We all know it when we see it. It’s the head tilt, duck face, and stylish outfit—complete with either an inspirational quote or a fun-loving caption like, “Feelin’ happy!” or “So bored. #nomakeup.” Enter the stereotypical (hashtag optional) selfie.
There are 150 million monthly active users on Instagram, and more than 137,788,000 posts are tagged “#me.” Along with pretty food, significant others, and Starbucks, the selfie has taken its place within the billions of photos on Instagram, Facebook, and other social media platforms. Even the Wall Street Journal featured an article with how-to selfie tips in a June 2012 article. In fact, selfies are more influential than we realize, impacting not only how we perceive ourselves but also the impression we have of the people around us.
Instagrammer Lacey Braun, a public relations major at the University of Minnesota, says she will take a selfie when she looks really good. “I want others to know,” she says. “It’s the classic line, ‘Pic or it didn’t happen’ kind of situation. If my makeup looks really good that day, I want to pictorially document that.”
Some people see selfies as an insight into people’s lives and emotional health. “I take selfies at least four times a week,” says Rachel Hakala, a student studying fashion marketing and management at the Illinois Institute of Art in Chicago. “I do not want to forget the struggles I have overcome or the happiness I have experienced. Taking selfies is an easy, subtle way to remember those moments.”
But experts say taking and posting selfies might be more harmful to our emotional health than we think it is. “Selfies draw so much attention to yourself that they can become disruptive to one’s sense of identity,” says Dr. Kate Hathaway, a clinical psychologist and faculty member at the University of Minnesota. She says that focusing too much on oneself can lead to selfishness, an inflated ego, and a greater sense of entitlement—common stereotypes of millennials.
“If a large percentage of the population starts to believe all of this, it’s not a good direction for us to go,” she says.
Alisa Nelson, founder and personal fitness trainer at Strengthni, says she started to post workout selfies when she saw selfie posts from other fitness professionals. But when she started to receive a lot of negative feedback from her followers, she realized that her posts were being misread.
“It’s easy to make quick judgments about a person through their selfies without knowing them.” –Nelson
Some posts’ messages seem to be clearer than others. Olympia Nelson, a 16-year-old from Melbourne, Australia, unveils the dark side of selfies in an opinion piece for The Age magazine that made headlines earlier this year. Nelson’s words hit hard: “On these ubiquitous portals, the popularity of girls is hotly contested over one big deal—how sexy can I appear and bring it off with everyone’s admiration? That’s the reason we see mirror shots, pouting self-portraits of teenagers (typically female) and sexually-posed girls in a mini-dress ’before a party last night.’ They’re showing how much they like themselves and hoping that you’ll hit ‘like’ to reinforce the claim.”
Chris Gitzel, a music student at North Central University, says he sees insecurity and a need for validation from others when he sees Instagrammers posting selfies. “I actually lose respect for people who post selfies on a regular basis,” he says.
“There is something fascinating about the selfie as an insight into exactly how the young people involved would like to be seen,” a Canberra Times article reported. “They are intimate self-portraits, and yet they’re artificial. It is common for those posting selfies to make a comment about being bored, making what they are doing seem nonchalant, and yet they usually seem to be posed.”
Social media profiles give us the opportunity to brand ourselves with whatever we choose, and an attractive selfie makes the face of your brand. Dr. Hathaway says this can be detrimental to one’s well-being. She currently teaches a class that helps students focus on themselves and their well-being in the context of the systems around them, not just on themselves. “Dressing yourself up for a photo for social media can project a physical image of self,” she explains.
“There is a huge influence to look a certain way, and this can create distress.” –Dr. Hathaway
This is where self-esteem may come into play. In an interview with Teen Vogue, Psychologist Jill Weber, Ph.D., said self-esteem could easily be intertwined with comments and likes on a posted selfie. Others agree. “When I receive a lot of likes on my selfies, it makes me feel pretty or stylish,” Hakala says. “If I don’t receive very many likes on a selfie, I think, ‘I must not look as good as I thought I did,’ or ‘Maybe people don’t like this outfit choice.’ I can see that if someone didn’t have a strong emotional status, their self-esteem could really be damaged by feedback, or lack thereof.”
Those who view selfies can also be affected. “Sometimes I am insecure when looking at other people’s selfies because they are taking photos of themselves in their best states, and I see myself in all states,” says Jade Beauclair, a senior at the University of Minnesota. “I compare my whole appearance to their best appearances.”
The concept of “posting your perfect life” is familiar to many, and may be part of the reason selfies are so influential in millennials’ lives today. “You take a photo and edit it, crop it into a square, put a filter on it and post the best version online. It’s like you’re performing for people, showing only the best parts of your life,” Braun says.
Each of us has the liberty to determine the significance that selfies play in our lives, and we can choose to either bind or free our identity from the number of likes, comments, and comparisons that are all intertwined within the influence of selfie posts. “It’s a depraved world—a girl who posts photos of her butt gets more likes than those who do not post photos like that,” says Alisa Nelson. “That’s what it takes to be known, to compromise in that way.”