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A selfie is a self-portrait shared on texts or social media for attention-seeking, communication, documenting one’s day, and entertainment.[1] The term was first seen in 2002, but didn’t become popular until 2012. By 2013 The Oxford English Dictionary named it “The Word of the Year.”[2] We’ve all been guilty of taking selfies. But it takes education and practice to use good judgment. Today’s GKIS article asks, “Are selfies bad for our mental health?”

Celebrity Selfies

With ads on social and print media, billboards, and television, kids and teens are exposed to thousands of images and videos every day. And, it isn’t obvious how filtered, lighted, contoured, surgically and cosmetically altered, and digitally enhanced the photos are. They aren’t a quick, natural snapshot. They are highly produced and stylized. Kim Kardashian proudly shared that she once took 6,000 selfies during a four-day vacation. Her celebrity sister, Kylie Jenner, also admitted that it sometimes takes up to 500 photos before she gets the right shot.

With such exposure, kids are encouraged to scrutinize their appearance, striving to develop and refine the “perfect” face and body.3 Hyper-sexualized selfies further serve as a negative influence. One can easily get roped into hyper focusing on looks and attracting “likes” and comments as a reflection of worth and popularity.

Selfie Editing Apps

Makeup and selfie editor apps are very commonly used and include features to:

  • Change eye color
  • “Slim and trim to selfie perfection”
  • Enlarge features
  • Shrink the nose
  • Plump the lips
  • Enhance facial contours
  • And even offer hundreds of pupil templates “to make your eyes look beautiful.”

Apps also offer combo features that turn your image into cartoon perfection. For example, the “fairy filter” on Snapchat can change your selfie in multiple ways at once, making your eyes larger and gleaming bright while also smoothing out the skin and whitening teeth.

The Beauty, Fashion, and Health and Fitness Industries

Selfie alteration isn’t motivated simply by entertainment. A far more sinister reason often lurks behind the manipulation of young minds, namely profit.

Each year the beauty industry boasts a profit of 42 billion dollars.[10] Add that to the 30 billion dollars brought in by fashion, health, and fitness and the big business of advertising on social media, and one can imagine the lengths corporations will go to manipulate buyers into buying.[4] The worse we feel about ourselves, the more we buy products to “fix” us.

Do we adopt unrealistic attractiveness standards?

In the past twenty years, anxiety and depression have been rising at an alarming rate. The rates of mental health issues among women have particularly jumped.[5] Social media and the pursuit of perfection are likely contributors.

Not only can media exposure lead to mood issues, but body distortion and eating disorder issues are also on the rise.[7] Forty to 60% of elementary school girls report having concerns about weight.[8]

Body shaming among peers starts young and peaks during adolescence. Both males and females engage in shaming, but they do it differently. Males tend to be more directly aggressive, while females shame through passive-aggressive means like gossip and cyberbullying.[9]

Body image issues can lead to excessive use of diet and exercise products and potentially lead to clinical eating disorders. In the United States alone, 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life.[6] Even with awareness and education, prevalence numbers continue to rise.

How can we protect our kids from unhealthy self-perception and distorted body image?

  • Love and compliment your kids loudly and unapologetically for all they are! This includes their worthiness of love just for being the “perfect,” nondigitally enhanced them.
  • Reinforce that the self is made up of far more facets than a beautiful face. Likes, interests, skills, and traits make up what’s important about a person, not eye size and hair color.
  • Discuss the fact that we will be hanging out with our bodies for the long haul, which means we must treat our bodies as our best friends rather than our enemies.
  • Lead by example. Do you voice your disapproval about your face or body aloud to your kids? If you do, they too will follow suit about themselves. Instead, be loud and proud of the woman or man you are today. Value yourself just as you would like your daughter or son to value themselves.
  • Implement healthy eating, sleeping, and exercise habits and explain why that is so important for strength and health. I prefer to focus on words like “delicious” and “nourishing” for healthy food to highlight lifestyle factors and frame nutritious food options as a treat, rather than words like “diet,” “cleanse,” or “cheat” that focus on junk food as treats and healthy foods as punishment while aggrandizing shaming fads.
  • Remind your teen that what they see on social media and in ads isn’t always the real deal. Take an Internet browsing journey with them researching this topic by searching “photoshop hacks” or looking up Jean Kilbourne’s ground-breaking work in this area with her “Killing Us Softly” video series. A must-see!

Thank you to CSUCI Intern, Brooke Vandenbosch for her contributions to this important article! Wonder if only girls are susceptible to body image risk to mental health? Check out, “Body Shame and the Average American Male” for a discussion about how boys are increasingly affected as well.

I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetKidsInternetSafe.

Onward to More Awesome Parenting,

Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty

Works Cited

1 – Sung, Y. , Lee, J. , Kim, E. , & Choi, S. (2016). Why we post selfies: Understanding motivations for posting pictures of oneself. Personality and Individual Differences, 97, 260-265.

2 – https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/word-of-the-year/word-of-the-year-2013

3 – Boon, S. and Lomore, C. (2001), Admirer-celebrity relationships among young adults.. Human Communication Research, 27: 432–465.

4 – Cosmetic & Beauty Products manufacturing in the U.S: Market Research Report. (2016, September). Retrieved December 07, 2016, from http://www.ibisworld.com/industry/default.aspx?indid=499

5 -Press Association Newswire (2014). ‘Very High Rates of Anxiety and Depression for Young Women. Newsquest Media Group.

6 – Wade, T., Keski -Rahkonen A., & Hudson J. (2011). Epidemiology of eating disorders. In M. Tsuang and M. Tohen (Eds.), Textbook in Psychiatric Epidemiology (3rd ed.) (pp. 343 – 360). New York: Wiley.

7 – Leit, R. (2002). “The Media’s Representation of the Ideal Male Body: A Cause for Muscle Dysmorphia?” International Journal of Eating Disorders, vol. 31, no. 3, pp. 334–338., doi:10.1002/eat.10019.

8 – Smolak, L. (2011). Body image development in childhood. In T. Cash & L. Smolak (Ed s.),Body Image: A Handbook of Science, Practice, and Prevention (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford.

9 – Aslund, C., Starrin, B., Leppert, J., & Nilsson, K. (2009). “Social Status and Shaming Experiences Related to Adolescent Overt Aggression at School.” Aggressive Behavior 35.1: 1-13. Web.

10 – Gym, Health & Fitness Clubs in the U.S: Market Research Report. (2016, October). Retrieved December 07, 2016, from http://www.ibisworld.com/industry/default.aspx?indid=1655

Photo Credits

Mirror by Allen Sky, CC BY 2.0

Mirror by Tif Pic, CC BY-ND 2.0

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Dr. Tracy Bennett
Dr. Tracy Bennett