The artist Frida Kahlo left over 50 self-portraits behind when she died. It's recognized that these works were meant to represent her inner landscape of physical and mental suffering, while still showing herself to be a powerful, distinct woman. Kahlo's endeavor of self-depiction, has artistic roots traced back to the Egyptians. And it has become a way in the age of social media that so many of us communicate on the day-to-day. The selfie. But beyond being a practice of self-reflective or artistic statement, selfies could also be bad for mental health. Or at least worse than we realize.
And because selfies aren't getting any less prevalent, their purpose, and the effect they have on our emotional and mental well-being, needs examining — for both the selfie poster, and those who scroll by them.
"The preoccupation with putting the right image into the world, and taking the right picture, means that you're making your external self the focus of what matters," clinical therapist and eating disorder specialist, Kyla Fox, the founder of the Kyla Fox Centre in Toronto, ON, tells Bustle. It becomes more central than trying to learn how to connect to what's internal, and learning how to cultivate real connection to yourself and to others.
"What also happens is that the world connects to the external images more than the actual person themselves," Fox says. But there is an endless distance there, and that can be damaging. The selfies we post online are, no matter what, falsified images that do the disservice of making us think we know each other.
It's worth noting that the easy agency afforded to you when you have a camera and a platform is a powerful thing. You're the direct source of information, with the option of not only showing yourself as you are, but as you want to be seen. The attention you get as a result of selfies can feel really good — be it emotional, sexual, or otherwise. It's a form of connection and validation literally at your fingertips.
And as Fox says, there are opportunities to follow and connect with people who put out examples of their belief systems that are really powerful. But there's a strange thing that can happen when this becomes our most consistent form of socializing and receiving information. You are influenced by what you see, and if that is a constant stream on social media, it can begin dictating the reality of your internal world.
"However, if we're constantly putting out curated images of yourself and your life, it is in support of the idea that who you are unedited is not enough," Fox says.
In Fox's estimation, while the intention of sharing selfies is self-confidence and expression, "in actuality, I think it really ends up diminishing [these things]."
The focus on likes, on how much people will externally acknowledge that you're popular, beautiful, smart, ironic, funny — all can play a huge role in a person's self concept, especially for a younger generation growing up with social media as the focal point of communication, Fox says.
"When you then don’t have the means to communicate in a way that feels really right for you, that’s where the distance [between social media and your real life] becomes emotionally unsafe," Fox says. "If you put out an artificial sense of yourself, that makes it really challenging when you go out into the world and you have to be you — just you. I think people really struggle with knowing how to do that."
There have been a variety of studies to take a look at the mental health impact of taking and posting selfies regularly. One done at the Department of Psychology at York University found that posting selfies increases anxiety, and decreases self-confidence in comparison to those who don't post selfies. Another study published in International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, looked at "selfitis," (the obsessive taking of selfies) in 400 Indian University students to create a scale for the relationship to personality traits like social competition, attention seeking, mood modification, self-confidence, and social conformity. They found that the more severe the "selfitis" is, the more negative or intense the relationship there was to these traits.
And another study, done at Swansea University, showed that excessive use of social media, and posting selfies, was associated with a "subsequent increase" in narcissistic traits. This can mean things like, yes, a boost in confidence, but also a decrease in things like empathy and an increase in entitlement.
Since we don't seem to be moving away from using social media anytime soon, it's important to learn how to live by it in a way that feels good for you, Fox says, as well as following people who are aligned with your values, and people who don't incite in you a need to compare. And it's critical that we take a break from it, Fox says. Every day, perhaps, or for certain chunks of time. If it feels best for you to disengage from it entirely, more power to you.
Mental health counselor Melonie Pinder, of Pinder Counseling LLC, tells Bustle that selfies are not so much the issue as is the intention behind the selfies, and that the best question to ask yourself is why you are taking and posting them. Is it to obtain “likes, loves, and shares?”
"If this is the case, then there could be an adverse effect on one’s mental health if one is not receiving the feedback they expected from their posted picture," Pinder says. "If one’s self-esteem and self-worth is based upon the feedback of a selfie, that is the bigger issue."
Thus, it's worth looking at how you feel and how you're talking to yourself both as you post, and as you gaze. We take selfies singing in our cars, selfies in our bathing suits, on mountaintops, eating sandwiches, crying. Why? What are you trying to convey or feel? Open that conversation with yourself. See what comes out of it.
Editor's Note: If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.