Perfect selfies are all over Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. They're killing us
Selfie-mania has plagued the world for years now as the never-ending pursuit of the perfect photo continues to reach new heights.
Risk takers flock to the edges of cliffs and skyscrapers to take a pic as they dangle their feet off the edge to share with friends on social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook. Image-obsessed adults go under the knife, requesting surgeries to make them look like Snapchat-filtered versions of themselves in real life.
And even those who aren't as daring when "doing it for the 'gram" might be at risk of developing unofficial mental disorders such as "selfitis" and Snapchat dysmorphia.
“Selfie or it didn’t happen” is all fun and games, but at what point does curiosity and leisure cross over into an unhealthy obsession?
Experts say it starts with how you feel when you post a photo.
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"You have to really be honest with yourself. If the process of taking them or posting them is anxiety-inducing, or if you start to feel nervous when you can't check your notifications, then you might be getting into trouble," said psychotherapist Dr. Aaron Balick, author of The Psychodynamics of Social Networking.
Balick says it's helpful to metaphorically compare your selfie-taking to eating fast food.
"It's fine every once in a while, but most of your diet should be nutritious. In other words, if you have enough good relationships with real people then getting validation from photos online should be healthy."
Dying for the photo
Every month in 2019 so far, someone has been critically injured or died while attempting to take a selfie.
In April, a 20-year-old university student fell about 100 feet to her death while hiking on a class trip to the Ozarks. In March, an international tourist who was in his 50s fell hundreds of feet into the canyon while attempting to snap a photo at Eagle Point.
In February, a Texas teen managed to survive a 50-foot fall from a bridge while taking a selfie, according to local media. And in January, a man died after falling off the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland while trying to snap a photo. His body was retrieved from the water below the cliffs via helicopter, according to the Irish Times.
As the self-snapped photos have increased in popularity so has the pressure to capture a death-defying picture that can take the internet by storm.
That's what birthed the "killfie."
A killfie is a selfie you take in a risky or astonishing position at a dangerous location, and sadly the trend has led to a rise in actual selfie deaths, a 2018 study found.
Researchers at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi found 259 people died while attempting to take a selfie between October 2011 and November 2017. Deaths rose from two reported in 2011 to 98 in 2016. The number of selfie deaths last year dipped to 93, the study said.
Findings were published in the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care.
What drives people literally to the edge for a photo?
It varies. Balick says people could be blinded by "the perceived need of their imagined audience."
"For most people, their survival instinct will supersede their validation instinct. For others, the opportunity for a photo supersedes personal safety at that moment. It's almost like you get possessed."
Social media is home to an endless number of selfies that can get people into trouble, and safety officials worldwide have taken notice.
The U.S. Forest Service now warns against bear selfies or photos with wild bears in the background. Yellowstone has created a list of places not to take selfies, such as next to a geyser or on the edge of a canyon.
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Overseas, emergency personnel issued safety warnings at places like Sydney’s picturesque Diamond Bay after an Instagram model popularized taking photos near the cliff's edge. And Russian police issued a "Safe Selfie" pamphlet after a Moscow woman took an accidental gunshot to the head while taking a selfie with a gun.
Why do we take selfies in the first place?
Experts say that the behavior can be rooted in a form of narcissism that's directly connected to the human ego.
"We all have an ego. We all need recognition from peers and when people take selfies, it's generally to fulfill the ego's need for recognition," Balick said. Although sometimes, people use selfies to get validation, which he calls a "low complexity version of recognition."
"Validation is like a pat on the back. It’s like a well done or a 'you’re pretty' or 'you’re smart.' It’s a thumbs up. That's what really gets you in trouble when you need recognition but you seek validation."
One of the motivations for posting images online centers around presenting positive versions of ourselves to the outside world, says Erin Vogel, Ph.D., a post-doctoral fellow in the dept. of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco.
"In real life, we can't undo things and make ourselves look the way we want to look, but online we can spend a lot of time constructing that."
A study by Janarthanan Balakrishnan of Thiagarajar School of Management, India and Mark Griffiths from Nottingham Trent University in the UK sought to develop a scale to measure what drives people to take selfies.
The researchers broke the motivations down into the following categories:
- Attention seeking – taking and posting selfies to feel more popular.
- Mood modification – has been described by Griffiths (2005) as an experience that makes someone feel better and is part of what defines addiction.
- Self-confidence - the taking selfies may increase the self-confidence of those who engage in this behavior.
- Social competition - posting selfies to get likes on social media or taking selfies to increase one’s social status.
- Subjective conformity – referring to an individual’s tendency to copy what others do.
- Environmental enhancement – taking selfies to create memories or trophies of oneself.
Based on how participants scored, they were grouped into three categories: borderline, acute and chronic.
Researchers at Syracuse University in New York found that people who post solo selfies and use editing software show behavior connected to narcissism and a need for popularity.
Rise of the selfie
Camera pioneer Robert Cornelius is widely credited with taking the first photo of himself in 1839, though whether or not it was a true "selfie" is debatable.
"Cornelius would probably have had an assistant make the exposure," said historian and director general of the Royal Photographic Society. At best, it would be "considered a self-portrait. Selfie is stretching the definition."
The selfie, as it's known today, first took off in 2005, with the usage of MySpace, and the trend has only grown in popularity since then. In 2013, the term “selfie” was added to the dictionary – which signified its prevalence in modern culture.
The duck face, the fish gape, the smize – these are just a few of the facial expressions and poses that the masses have adopted over the years as occasional selfies have evolved into normal lifestyle impulses.
The selfie boom may be behind us (remember when selfie sticks were everywhere?), however, several companies continue to cash in people's self-interest in crafting beautiful images of themselves.
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Industry leaders include the Chinese electronics company Anker, the tripod maker Fotopro and Apple, according to MarketWatch. The booming sales are contributed to the increasing use of selfie accessories at weddings, birthdays and other events by people of all ages.
Millennials alone are on track to take an average of 25,000 selfies in a lifetime, according to Samsung. That's approximately one selfie a day during an average lifespan.
Experts say that obsessively curating our social media profiles and using filters is changing our perception of ourselves. And selfie-culture is putting so much pressure on beauty standards that it 's driving people to seek cosmetic procedures to look more like their digital selves.
At its most extreme, this fixation on appearance can manifest in a mental health condition that's being referred to as "Snapchat dysmorphia."
"This is based on negative social comparison, which has always happened," Balick said.
"Before, it was pictures in magazines that people were worried about triggering disorders like anorexia. But what makes today worse is that people are looking at (triggering images) throughout the day on social media, and it follows them around everywhere. It's in your pocket."
Follow Dalvin Brown on Twitter: @Dalvin_Brown.