The Daily Mirror recently told the story of teenager Danny Bowman, an aspiring model who attempted suicide because he wasn’t satisfied with the quality of his selfies. Bowman had become technology-addicted and selfie-obsessed and is currently undergoing therapy for OCD and Body Dysmorphic Disorder (an excessive anxiety about personal appearance).
Bowman’s unhealthy addiction to peer approval via myriad selfie posts began at the age of 15, when he received comments about his appearance on Facebook. “They told me that my body was the wrong shape to be a model and that my skin wasn’t up to scratch. I was mortified,” he recalled.
Bowman was eventually taking up to 80 selfies before leaving for school in the morning. As his addiction worsened, he lost weight — binging only on selfies — and dropped out of school. Bowman’s parents, both mental health nurses, were desperate to help their son after he was rushed to the hospital for an attempted overdose on pills.
Selfie addiction is a new pathology, often related to past bullying and low self-esteem. According to Time, psychiatrists are beginning to consider the compulsion to take selfies as a serious mental health problem.
“The common treatment is where a patient gradually learns to go for longer periods of time without satisfying the urge to take a photograph, along with therapy to address the root cause of the problem,” psychiatrist Dr. David Veale told the Daily Mirror.
Veale said that since the rise of camera phones, two out of three of his patients suffer from Body Dysmorphic Disorder and compulsively take selfies. “Cognitive behavioral therapy is used to help a patient to recognize the reasons for his or her compulsive behavior and then to learn how to moderate it.”
As the San Jose Mercury News reports, teenagers are among the largest group of storytellers. “According to a recent study from the Pew Research Center, 91 percent of teens have posted a photo of themselves online. Many also use photo messaging applications such as Snapchat to attach text.”
When we get so distracted by the marketing of ourselves, we can lose touch with our authentic identities and struggle to build real relationships, says Lucie Hemmen, a Santa Cruz clinical psychologist and author of Parenting a Teen Girl: A Crash Course on Conflict, Communication and Connection with Your Teenage Daughter.
“There’s a continuum of health and authenticity in what you shoot and post,” she says. “A secure, mature person is going to post selfies that are spontaneous and not overly engineered or edited, and they’re going to do it less often. A more insecure person is going to post staged or sexualized photos, and they’re going to do it so much that they become consumed by it and the comments they receive.”
Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center in Boston, calls selfies a “really interesting psychological shift” in self-portraiture and in our relationships with ourselves. “Selfies allow you to be the producer, director, curator and actor in your own story,” says Rutledge.
But selfies can affect mood and damage self-esteem. Hemmen added, “Therein lies the challenge: practicing selfie control. Because teenagers are often driven by insecurity to construct a desirable persona, they are particularly vulnerable to the negative side of self-portraiture.”
“If a young girl poses provocatively and gets 300 likes for that photo, that’s false self-esteem for that kid,” said Hemmen. “Selfies can be fun and give people a burst of satisfaction in the moment, but we still want to encourage people to have authentic identities in real time and with real people.”
In Psychology Today, Rutledge said, “Selfies frequently trigger perceptions of self-indulgence or attention-seeking social dependence that raises the damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t spectre of either narcissism or very low self-esteem.”
A team of U.K. researchers found that people who post a lot of photos on Facebook and other social networks run the risk of alienating friends, family members and colleagues, leading to less supportive bonds.
A Birmingham Business School study of disclosure and liking behavior on Facebook found that people who post a lot of selfies have more shallow relationships with people. “People, other than very close friends and relatives, don’t seem to relate well to those who constantly share photos of themselves,” said the study’s lead author Dr. David Houghton in a statement.
Yet there are no signs of decreased selfie sharing.
Cyber etiquette expert Julie Spira told the New York Daily News that while the narcissistic selfie is becoming more acceptable, posting more than three times a day on Facebook is going to irritate people. That rule can be stretched a bit on platforms like Twitter and Instagram, but “if one friend is hogging your entire feed, you might unfriend that person because that’s not why you joined.”