– Lyrics from “Let Me Take a Selfie” by Chainsmokers
Oxford Dictionaries declared “selfie” the “Word of the Year” in 2013 because the frequency of the word’s use had increased 17,000 percent over the previous 12 months. Now, just three years later, mental health professionals, educators, researchers, and parents share increasing concerns of the impact of the selfie culture on children and teens.
With more than 1.5 billion human beings owning smart phones, almost all of which are equipped with a rear-facing camera, it’s not surprising that the selfie is part of our language and culture. And kids learn from those around them, especially their parents and siblings, according to Rachel Annunziato, PhD, Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at Fordham University in New York.
“It seems like taking selfies is ubiquitous and therefore kids most certainly are learning that this is what trusted loved ones do,” Annunziato says.
Taking the occasional selfie isn’t necessarily a bad thing and Annunziato suggests that the practice can be just a game young children play. “It’s mainly to have fun taking pictures and making funny faces,” she says.
“But I think the pitfalls occur when kids become unduly focused on how they look and how others perceive them. Then I’d start to be concerned about the threat to self-esteem or body image. And certainly there are additional concerns if they are posting selfies on media where they can be picked apart or bullied.”
Dr. Allison Chase, executive director of the Eating Recovery Center in Austin, Texas, says that the introduction of the selfie culture has resulted in kids comparing and evaluating themselves against their peers constantly.
“This is particularly challenging for kids and teens as they are trying to figure out who they are and what their identity is,” she says. “Therefore, having to try to stage themselves constantly to look a certain way or keep up with other peers can be challenging.”
The other problem lies in the fact that we live in a society that promotes beauty, the thin ideal, success and popularity according to Chase.
Chase says that while eating disorders are caused by a number of factors – both biological and environment – it does appear that the obsession with social media and the selfie culture is contributing to more focus on appearance, and increased criticism and pressure on kids to appear as they would like to be perceived. She adds that research has shown constant viewing of social media to increase negative feelings about oneself.
“The pressure for an ideal body image can lead to unhealthy eating patterns,” Chase says. “Younger children, not just adolescents, are engaging in eating disordered behaviors.”
Travis Stewart, LPC, MATS, director of regional outreach for Castlewood Treatment Centers, also says that while the selfie culture is not responsible for causing eating disorders, it does create a rather pervasive venue for comparison.
“It used to be that our comparison for body image was the other people around us or the media images,” Stewart says. “Now, girls will take picture after picture of themselves until they get the perfect selfie, constantly comparing themselves to their best self.”
Damaging blows to self-esteem – whether the hits are direct or indirect – are another pitfall of the selfie culture, according to Katie Schumacher, author/lecturer, former teacher, and mother of three. Schumacher launched the “Don’t Press Send Campaign” and app in response to the bullying she was seeing in the cyber world and she did 40 school presentations last year alone on the topic.
“One of the reasons kids take selfies is to post those pictures online. And the purpose of posting online often is to get ‘likes’,” she says. “The “like” is similar to Pavlov’s dog. If you post something and get a lot of “likes,” it reinforces the feeling of importance and the sense of approval from others. The “like” is the reward. But if you don’t get enough “likes,” you will keep trying to get a better picture from a different angle or with someone more popular.”
Additionally, Schumacher says kids often take selfies and post them with someone in mind who they want to like their post. “They think, ‘ah, the cool kids like me.’ Popularity has now become an actual number game based on likes. That’s real power.”
Unfortunately, it works the opposite way, as well. When a child or teen posts a picture and doesn't get likes or worse, gets ridiculed, their sense of self worth declines.
Chase agrees, saying that our cultural norm has resulted in less boundaries for people and others. “All of which are setting up the desire to share more readily and create the illusion of feeling more connected and more “liked,” in a way that is controllable and often times, staged. The end result is a competitive environment with increased self-focus, less true connection and, more often than not, increased self-criticism,” she says.
Schumacher worries that even if kids aren’t critical of themselves, someone else almost certainly is going to be critical for them if we don’t help them navigate the online world more effectively.
“Part of my mission is to teach kids to be kind online and that what they say and write online matters,” Schumacher says. “I’m a grown woman and I couldn't handle it if someone told me online to drink bleach and die. Young kids psyche’s definitely aren’t strong enough for that.”
The world of social media, smart phones, and pictures are contributing to “virtual distance” -- something that Professor Karen Sobel-Lojeski, Ph.D. of Stony Brook University’s Department of Technology and Society discovered in her research.
