An award for everything, the word “selfie” won last year’s Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year: “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website”.
You see them all over social media.
Kinda cute for the first five minutes but when some people change their profile photo several times a day, it may be indicative of a problem.
In the case of one nineteen-year-old man, his obsession with taking the perfect self-portrait resulted in his snapping two hundred photographs of himself every day in its quest. When his perception of perfection was found unattainable, he was driven to attempt suicide.
It is becoming apparent that the selfie craze is affecting those with a predilection for obsessive-compulsive behaviors and self-image issues, providing an outlet and vehicle for addiction.
The man recognized his addiction and fortunately sought help. His treatment included being separated from his smart phone for ten-minute increments beginning at ten minutes for up to an hour. His experience:
“It was excruciating to begin with but I knew I had to do it if I wanted to go on living.”
Other cognitive behavior modification techniques were applied to allow him to recognize his behavior, its causes, and alter his response to its compulsion. One of the man’s therapists has seen a trend emerge in recent years:
“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.”
The mental health and self-esteem issues aren’t new but the technology in which to optimally exploit them is. A 2012 study looked into addiction to Facebook with a sample of 423 university students. Subjects were asked to complete questionnaires on their sleep habits and personality traits. The devised self-reporting scale ( very rarely,  rarely,  sometimes,  often  very often) showed correlating levels of addiction:
- You spend a lot of time thinking about Facebook or plan use of Facebook.
- You feel an urge to use Facebook more and more.
- You use Facebook in order to forget about personal problems.
- You have tried to cut down on the use of Facebook without success.
- You become restless or troubled if you are prohibited from using Facebook.
- You use Facebook so much that it has had a negative impact on your job/studies.
The scores on the scale dovetailed with reported Facebook activity and high scores were associated with late bed- and rising-times. Further, scores were positively associated to neuroticism and extroversion and negatively correlated with conscientiousness. No surprise there.
Another study at the University of Michigan linked high levels of social media activity with narcissism in college-aged and middle-aged adults.
“Among young adult college students, we found that those who scored higher in certain types of narcissism posted more often on Twitter but among middle-aged adults from the general population, narcissists posted more frequent status updates on Facebook. It’s about curating your own image, how you are seen, and also checking on how others respond to this image. Middle-aged adults usually have already formed their social selves, and they use social media to gain approval from those who are already in their social circles.”
There are two opposing sides to those addicted to social media: narcissism and low self-esteem. One seeks validation and the other acceptance.
A Swedish study found that women spend more time on Facebook than men and the more time they spent, the worse they felt about themselves. It also supports the observation of incidence of addictive behavior. As one writer, a self-proclaimed narcissist put it:
“Facebook doesn’t just enable our predisposition towards narcissism, it encourages it. Flourishes off of it. It’s no longer just about ‘sharing,’ it’s about offering up an online persona, even if it’s been carefully edited, cropped, tugged and pulled beyond recognition. Because the more time we put into all these things, the more time we spend on Facebook.”
Conversely, Twitter could potentially help support people who may be suicidal. With a world-wide support system, people who tweet negative thoughts and feelings are often met with caring souls who offer words of encouragement and strength. One teenager who posted her intentions for killing herself was talked out of it by her followers. So there is real value in developing networks for those without connections closer to home.
Sometimes it’s easier to open up to faceless strangers and be receptive to advice than to turn to someone in person.
At a time when people are becoming more and more disconnected from each other, the natural world, and themselves, maybe it’s time to re-evaluate what a true relationship with another person is, how to have meaningful connections, and what it means to be human.
It is through true personal human contact that we define ourselves and fulfill our emotional needs. Instead of looking down at an electronic device, maybe we should start looking at each other in real life. A smart phone won’t hug you back.