Generation Selfie exposes itself to image problems

Selfies may breed narcissism but could also prompt self-reflection

Since the first ever #selfie post on Instagram in 2011 it has gone on to become the most frequently used hashtag on the platform. In 2012 Time magazine declared "selfie" one of the top 10 buzzwords of the year and in 2013 the Oxford English Dictionary gave it the honour of Word of the Year. A 2013 survey of 3,000 individuals aged 18-24 found that every third picture taken is a selfie.

Selfies show others how great our lives are (or appear to be) and they can be a valuable source of income for social media influencers but research links their use to narcissism and low self-esteem. Millennials are building their social networks and even careers around the selfie, but at what cost?

Before exploring the downsides of Generation Selfie, its market value must be acknowledged; the selfie economy is healthy and thriving. Although a picture is worth a thousand words, a selfie is worth up to £20,000 (€22,500) depending on who you are and how many Instagram followers you have.

While young people are leaving Facebook in droves the selfie economy on Instagram (and to lesser degree on Snapchat) is flourishing due to the vast audiences enjoyed by celebrities and ordinary folk alike. While "Fitstagrammers" such as Joe Wicks (@thebodycoach) can pull in up to four or five figures per sponsored selfie, there is also a booming economy amongst those known as "micro influencers".


These non-celebrities trade on their perceived authenticity and have a significant, loyal follower base who trust them to review products and services honestly, only putting their name to a face cream or herbal tea they can stand by. This might not make megabucks but according to the Guardian these micro influencers may earn anything between £50 to £300 per branded post.

Selfie apps

And alongside the selfie takers are the selfie makers: there are more selfie smartphone apps now than ever before with new ones appearing by the week. Lifestyle Instagrammers earning followers and sponsors with pretty pictures of themselves and their cats sitting on hand-woven rugs draped artfully across minimalist furniture are drawn to apps with a focus on retro filters such as Retrica. Filter names like pistachio, rooibos, Santorini and relevé provide some insight into the effervescent youth market they wish to capture.

Meanwhile, research shows that a good selfie is hard to find: the average person takes multiple pictures before they get one they’re happy enough to post. (You just checked your camera roll, didn’t you?) App developers know this is a modern vice and have come up with variations on “Photoshop for selfies”, one of the most popular of which is Facetune.

Lightricks, the Israeli start-up behind selfie enhancement app Facetune, has generated millions in profit from this app alone while receiving funding of $10 million back in 2015 ahead of the release of Facetune 2. There's big business in making people look virtually perfect, especially if reality superstars such as Kim Kardashian endorse your product.

There is even a trickle-down effect as we spend on a selfie-ready face: more and more YouTubers are making money from hair and make-up tutorials while some of the big hitters such as Marlena Stell, aka Makeup Geek, have gone on to launch their own line of makeup. Cosmetic sales are also on the up: L'Oréal figures show the annual growth rate of the global cosmetics market to be about 4 per cent year on year.

And there are even more creative ways to squeeze money from the selfie-obsessed among us and I'm not talking about the increasingly ubiquitous selfie stick. A cafe in London's Oxford Street specialises in the "Selfieccino". Upon arrival, you message your selfie to the barista, who uploads the image into a machine that prints your face on your coffee for the princely sum of £5.75.

Plastic surgery

But what is the price of virtual perfection? Surely there’s no harm in applying a few filters, tweaking your appearance and waiting for the hit of gratification as the likes flood in? There’s harm if you start to believe that is how you should look and it begins to take over your life. A 2018 report from the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons showed that 55 per cent of patients cited looking better in selfies as motivation for having cosmetic surgery, with 56 per cent of surgeons reporting a marked increase in clients under the age of 30.

While researching this article I found that one of the top Google searches associated with "selfie" and "snapchat" is: "Why do I look better in Snapchat selfies?" Assuming we are not talking about the ones with panda or dog ears, it is a little worrying that some people genuinely prefer the way they look with cartoonishly large eyes and smooth Barbie doll skin.

