We have all read stories telling us how bad social media is for us; how the notification systems are creating depressed junkies and how selfies are turning us all into image-obsessed Kardashians, crippled by an ambivalence of vanity and insecurity. But social media psychologists say there may be an upside to posting pictures of ourselves — they can help us to figure out who we are.
“It’s a way of communicating,” Pamela Rutledge of California’s Media Psychology Research Center told Highsnobiety. “When you are young you are emancipating from your group, your family unit, finding your place in the world, looking for a mate, establishing your own nest and creating your own tribe so it makes sense that you would take a lot of pictures.”
This may be why 87 percent of selfies on the 'gram come from people under 35.
Before digital photography and camera phones, taking a picture was expensive and required more effort, but the desire to see our lives still had us handing disposable cameras to waiters and waiting anxiously to finish a roll and develop the film.
Now that it costs next to nothing and can be done in seconds there has been a flood of indiscriminate selfies, but Rutledge says that we have reached the point where they are becoming more purposeful.
“When twitter came out people were tweeting about what they had for breakfast, and what was interesting about that is that it is something no one had done before,” the California psychologist said. “But pretty soon it is not that interesting to read about what people had for breakfast. It is a little like that with selfies; at first you could take a picture of yourself doing all of these things in all these different ways, but after a point it is not that interesting and selfies become more targeted in that you are using them for specific reasons.”
The researchers at Georgia Tech found that the most common reason for snapping a selfie is to capture your appearance, followed by showing off your social group, displaying your ethnicity, travel shots, as well as your heath and fitness.
Why We "Like" Selfies
Although it is easy to criticize people who flood our feeds with selfies, as a species, we actually like selfies — we “like” them 38 percent more than pictures of inanimate objects. Gerogia Tech researchers found that we respond with more likes and comments to pictures of faces, because we find them more engaging.
“In our brains, when someone looks into a camera, they are effectively looking us in the eye and our brains respond with a social trigger,” Rutledge said.
But before you spend hours staring lovingly into your front camera looking for likes, the researchers found that while faces did better on social media, the frequency of posts can offset this effect, resulting in less likes.
When Even None Selfies Are Basically Selfies
As boyfriends, girlfriends, best friends or any other type of “friends” know, not all self-portraits have to be taken by your own hand.
The selfie’s cousin, the #fitpic, seen in abundance over at r/streetwear, mimics a street style photographer. Although the subject has definitely staged and styled the shot, the lens is a bit further removed to showcase the outfit and lend an “oh, I didn’t see you there,” quality to the picture.
Rutledge calls them “quasi-selfies.” “It is authentic and unfiltered but just farther away than your arm could reach,” she said. “Like the selfie it is still a way of making people feel like they are spending time with you.”
Although the posts are definitely meant to be seen, shared and liked, according to Rutledge a part of 'fit pics also serves as a journal for people to keep track of their personal evolution. “It is so much faster to take a picture and not write. You can look back over it and the experience and that is quite profound,” Rutledge said.
Where Things Get Dangerous
Selfies are not all good. Aside from people accidentally hurting or killing themselves trying to impress others on the 'gram, studies have found that interacting with “idealized images” of others puts people at higher risk for depression. A study by the University of Pittsburgh found that over a quarter of people that used social media for an hour each day showed high indicators of depression.
But although there is a lot of data linking selfies and social media to mental health issues, it is unclear whether depressed people gravitate towards social media or whether it makes people depressed.
“I don’t want to attribute it to the photographs,” Rutledge said. “But any behavior you are doing where you are relying on other people’s opinion of yourself in excess, can aggravate bad feelings. We all rely on external validation to a certain point, but if it is starting to make you feel poorly about yourself, you should probably step back away from it.”
But despite the risks for people who are predisposition to compare themselves negatively to others, Rutledge believes that selfies are a positive force in society.
“What is really cool to me about selfies is that it shifted our focus from big moments to little moments. We have this new level of mindfulness, which aught to make people have better moods, better sense of subjective well being, more connectivity with friends.”
So go ahead, take the picture. Next up, this new documentary confronts the glaring racist stereotypes in The Simpsons.