The Psychology of Selfies

selfieA recent study from the Pew Research Center found that 91% of teens have posted a photo of themselves online. With smartphones becoming the standard tool for many teens, selfies (short for self-portraits) are widespread on social media. Although selfies may seem innocent enough, there is a lot of psychology behind the process that can impact your teen. Here is what parents should know about selfies:

Self-Worth. Earlier in 2014, a 19-year-old boy in Britain made headlines as a “selfie addict.” The teen dropped out of school so that he could spend all day taking pictures of himself because he was obsessed with posting the “perfect” selfie. While few teens would ever go to that extreme, many do start to tie their self-esteem to the comments or “likes” they get when they post a selfie. A teen who posts a selfie on Facebook or Instagram and receives positive comments, feels good. However, a lack of response or negative comments can lead to a teen feeling bad about himself. While posting a selfie can be a great form of self-expression and, although seeking validation is normal, selfies are not based on who your teen is as a person, but rather what your teen looks like. And, there is always the possibility that your teen could experience a very public rejection. Negative feedback posted is there for anyone to see.

Reputation. If teens aren’t careful about the type of pictures they share, a selfie could ruin their reputation. Some teens post completely inappropriate photos, such as pictures of themselves scantily clad, drunk, or using drugs. While they may think this is a great way to get “likes” and positive comments, these photos are available to the public and can be seen by future employers, colleges, or in-laws. Some teens might share a risqué photo with only one or two people, thinking that it’s private, but unfortunately, those people can share the photo. There have been reports of ex-boyfriends sharing a partially nude photo of their ex-girlfriend after they break up as an act of revenge.

Physical Danger. One way that teens get “likes” and positive comments is to take a selfie with some type of action shot in the background. Unfortunately, trying to get that really cool action shot can put your teen in danger. Teens are taking photos of themselves in front of burning buildings or while performing various risky stunts.

Positives. Now, before you forbid your teen to take any more selfies after hearing these sad facts, consider a 2012 survey by the nonprofit child advocacy group, Common Sense Media. They surveyed more than 1,000 13- to 17-year-olds about their digital lives, and the results were actually quite positive overall. One in five teens said social media makes them feel more confident, compared with 4% who said it makes them feel less so. Almost a third of teens (29%) said social media made them feel less shy versus 3% who said it made them feel more introverted. And, when it comes to relationships with friends, more than half (52%) of teens said social media has made their friendships better versus just 4% who said it has negatively affected those relationships.

What Parents Can Do

Overall, selfies can be a fun, healthy way for teens to express themselves. However, teens need some guidance around what’s appropriate and what isn’t. The best thing parents can do is:

  • Discuss the issues of self-worth, reputation, and physical danger with their teen so that they understand what is and is not acceptable to post on social media.
  • Suggest that your teen asks herself a few probing questions before she posts a photo: is the post embarrassing for me or my family, hurtful to someone else, or fishing for someone to make me feel better about myself or my decisions. If so, she should refrain from posting.
  • Have frequent conversations about their social media use, asking them what they think about other people’s social media use.
  • Monitor the quantity and the content of your teen’s selfies and look for things that might indicate your teen’s selfie habit is getting out of control.

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