Our generation’s “selfie obsession” has turned into an entire industry. There are apps to enhance selfie images – to smooth out skin, erase dark eye circles, whiten teeth and even thin out facial structure and features – all on a quest for the perfect picture. This addiction to selfies has been alarming to most psychological healthcare professionals who fear we are raising a generation that relies on attention-seeking social dependence with no compassion, understanding or identity of any kind. Why is selfie-obsession a psychological health problem ? How much of this fear is actually valid ? In a world where 1 million odd selfies are taken every day, where an average millennial is expected to take 25,700 selfies in his or her lifetime, how many selfies can we really call “normal” ?  

Professor Jese Fox and his graduate student Margaret Rooney, to address the psychological concerns of our selfie-obsession, investigated the association between selfies and personality. They surveyed and researched 1,000 men between 18-40 years of age and published their results in the journal of Personality and Individual Differences. In the study, the participants were asked questions that assess their personality, how many selfies they had taken and posted on social media in the last week, as well as how many other photos they had posted and how much time they spent on social media sites. They were also asked to rate how often they used various methods to make themselves look better in pictures, such as cropping, filtering, and re-touching. The study results revealed two very interesting pointers: (a) Posting numerous selfies was related to both higher narcissism and psychopathy in the respective individuals (b) Narcissists were more likely to show off with selfies and make the extra effort to look their best in these photos where as psychopathic men posted more selfies, but didn’t tend to edit them more than their less psychopathic counterparts. Selfie addiction it appers is the new pathology, so much so that the clinical psychologist Bart Rossi said,

“Today too many people are interested in making a statement about themselves on the internet and creating an influential existence. Selfies, when used to excess show a lack of depth and a shallow personality. If someone is obsessed with taking selfies it is most likely because the individual is self-absorbed and narcissistic.”

But are all selfie-takers psychologically disturbed ? – Obviously NOT. Another research study on the issue from Brigham Young University based on a group of social media users, identified three categories of people who snap and share selfies –  Communicators, Autobiographers, and Self publicists. “Communicators” take selfies primarily to engage friends, family, or followers. These researchers cite actress Anne Hathaway’s “I voted” selfie as an example of a “communicator” post, as it sparked a spirited discussion about civic duty. “Autobiographers”, on the other hand, use selfies as a tool to record important events in their lives. They still want others to see their photos, but they’re more interested in preserving these moments than in social engagement and feedback. Astronaut Scott Kelley, who posted space-suit selfies while chronicling his year in space, is a good example. And finally, there are the “self-publicists”. These are the people who are often excessively obsessed with marketing themselves hoping to present themselves in a positive light. The classic example? You guessed it: the Kardashians. In a nutshell, while addressing selfie-addiction as a pathological issue, it’s also important to know that not everyone who posts pictures of themselves is a selfie-obsessed narcissist.

I am sure that many of us may be tempted to accuse all our excessively selfie-posting Facebook friends of being self-obsessed narcissists and psychopaths.  However we need to realize that even if they did fall in the obsessive-compulsive-narcissistic self-publicist category, it cannot and must not be the cause for one to character-bash them – rather handle them with empathy and guide them to seek professional help. One must understand that an overt compulsion to take selfies in these individuals and the motivation for posting them excessively on social network sites in most cases are often related to past bullying and low self-esteem and hence is a problem that deserves our sympathy and warrants help. But why selfies would be the next obvious question ? Because selfie-taking in these individuals triggers perceptions of self-indulgence and posting them works as a self-presentational strategy to compensate for their low and fragile self-esteem. When their efforts subsequently gets reinforced and rewarded by others through “likes” , the obsessive compulsive selfie poster gets his “high” – an attention-seeking social dependence. In essence, what may look like straight-forward narcissism can often be insecurity and a craving for reassurance: a reassurance that they can only ever get from “likes”.

From the woman who fell off a bridge while posing to selfie on an iPad to the recently viral selfie-op that caused $200,000 worth damage at Infinity Mirrors exhibit, we’ve all laughed at someone else´s selfie story gone horribly wrong. “Selfie” may have been the 2013 word of the year, but selfie addiction is definitely no laughing matter.   Therefore, what we must constantly remind ourselves is that in an ever increasing abusive world that spares no attention to the “average” man, it’s quite easy for someone to get fixated on selfies – If anything, they are suffering and need our help, not ridicule.