A new study from the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada, looked at the selfie hashtag on Instagram and how it is used. It found that the top hashtags used alongside #selfie were ones asking for likes and followers such as #likeforlike, #followme as well as ones that indicate the #selfie is dominated by young women who want to convey a certain aesthetic: #girl, #smile, #cute, #fun, #beautiful.

Rather than viewing the selfie as a modern version of the Polaroid – artistic self-expression – the research suggests people who post selfies on Instagram seem to be motivated by attention and status seeking: the promise of more followers and more likes. The ultimate goal of the selfie may be selfie promotion above all else.

Related research from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia (2015) and Facebook Research (2016) indicates that there is a downside to all of this smizing, airbrushed and hashtagged selfies: not receiving enough likes or comments on a post can result in individuals feeling badly and/or experiencing low self-esteem.

Additionally, 2015 research from the University of Texas examined motivations for posting selfies and after interviewing a group of women aged 19-30 they found that impression management was a top concern with the need to constantly appear happy and look good.

If you've read about addiction to taking selfies – labelled "selfitis" – and scoffed at the very notion then welcome to the club. Especially since a story circulating as far back as 2014 that the American Psychiatric Association was classing it as a mental disorder was found to be a hoax. While I still remain to be entirely convinced, there is early research out there exploring the notion of selfitis, with one study from the Nottingham Trent University in the UK developing what it calls the Selfitis Behaviour Scale (SBS), which ranges from borderline and acute to chronic.

Keeping in mind that while this study was carried out with university students it may shed some light on the factors that influence the posting of selfies: environmental enhancement, social competition, attention seeking, mood modification, self-confidence and social conformity. In her book American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, author Nancy Jo Sales talks about the notion of platforms such as Instagram serving as a replacement for high-school politics complete with in-crowds and popularity contests.

But before you write selfie obsession off as something afflicting young women only, there is also research looking at why it may be worse when men do it. A study from the University of Wroclaw in Poland and the Technical University of Dresden in Germany quizzed more than 1,200 men and women about their selfie habits. While women posted more selfies, there was a stronger link between narcissism and selfie-posting for men.

But what about our physical health? Well, here is a sentence I never thought I’d see in a medical journal: “A diverse group of selfie injuries has been reported, including injury and death secondary to selfie-related falls, attacks from wild animals, electrocution, lightning strikes, trauma at sporting events, road traffic and pedestrian accidents.”

If they're not making us feel bad about how we look, selfies are leading to foolish behaviour in an attempt to get the perfect picture, leading the Journal of Travel Medicine to advise medical practitioners to counsel travellers on "responsible self-photography" and even give them printed material on safe selfie snapping.

Voting booths

Selfies are such an integral part of modern life that they have even embedded themselves into our political lives. In fact, ahead of this year’s referendum media outlets were warning voters not to take selfies from the voting booth; if they really needed to they could do so once outside the polling station. The Department of the Environment issued a statement that “taking photographs and the sharing of any photograph of a ballot paper marked at an election or a referendum could have the potential to compromise the integrity and secrecy of a ballot and may constitute an offence”.

Meanwhile, in the United States, Justin Timberlake didn't realise this was an issue and posted a #ballotselfie of him voting to his Instagram account, declaring "No excuses, my good people!" Indeed. Although this has led to a change in some US states where people are now free to snap a pic of themselves with their filled-out ballot.

Have I convinced you that the selfie brings out the worst in us? Self-absorption, narcissism, attention-seeking, inauthenticity and disregard for our physical safety. Herein lies the paradox. Most of us take selfies but when we judge others for their motives we are quick to attach these negative traits. Psychologists have termed this “selfie bias”; we like to downplay motivations for taking our own selfies and view them as ironic or half-committed.

This aside, the selfie remains hugely popular both for the creators and consumers of these images. Perhaps, as psychologist Pamela Rutledge says, they function as a prompt for self-study and self-observation; a technologically-facilitated way of figuring out who we are, the modern-day "dear diary" minus the literary introspection. Either way, despite all my reservations, I would pay good money for a selfieccino.