There it is: the selfie heard ‘round the world. At Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony, beloved talk show host Ellen DeGeneres tweeted a selfie with some of today’s hottest A-list celebrities, including Lupita Nyong’o, Jennifer Lawrence and Brad Pitt. The image broke Twitter for a little bit and shattered the record for most retweets in history (sorry, Obama). We’re used to this kind of display. We are the digital generation, after all! But have you ever stopped to wonder: Why do we take selfies? And what do they say about us as individuals and as a society?
James Kilner, neuroscientist at University College London, suggests we are obsessed with selfies because we can exercise more control over the way we are perceived. In particular thanks to the advent of the forward-facing cell phone camera, we can take pictures of ourselves over and over and over until we are comfortable with revealing ourselves to the social networking world.
While some people might find the idea of selfies cringe-worthy, this self-expression might actually be good for us. As Kilner suggests, we are far less aware of our own appearance. Selfies give us an avenue to explore our unique physical and behavioral natures and how we might fit into the world around us.
“Self captured images allow young adults and teens to express their mood states and share important experiences,” says Dr. Andrea Letamendi, a clinical psychologist and research fellow at UCLA.
That’s not all. Vanessa Hill of Brain Craft (we’ve shared her work before) shows in this delightful video that a healthy dose of social media narcissism is actually good for us. And researchers at the University of Indiana suggest “selective self presentation” may even boost self-esteem and confidence in oneself:
The results revealed that, in contrast to previous work on OSA, becoming self-aware by viewing one’s own Facebook profile enhances self-esteem rather than diminishes it. Participants that updated their profiles and viewed their own profiles during the experiment also reported greater self-esteem … These findings suggest that selective self-presentation in digital media, which leads to intensified relationship formation, also influences impressions of the self.
But, as the saying goes, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. As Peggy Drexler, PhD, research psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at Weill Medical College/Cornell University, outlines in her Psychology Today column, excessive narcissism can negatively affect our relationships with loved ones and work colleagues. In fact, a recent study, conducted by the University of Birmingham, the University of Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt University, suggests individuals who frequently take and share selfies are more likely to report shallow relationships.
So next time you’re compelled to tweet a selfie or post one on your Facebook page, remember: Just a little bit goes a long, long way.