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Can Taking Selfies Distort Your Self-Image?

Selfies are here to stay. At one point the Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year for 2013 might have been viewed as a fad. Five years later, however, selfies are clearly ingrained in our culture. But does taking a lot of selfies affect how you perceive yourself?

Strike a Pose

With your phone out, gotta hit them angles,’ croons rap superstar Drake on his hit single Nice For What.

A song about female empowerment describes the ideal of a young, independent woman making a life for herself by herself. Naturally it had to include a lyric about selfie-taking.

Holding a phone in awkward positions to find that perfect angle for snapping photographs of oneself, attaching a suitable caption and posting it on the ’gram is a daily ritual for many young people all over the world.

In fact selfie-taking has become such a cultural phenomenon that it even paves the way for a new profession – social media influencers. The influencer market was worth an estimated US$2 billion in 2017. By 2020 that figure is projected to rise fivefold to US$10 billion.

Unfortunately for most of us selfie-taking is not a profitable endeavour. Not that this puts any dent in the fervour with which we continue to embrace the practice.

Myself(ie) and Others

In 2016 a team of psychology researchers from the University of Toronto conducted an experiment on 198 college students. About half of the participants were regular selfie-takers and the other half were not.

All the participants were asked to take a selfie, then a second photo of them was taken by one of the researchers.

Afterwards participants were asked to rate both photos on how attractive and likeable they thought they looked.

Non-selfie-takers rated both photos pretty much the same, while selfie-takers thought their selfies brought out their real beauty and likeability more than the researchers’ photo.

As the researchers commented, ‘We found that the selfie-takers perceived themselves as more attractive and likeable in their selfies than in others’ photos, but that non-selfie-takers viewed both photos similarly.’

Independent observers were recruited online to rate the photos in terms of attractiveness, likeability and narcissism.

The independents rated selfies less attractive, less likeable and more narcissistic than selfie-takers – and even non-self-takers – thought they were themselves.

In contrast the photos of participants taken by researchers received higher ratings from the online recruits.

Taken at face value, it appears that we all think we look cuter than we really are in our selfies regardless of whether or not we regularly take selfies.

On top of that, no matter how good we might think we look in our selfies, we will appear narcissistic to other people.

In an ironic twist, by striving hard to show only our best side to people on social media, we could be showing our worst through conceit.

Beauty in the Beholder

This study was widely picked up by media outlets. But it also had its detractors.

Critics point out that far from proving that regular selfie-takers have a skewed self-perception, it simply proves the obvious — that selfie-takers prefer their own selfies to photos taken by other people.

Another critical point is the fact that the independent online raters only see either the selfie of a participant or the photo taken by a researcher, never both of the same participant.

As a result, we do not know if the selfie-takers’ confidence in their own selfies could have been backed up by the independents.

The main takeaway from this is probably that in general we should all go a bit easy on the selfies. Social media is not a competition and we all have better things to do.

Plus, overindulgence in selfies is definitely not a good thing. Previous studies have shown that a propensity for selfie-taking has been linked to narcissistic behaviour, especially in men.

As Drake’s contemporary Kendrick Lamar said, ‘Be humble.’

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