“A Polish couple fell to their death off a cliff in Portugal after crossing a safety barrier to take a selfie with their children.” This news snippet probably made no effect on you whatsoever while you were reading it. The reason may be because we have pretty much become inured to stories of people who died while taking selfies. We hear about the dangers of taking selfies all the time. In some cases, the end is a lot more gruesome than the one I just cited, which is pretty much just a clean fall into the abyss.
Some are a lot more disturbing—not least because they intentionally capture a young person’s deliberate last moment. Consider some of these others: “A 17-year-old girl committed suicide by jumping in front of a Central Line train at Redbridge tube station. She took a selfie of the incident which she titled ‘last pic before I die’.”
Even if it’s not always so dramatic, people do senseless things on a daily basis for a selfie. Personally, I’ve seen people taking selfies while going down the stairs or crossing the street. Again, you have to ask: why?
Apparently, taking a great selfie is worth dying for and any risk is worth taking. We don’t need to rely on news reports to confirm this, all we need to do is look around—especially if you’re on vacation in certain locations that act as a selfie magnet. Think of the Grand Canyon, for example, and how many stupid things people do to take that great shot. In just an eight-day period in April, 2019, 3 people died taking a risky picture in the Grand Canyon. I myself have been there half a dozen times, most often hiking, and I can tell you that there have been times when I wished I could yank these people back from the brittle edge before it crumbled under their feet. I have even seen some parents place their kids at that edge.
Why are people willing to take these risks for a selfie? The bigger question however is this: why have we become addicted to taking selfies and posting them? What is missing in our lives that we need to turn them into spectacle that can provide us with the validation that clearly is missing?
According to a poll cited in Psychology Today, the most frequent answers to this question are:
- I gain enormous attention by sharing selfies on social media
- Taking different selfies helps increase my social status
- Taking selfies instantly modifies my mood
- I take selfies as trophies for future memories
This obsession with taking selfies has led to the coining of a new term: ‘selfie-tis’ and psychologists have attempted to quantify the degree of the ‘disease’. Here’s how:
- Borderline: Taking a selfie up to three times per day, but not posting them on social media.
- Acute: Taking a selfie at least three times per day and posting each of them on social media.
- Chronic: Possessing the urge to take selfies all day and posting these on social media at least six times in a day.
Clearly, this still does not address the deep-seated reasons that people are compelled to take selfies. When surveyed, the reasons that experts suggest are truly superficial and weak: networking, reaching out to old friends, feeling part of a community. More meaningful may be the suggestions that taking and posting selfies frequently implies a narcissistic personality or the dissatisfaction with who we think we are and the attempt to control how others see us. In other words, it’s a way of hiding our true selves when we think that they are insufficient or disappointing. As one blogger put it on PsychAlive, “With the Selfie Movement we can transform ourselves into whoever we want to be.”
When social media first made its appearance selfies were not a problem. But over time, it has become a “dangerous obsession for some people”. In a survey taken among cosmetic surgeons, 1 in 3 surveyed mentioned that requests for various types of plastic surgery have increased because people want to appear better on social media. One woman, who spent $15,000 having chin and nose surgery, fat grafting, and Botox injections stated, “Your selfie is your head shot so you can reinvent yourself every day with your IPhone. It’s a legitimate form of promoting yourself.”
According to the Britain’s National Health Service (NHS), the selfie movement is responsible for a spike in depression and anxiety, especially in young women aged 16 to 25, and it can lead to even worse, posting frequent selfies may lead to body dysmorphia, depression, and other attendant hazards—including suicide.
I would go farther and suggest that the problem is even broader than just the selfie craze; it may be a case of taking altogether too many pictures. Why is there a need to memorialize every one of our lived moments and experiences? It seems that “reality’ needs to be corroborated by a picture. Indeed, for many people if there’s no picture of an event, it didn’t happen. Thus we see pictures on social media of the most banal and inconsequential messages imaginable: “here’s the cake I just baked”; “I just went to Target and bought this ….(feel free to fill in the blank).” What is the void that we’re trying to fill with this minute-by-minute documentation of our existence?
Posting selfies and pictures gives the illusion that life is fuller than it is. Plucking the high points and foregrounding them suggests an accumulation of “content”. An implicit statement that, “my life is fuller than yours, look at all the things I do, all the friends I have, etc.“. The looker-on buys this false image of a full life of adventure that someone else seems to be living, and sometimes comparing it with his/her own humdrum ‘reality’. The truth may be just the opposite, a habitual poster may be trying to convince himself that his life is full, that there is some value to it, that there is in short, meaning. “On social media, they are seeing these edited versions of lives, bikinis, beaches, not seeing the reality….it is actually a huge distorting mirror, presenting a world of ‘perfect’ people with perfect lives against whom they judge themselves very harshly.”
The phenomenon of fearing the void and the quest for giving content and meaning to life is a major theme in existentialist literature. In one example, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, one of the protagonists speaks of creating ‘aventures’ in her life. These ‘aventures’, are not daring adventures, but trivial moments that she shapes into a framework, that give form to formless time, and thus create meaning out of meaninglessness. She calls them ‘perfect moments’ that she can re-live at will and thus appreciate and understand her life. Indeed, to find comfort in the past instead of living in the present. In short, it’s an attempt to create ‘content’ in a life that is by a cosmic accident, inherently suspended in a void.
Today people feel the need to reach out to strangers on social media for sympathy, validation, for a reflexive self-image: to understand who they are. The question is, what’s missing in our own lives that we must reach out to strangers to gain these insights into our identity? And why does a number of ‘Likes’ by total strangers make us feel worthy? It’s something that bears thinking about.