Social Media, Selfies, and Addiction

In March 2014, the UK's Daily Mirror published the story of Danny Bowman, a teenage "selfie addict" who allegedly spent up to 10 hours a day taking 200 selfies, dropped out of school, and tried to kill himself when he was unable take the perfect photo of himself. Taking selfies has become a very popular activity, particularly among teenagers and young adults. However, selfie-taking is more than just the taking of a photograph and can include the editing of the colour and contrast, changing backgrounds, and adding other effects, before uploading the picture onto a social media platform. These added options and the use of integrative editing has further popularized selfie-taking behaviour. From a psychological perspective, the taking of selfies is a self-oriented action which allows users to establish their individuality and self-importance and is also associated with personality traits such as narcissism. In an interview for the Daily Mirror, Bowman said that:

“I was constantly in search of taking the perfect selfie and when I realised I couldn’t I wanted to die. I lost my friends, my education, my health and almost my life. The only thing I cared about was having my phone with me so I could satisfy the urge to capture a picture of myself at any time of the day. I finally realised I was never going to take a picture that made the craving go away and that was when I hit rock bottom. People don’t realise when they post a picture of themselves on Facebook or Twitter it can so quickly spiral out of control. It becomes a mission to get approval and it can destroy anyone. It’s a real problem like drugs, alcohol or gambling. I don’t want anyone to go through what I’ve been through. People would comment on [my selfies], but children can be cruel. One told me my nose was too big for my face and another picked on my skin. I started taking more and more to try to get the approval of my friends. I would be so high when someone wrote something nice but gutted when they wrote something unkind. Taking lots of selfies sounds trivial and harmless but that’s the very thing that makes it so dangerous. It almost took my life, but I survived and I am determined never to get into that position again.”

While Bowman’s case is extreme, it doesn’t mean that obsessive selfie-taking is a trivial condition. Bowman was diagnosed as having (and eventually treated for) body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) which at its simplest level, is a distressing, handicapping, and/or impairing preoccupation with an imagined or slight defect in body appearance that the sufferer perceives to be ugly, unattractive, or deformed. Bowman’s psychiatrist, David Veale, an expert on BDD), said, “Danny’s case is particularly extreme. But this is a serious problem. It’s not a vanity issue. It’s a mental health one, which has an extremely high suicide rate.”

To date, there has been very little research on selfie addiction, and most of what has been academically published (both theorizing and empirical research studies) has tended to come from psychiatrists and psychologists in India. The main reasons for this are that no other country has more Facebook users than India (thenextweb.com, 2017), and India accounts for more selfie deaths than any other country with 76 reported, out of a total of 127 worldwide—for example, the widely-reported death on February 1, 2016, of 16-year old Dinesh Kumar, killed by a train in Chennai while taking a selfie.

In 2014, there were a handful of separate media reports all reporting that "selfie addiction" had been recognized by psychologists and psychiatrists as a genuine mental disorder. On March 31, 2014, a news story appeared in the Adobo Chronicles website that the American Psychiatric Association had classed selfitis (i.e., the obsessive taking of selfies) as a new mental disorder.

The article claimed that selfitis was “the obsessive compulsive desire to take photos of one’s self and post them on social media as a way to make up for the lack of self-esteem and to fill a gap in intimacy." It also claimed there three levels of the disorder – borderline (“taking photos of one’s self at least three times a day but not posting them on social media”), acute (“taking photos of one’s self at least three times a day and posting each of the photos on social media”), and chronic (“uncontrollable urge to take photos of one’s self round the clock and posting the photos on social media more than six times a day”). The story was republished on numerous news sites around the world but it soon became clear the story was a hoax. However, many of the academic papers exploring the concept of "selfie addiction" have reported the story as genuine.

Other academics claim in a rather uncritical way that selfie addiction exists. In 2015, Dr. P.M. Shah claimed that selfie-taking behaviour “classically fits” the criteria of addiction but failed to say what these criteria are. He went on to argue that for anyone taking more than three to five selfies a day, it "may be considered as a disease” and that spending more than five minutes taking a single selfie or more than 30 minutes per day may also be “considered as disease." Such proposals add little to the credence of excessive selfie-taking being potentially addictive.

In a 2017 editorial entitled "Selfie Addiction," Singh and Lippmann asserted that knowing about the psychology of selfies and their consequences is important for both individuals and the communities in which they live. They claim that the taking of selfies can sometimes be “inconsiderate of other people, especially when ‘getting the perfect shot’ becomes an obsession." They claim that excessive selfie clicking can become “a troublesome obsession and may be related to different personality traits” such as psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. More specifically, they argue:

“Narcissistic people exhibit feelings of superiority and perfection, but also often harbor self-doubt. Those with psychopathy have little compassion about harming others. Persons with Machiavellian traits fulfill their wishes with diminished ethics. All three utilize social websites that allow posting and amending pictures. Individuals with low self-esteem, obsession, and/or hyperactivity also sometimes exhibit high rates of 'snapping' selfies."

In a very brief review of the literature on selfie-taking and mental health in 2016, Kaur and Vig concluded that selfie addiction was most associated with low self-esteem, narcissism, loneliness and depression. Also in 2016, Sunitha and colleagues also reported similar findings based on their review of selfie-taking. In an online populist article in 2017 on the rise of the "selfie generation." Tolete and Salarda interviewed teen development specialist Robyn Silverman about how and why adolescents might get hooked on selfie-taking. He said that teens:

“crave positive feedback to help them see how their see how their identity fits into their world. Social media offers an opportunity to garner immediate information…the selfie generation ends up agonizing over very few likes or one or two negative comments, as if these are the only metrics that will prove they matter. One can only imagine the vulnerability of their still fragile self-esteem in such an environment."

Other academics have claimed that while the evidence for selfie addiction being a social problem is lacking, it does not mean that it could not be a "primary pathology" in times to come. However, very few empirical studies have examined selfie addiction, and those that have been published suffer from methodological weaknesses. For example, in 2017, Gaddala and colleagues examined the association between Internet addiction and selfie addiction among 402 Indian medical students (262 females). They reported a significant association between selfie dependence and internet dependence. However, they used Shah’s operationalization of selfie addiction (the taking of three or more selfies a day; four percent of the total sample); therefore it is unlikely that very few of the participants would have been genuinely addicted to taking selfies.

Singh and Tripathi carried out a very small study on 50 Indian adolescents age 12-18 (28 females; average age 14.6 years) in 2017. They found that narcissism and hyperactivity were positively correlated with selfie addiction whereas self-image was negatively correlated with selfie addiction. However, in addition to the very small sample size, the instrument used to assess selfie tendencies had little to do with addiction and simply asked questions about typical selfie behaviour (e.g., how many selfies a day/week are taken, how much time a day is spent taking selfies, are the selfies posted onto social media, etc.)

Finally, a 2017 study by Kela and colleagues examined the more medical effects of excessive selfie-taking. In a survey of 250 Indian students age 18-25 (56 percent females), it was reported that 30 percent reported lower back ache, 15 percent suffered stress, 20 percent suffered from cervical spondylitis, 25 percent suffered from headache, and 10 percent suffered from "selfie elbow," a tendonitis condition. However, it was unclear from the methodology described to what extent these effects were specifically attributable to selfie-taking.

Taking the academic literature as a whole, there is little evidence – as yet – that selfie addiction, exists although if stories like Danny Bowman's are to be believed, it does appear at least theoretically possible for an individual to become addicted to such an activity.