“Virtual distance is a measure of what is lost when human beings gets translated through the machine,” she says. “My data shows that the more time we spend with mediated technology, the more emotionally disconnected we can get with ourselves and each other.”
Sobel-Lojeski says the biggest downside to kids taking too many pictures of themselves is that they are missing out on so much of their lives.
“Kids need to be having these experiences to draw on later in life, and they are trading off valuable time having direct experiences in exchange for indirect experiences.”
Additionally, the virtual world is designed to be custom made for us, to send us the stuff that we prefer to see. “The web is already a hall of mirrors, showing us the products and advertisements it knows we want to see. So when we are constantly taking pictures of ourselves and reflecting those back to us, our real self gets lost in the translation.”
She actually created a course that she teaches college freshmen called, ironically, “How Technology Saved My Soul.” It’s a one-hour seminar class that helps her students understand themselves in a different relationship to technology, the world, and themselves.
The 11-week class teaches the students about virtual distance through a series of assignments that compare how they feel with, and without, their devices.
“Kids give a presentation at the end and many of them will break down crying. One guy, through tears, told the class how he realized he couldn't have a conversation with another human being without holding his phone. Many others have said they never realized they could live their lives in a different way because the devices have always been there.”
The good news from Sobel-Lojeski’s research, and the results of her class? Her students experience a significant shift in behavior and perceptions in just 11 weeks.
She is not critical of social media, per se, nor does she think we need to refer to kids as “addicted” to their phones or selfies.
“No one did anything wrong – this is an unintended consequence we never saw coming,” she said of the smart phone/selfie/social media culture. “It’s not rocket science, it’s just tilting things in another direction.”
Annunziato says that just like we correct, but don’t become alarmed by, a child who swears every so often, the same should hold true for selfies.
An occasional selfie isn’t a problem. But if your child is taking lots of selfies and viewing his/her selfies consistently in a negative light, then this may be amplifying or triggering poor self-esteem, she says. In this case, she would recommend intervening.
Schumacher says that whenever she gives a presentation to a school district, she encourages school officials to invite parents of kindergartners as well as high schoolers.
“Pick your hard,” I tell parents. “You can have the battles when they are younger or you can have them when they are older. I think it’s easier if you set the hard rules up when they are younger. Once they get to high school, sometimes we’re in damage control mode.”
Sobel-Lojeski says it does not necessarily help to take away kids phones or to be critical.
“Encourage them to leave the devices at home and go for a walk. Help them anchor to a new set of value systems, anchor to the fact that what is important are those real life experiences,” she says. “But to anchor, they need to know why and how those things are important to you. To do that, we expose them to direct experiences with the world and marry that experience by sharing stories about our own lives. We relate the experience and they will start to see that life lives beyond the screen.”
She adds that, in some ways, we’ve unwittingly deprived our children of what they need – connection to real world experiences and anchors from our own life – and that when we give them those things back, the devices become less powerful and less important.
Schumaker says that parents need to acknowledge that the “selfie” practice is normal and something kids do.
“But remind them that your job is to make them feel good about who they are. If they like a picture of themselves and want to post it, that’s good. But if they are posting it for reinforcement and they won’t be okay if they don’t get that reinforcement, then maybe they shouldn’t post it. It might be weakening their self-confidence muscle.”
Schumacher says she tells kids that when they like a post or a photo, it’s like they wrote it or posted it. “The same goes for not liking it,” she says. “If you don’t like a mean or critical post, and if you speak out against those types of things, that gives you real power.”
Another empowering behavior is to unplug and step away from the device. “Tell your kids that if they are partaking in social media and it’s not making them feel good, they have an escape hatch. They can unfriend, unplug, or step away. Doing those things doesn't mean you’re unpopular. It means you’re saying that you matter, and you’re exercising your self-confidence muscle.”
Chase says to pay attention to changes in behavior like limiting certain foods and choosing to not eat any meals with the family “In addition, increased exercise can become unhealthy, especially if there is a reduction in food intake,” she says.
“Be aware if they are increasingly more negative about themselves or their appearance.” Changes in mood and spending less time doing activities they enjoy can also be indicators of a problem.
Of course, if parents suspect serious threats to the physical and mental health of their children, they should contact a professional.
In the end, it’s important for parents to set boundaries for their children. “Parents need to remember that having a phone is a privilege and while it may be important for safety or communication, setting limits around other uses is absolutely acceptable,” Chase says.