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A selfie is a self-portrait typically taken with a smartphone with the intent of sharing through text message or social media post for the purposes of attention-seeking, communication, documenting one’s day, and entertainment.1 While the term selfie was first seen in 2002, it didn’t become popular until 2012. By 2013 The Oxford English Dictionary named it “The Word of the Year.”2 Could an increasing exposure to enhanced selfie images be contributing to higher rates of psychological issues among kids and teens?

Celebrity Selfies

With photo editing social media apps like Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook as well as ads online, on billboards, in print media, and on television, kids and teens are exposed to a tsunami of edited images every day, many of their favorite celebrity. In fact, social media has made celebrity worship a common activity among kids and teens.

What isn’t obvious is how lighted, contoured, surgically and cosmetically altered, and digitally enhanced these celebrities and photos are, often chosen among thousands of almost identical images. The selfie queen, Kim Kardashian, proudly shared that she once took about 6,000 selfies during a four-day vacation. Her celebrity sister, Kylie Jenner, has also admitted that it sometimes takes up to 500 photos before she gets the right shot.

With such exposure, kids can start to scrutinize their own appearance, striving to develop and refine the “perfect” face and body.3 Hyper-sexualized selfies further serve as a negative influence on identity development and perception, 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.”

Along with selfie features, apps offer sophisticated 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 the larger and gleaming bright while also while smoothing out the skin and whitening teeth.

Marketing & Mental Illness

The beauty industry is at the forefront of marketing schemes directed at teens. The GKIS How to Spot Marketing: Red Flag Supplement was created to help parents give their teens the upper hand in navigating online advertisements including those directed at image and body standards.

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 about 42 billion dollars in annual profit.10 Add that to the 30 billion dollars brought in by 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 fill about ourselves, the more we buy products to “fix” us.

Do kids adopt unrealistic attractiveness standards and can this affect mental health? Although we aren’t aware of a causal connection, it turns out that, in the past twenty years, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues for young women have been rising at an alarming rate. According to the Press Association, studies have found “a jump in the number of women aged 16 to 24 experiencing mental health problems and a growing gap between female and male sufferers.”5 Since the 1990’s young women have gone from being twice as likely to be three times as likely to have common mental health disorder symptoms (CMD) compared to young men. CMD refers specifically to “irritability, worrying, depression, anxiety, feelings of panic, compulsion, and trouble sleeping.”5 Estimates from the 2014 National Study of Health and Wellbeing concluded that “in 1993, 19% of women aged 16-24 had symptoms of CMD, rising to 26% in 2014.”5. The study authors conjecture that social media and the pursuit of perfection may be the contributor.

Not only can media exposure lead to mood issues, but body distortion and eating disorder issues are also on the rise starting among even young children and boys.7 Did you know that 40 to 60% of elementary school girls report having concerns about weight?8 Furthermore, body shaming among peers can start young but peaks during the vulnerable developmental period of adolescence. According to researchers Aslund, Starrin, Leppert, & Nilsson (2009) both males and females engage in shaming, but they do it differently.9 Males tend to be more directly aggressive, while females shame through passive-aggressive means like gossip and cyberbullying.

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, including body dysmorphic disorder, anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or Eating Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified.6 Even with increasing awareness and education about eating disorders, prevalence numbers continue to rise.

How can we inoculate our kids against 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 her/himself.
  • 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” “nourishing” for healthy food to highlight lifestyle factors and frame nutritious food options as a treat, rather than words like “diet” or “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 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
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