup or clothes and casually sharing fun moments; we’re becoming so desperate to be admired, desired and liked that some people are going to dangerous lengths and putting their sanity, and in some cases their lives, at risk.
This month in Texas, a teenager died while trying to take an Instagram selfie with a loaded gun pointed at his head. In South Africa this year, a woman plummeted to her death off a cliff in Johannesburg while attempting to set up a tripod and take a selfie with a companion. In the Philippines last year, a 14-year-old fell to her death after losing her balance while taking a picture with a friend near some stairs. Danny Bowman from the UK could have met a similar fate when he dropped out of school, became a virtual recluse, lost two stone (12.7 kg) in an attempt to “look better” and tried to take his own life – all in his mission to capture the perfect selfie, often taking up to 200 images of himself a day.
Danny is believed to be Britain’s first selfie addict and has received intensive and specialized hospital treatment to combat his body dysmorphic disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder. Dr. David Veale, a consultant psychiatrist at the Priory Hospital in London and the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust who treated Danny for his selfie addiction, states that the condition is becoming so widespread, it’s now recognized as a mental illness.
“Danny’s case is particularly extreme, but this is a serious problem. It’s not a vanity issue. It’s a mental health one which has an extremely high suicide rate,” said Dr. Veale. He also stated, “Two out of three of all the patients who come to see me with Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) since the rise of camera phones have a compulsion to repeatedly take and post selfies on social media sites.”
In her blog for Psychology Today, Dr. Pamela Rutledge, Director of the Media Psychology Research Center in Boston, Massachusetts, wrote, “Selfies frequently trigger perceptions of self-indulgence or attention-seeking social dependence that raises the damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t specter of either narcissism or low self-esteem.”
According to a recent study by Ohio State University, men who posted more pictures of themselves online scored higher on scales of narcissism and psychopathy. In addition, those who were more likely to edit their photos also scored higher for self-objectification and a lack of empathy. “It’s not surprising that men who post a lot of selfies and spend more time editing them are more narcissistic, but this is the first time it has actually been confirmed in a study. The more interesting finding is that they also score higher on this other anti-social personality trait, psychopathy, and are more prone to self-objectification,” said Jesse Fox, lead author of the study and assistant professor of communication at Ohio State.
Selfie-stick contention has already arisen at many major attractions and popular events such as Disneyland, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the Louvre, the Palace of Versailles, the MoMA in New York, the National Gallery in London and the bull-running festival in Pamplona. Selfies have been banned in some places as a result.
Who knows what the future holds for official selfie regulation? Perhaps governments will respond to the growing concern, or the fatalities and victims of selfies will serve as sufficient warning to curb the global trend. Either way, one thing is certain: as with all 21st-century liberties, regardless of the boundaries put in place, a certain degree of self-acceptance, self-respect, self-regulation and self-management must be applied.