Selfie was chosen by Oxford Dictionary as the 2013 word of the year, a clear indication the trend is here to stay. While most pop-culture trends are linked to a specific age-group, posting selfies — photos you take of yourself — has become a multigenerational communications instrument.
Selfies are photos taken at arm’s length or in a mirror, and with most cell phones containing digital camera technology and internet capabilities, photographs taken are quickly and easily posted to social media outlets like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
The photos taken can show a celebration of life, fun with friends, a way to show off a new hairstyle. The backdrop could be the focus, proving the person taking the photo is in an exotic or beautiful location while on vacation.
Selfie postings aren’t limited to teens and young adults. A Google search reveals selfies from popular musicians Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus to religious leaders like Pope Francis, shown grinning ear to ear with Palm Sunday worshippers at the Vatican. President Barack Obama took a selfie with Bill Nye the Science Guy. And of course there’s the tweet by Ellen DeGeneres pictured with several celebrities earlier this spring — the Oscar selfie that was re-tweeted three million times and parodied by people all over the world.
“I know a lot of people are really taking it seriously,” said Dr. Paul Heintz, an industrial organizational psychologist and psychology/human sexuality professor at Edison College in southwestern Ohio. “This is a different media, a technique in order for teenagers especially, to create their self-image.”
North Surry High School Senior Brittany Slate said although it does depend on who is posting the selfie, the majority of the selfies are a form of self-indulgence: “It seems like so many people go through all the filters and editing, just to get compliments. If they were expressing themselves they wouldn’t go through all that trouble [of editing their photographs].”
Slate added that she also participates, and at least 95 percent of her peers take and post selfies on a regular basis, on Facebook and Instagram. Slate shared that her main reason for taking and posting selfies is “to document life” — “I want pictures to look back at when I’m older. They’re memories.”
Emily Brim, a 2012 Mount Airy High School graduate and student at the University of Nebraska, said she considers selfies to be a creative form of self-expression, and is a way to express her artistic side, but it’s not always the case with everyone, she admits. “I find that many of my peers … are merely posting selfies to see how many ‘likes’ they can achieve [through social media].”
Brim’s cat Cash is often pictured along with Brim in her selfies. “It’s nice to be able to share her cuteness with the inter-webs. It’s also nice to show people that I have emerged from my self-conscious shell into someone who enjoys sharing what she looks like that day.”
Rick Cartwright, president of newmediadayton.com, in Dayton, Ohio, cautions young people to “be smart” with their postings.
“Social media is great, and many individuals use it to keep up with family and friends. When posting on online, it’s important to remember that what you post may be viewed by potential employers, educators, or others. Selfies are a lot of fun too, and there is nothing wrong with a fun picture. Just remember the rule still applies - if you post a pic of yourself in a compromised situation, it too may be viewed by a potential employer. In general, anything you post online may live a long time, and even after you deleted it, the potential is there for it to be found. Be smart with your posting.”
Parents naturally worry about their children, and with technology changing rapidly, it can often be overwhelming for a parent to monitor their child’s activity online. Tracy Holyfield Tate said her daughter, Allyni Tate, has several social media accounts that are always closely monitored by both parents. “When it comes to taking selfies, she is aware of what we allow when it comes to her appearance. So many parents don’t monitor their children’s social networking and when they post awful things it reflects back on us as parents, even if we have no clue about it…social networking can be dangerous, so it is important to monitor your child.”
To Tate, the selfies are more about self-expression, “taken to express a mood a person is in at the moment…also taken to show off something a person is doing that they love or even a new appearance,” although she said sometimes it can lean towards self-indulgence “if people become addicted to them and it becomes very excessive.”
Compared to when Tate was a teenager in the 1990s, the world is much different, she added, since back then all photographs at that time were taken on 35mm film, which had to be developed. “Now with modern technology, kids can do so much more with photos, and that has caused more problems…it’s harder for children to fit in and social media has created a place for kids to go and post things never available to us.”
Psychotherapist Bruce Hodges, a candidate for a doctorate degree in psychology, said there are more practical uses for selfies, and even he partakes in the process on occasion, to view his own objectivity and emotional situation. “There are certain facial characteristics that are dead giveaways. I view them when I am talking with someone in counseling and therapy,” Hodges remarked. “The way the eyebrows station, the look in the eyes…When I take a selfie, that is precisely what I am looking for, those indications on my face, those things I cannot hide.”
Hodges said the facial expressions such as “furrows in the brow” may “speak to subliminal concerns” that are plaguing him, and those who come to him for therapy and counseling are counting on him to be “as objective as a human can be,” so selfies are used by Hodges as a way to clear his own mind — a form of self-analysis.
In terms of teenagers, who are naturally narcissistic, Hodges said, excessive selfie posting can be a concern. “An individual at that developmental level is always going to be narcissistic. They are the sun around which the planets revolve. They are the center of their world. Their executive reasoning functions have not evolved and will not until the age of 23, to the point they can see that ‘wow, there is a world out there and I am not a center of it; I am a satellite orbiting.’”
Teenagers and children of today have so much stress from their environment, Hodges said. “In the wake of so much fear, fear that is promoted by our very own society…it is frightening your children to the point they are going inside themselves, which all of us do in a fearful situation, and selfies are a form of expression of that unconscious fear.”
Hodges stressed that his take on selfies is his own opinion, but shared that it is important for parents to monitor what their children are doing, which requires a time investment.
“Know what they do and understand what is going on in their lives. A preoccupation with selfies can be an expression of one’s own insecurity with themselves and with the world. They are literally, through the camera, showing you where they are escaping to — themselves. What I would do as a parent is to begin to try to focus their attention outwardly. Have them take pictures of nature, give them friendly little assignments…focus them on the beauty that exists outside of themselves.”
Susan Hartley of Civitas Media also contributed to this article