Is digital self-portraiture empowering or endangering? Harmless fun or hopelessly narcissistic? The answer depends on whom you ask. And, perhaps, who you are.
Story by Matt Gonzales
Quick! Strike a pose!
The selfie—defined by Oxford Dictionary as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media” and its “Word of the Year” for 2013—is a polarizing phenomenon. For many of you, digital self-snapshots have become second nature. Going to a party? Snap a selfie for your friends. Going on vacation? Not without a beach selfie! Not sure whether you look better in the red shirt or the blue shirt? Send a pic to a fashionable friend for advice. While your phone’s filled with self-portraits, your parents and grandparents probably still regard the whole business with squinty-eyed skepticism.
Some of that skepticism is rooted in a reflexive distrust of new technology. But in the case of selfies, some skepticism is warranted. From recent selfie-related deaths to reports of selfie addiction, there’s plenty to give one pause when considering the effects of selfies on those who take them. And more often than not, those snapping selfies are part of your generation—known as Generation Z.
What is Generation Z, anyway?
Generational labels should be taken with a grain of salt. More than anything, they’re a way for marketers to segment people into target audiences. Nevertheless, they tend to stick. Just ask the millennials—now well into their 20s. They’re still trying to overcome a mostly unfair reputation for being lazy and entitled. (After all, Mark Zuckerberg, Serena Williams, Steph Curry are all millennials who have accomplished amazing things!)
Still, if you examine any large group of people born around the same time, some commonalities will emerge. And when looking at members of Generation Z—loosely defined as people born around 1995 or later—one commonality is impossible to miss: You’re all digital natives.
Coined by writer Marc Prensky 15 years ago, “digital native” describes a person born into a world saturated with digital technology. That’s you. You’ve never known a world without the Internet, touch screens or pocket-sized computers. You feel right at home in a digitally wired world. It’s the only world you’ve ever known.
However, digital natives aren’t immune to poor judgment when it comes to sharing content, including selfies. Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center and a professor of media psychology at Fielding Graduate University, says many teenagers make the mistake of presuming privacy in digital spaces. “Just because a Snapchat disappears, that doesn’t mean someone couldn’t take a screenshot. And there are any number of ways someone could hack their account,” Rutledge says.
“A person’s brain doesn’t fully develop the ability to effectively evaluate risk until their mid-20s,” Rutledge continues. “That’s why teenagers often aren’t very good at projecting how much trouble something might get them into.”
Death by selfie
This past year, a news story claiming that selfies were more dangerous than shark bites went viral. And while it’s true that a handful of people died in 2015 while trying to take selfies (a pilot was reported to have been taking selfies right before crashing his plane, for example), Rutledge cautions against drawing any sweeping conclusions.
“We have to be careful not to get technophobic,” she says.
A more serious threat is the potential for selfie-taking to develop into a compulsive, even addictive, habit. In 2014, Danny Bowman, a 19-year-old Englishman, went public with his selfie addiction. At one point, Bowman said he was spending 10 hours a day snapping up to 200 selfies.
Josie Howard, a psychiatrist and member of the clinical faculty at the University of California, San Francisco, says selfies may trigger a similar type of brain activity in some people that drugs do in others. “There is probably something akin to a dopamine hit happening—a release of feel-good neurotransmitters that happens upon posting selfies and getting attention,” she says.
But, like drug use, compulsive selfie-taking can leave you feeling empty afterward. “The pleasure is short-lived, and leads the user back for more to maintain the good feeling,” Howard says.
Charisse L’Pree, assistant professor at the SI Newhouse School of Public Education at Syracuse University, recently gave a TedX Talk titled “Psychology of Selfies,” in which she argued that selfies can be an avenue for self-discovery and empowerment.
In the 1990s, L’Pree was ahead of her time as a pre-digital selfie-snapping teenager. “It had a real psychological benefit for me as a young woman,” she says. “It was valuable to capture my own image in a good light, because then I wasn’t subjected only to images of other women.”
Gabriela Valencia (left)—a recent graduate of Glendale High School in Glendale, California, and a 2015–16 Key Club Robert F. Lucas Award-winning lieutenant governor—sees things similarly. “Teens use selfies as a way to boost their confidence. Like, ‘Wow, I actually do look good in these photos.’”
Many teens share those “good” photos on social media, turning a private selfie into a public one. “It’s human nature to want to feel confident,” Valencia says, “so I won’t judge people who post selfies and expect compliments, because it’s only natural to want praise.”
Practice selfie control
While L’Pree enthusiastically embraces the selfie as a tool for self-expression and empowerment, she also recommends taking the occasional break from technology. “It’s always good to see how you survive.”
Rutledge echoes her advice. “If one of your goals is to get into medical school, then spending your evening on your phone instead of doing your homework probably isn’t the right choice.”
Valencia—who pretty much stopped taking selfies after she broke the front-facing camera on her phone—admits she and her Generation Z peers are “a little too invested in our phones.”
“If I don’t have mine, I find myself twiddling my thumbs,” she says. Yet she believes that antsy feeling is better than being constantly “on” digitally. “It’s a problem when people spend their entire time Snapchatting what they are doing.”
Besides, Valencia says, unplugging from the digital world can be a refreshing, and even illuminating, experience. “Our English teacher made us give up our cell phones for a day recently,” Valencia says. “It wasn’t that bad. Our world wasn’t that different.”
In addition to the occasional digital “fast,” Rutledge recommends keeping track of how you use technology. “Write down your goals on a piece of paper, and make sure how you’re using technology supports those goals,” she says. “Technology is highly engaging, but it’s important to remember that we’re the ones with the ‘off’ button.”