Some say that selfies are creating a generation of narcissists. Others argue that selfies and social networking sites are simply reflecting an old human tendency, just on a more public forum.
A simple online search of “selfies and narcissism” readily elicits provocative headlines stating that science has determined that selfies cause narcissism and that they are linked to addiction and mental illness.
“To be clear, science has not determined this – at least not yet,” says Nicholas J. Westers, Psy.D., clinical psychologist at Children’s Health℠ and Associate Professor at UT Southwestern. “In fact, when ‘selfie’ was declared word of the year in 2013, around the same time headlines were making these provocative claims, there were no studies on selfies at all.”
Between November 2014 and November 2017, nearly 70 studies were published. Most of this research has focused on how personality and selfie-posting are associated. Although selfies are not linked to addiction and mental illness, Dr. Westers explains that two things have become clear from the research to date:
- Individuals higher in narcissism are more likely to report posting selfies, especially men (even though women report posting selfies more frequently in general).
- Individuals higher in narcissism do not actually post more selfies than others.
These results mean that those with high narcissism report they post selfies more frequently than they actually do. In fact, individuals with high self-esteem (like those with narcissism) are not always good at objectively assessing their own behavior or others’ perceptions of them. For instance, individuals with high self-esteem perceive themselves as popular and likeable when in reality they are no more likeable (or less likeable) than those with low self-esteem.
Perhaps their self-report of posting more selfies has more to do with their intentions and the importance they place on being seen than anything else.
Clinical vs. subclinical narcissism
Most people have a degree of subclinical narcissism with regard to self-love and yearning for admiration, and most research related to selfies looks at this subclinical narcissism. It seems reasonable that individuals with a bent toward narcissism would be naturally drawn to the large, public social networking stage from which to self-promote.
However, this should be distinguished from clinical narcissism (known as Narcissistic Personality Disorder) which is present in less than 1% of the general population and is described as a pervasive pattern of inflated grandiosity, lack of empathy and persistent need for admiration.
The truth about selfies and narcissism
So are selfies creating a generation of narcissists, subclinical or otherwise? “The verdict seems to still be out, but so far it does not look to be the case,” summarizes Dr. Westers. More than anything, it simply appears that selfies have now become a cultural norm. And perhaps the “selfie generation” has simply found a more efficient way of self-promoting and self-expressing.
Tips for parents about selfies
- The best thing for parents to do is serve as a guide in the process. In this way, selfies may not need to be as much of a cause for concern as they are a unique opportunity for parents to connect with their teens.
- Parents should educate their teens that the selfies people post are only one aspect of those individuals. They should discuss with their teens the dangers of falling prey to social comparison, particularly if they mistakenly interpret others’ selfies as an accurate reflection of those individuals as a whole.
- Parents should also discuss with them the consideration of temporarily “unfollowing” individuals that make them feel inferior or worse about themselves.
Tips for parents about narcissism (praise vs. love)
- To avoid instilling narcissistic tendencies in their children, parents should tie their praise directly to appropriate, identifiable behaviors and successes only (e.g., “Great job problem-solving to get home on time for curfew when you thought you would be late” or “Great job getting an A on your exam” or “I really liked how you were so sweet to that boy/girl who needed help”), as opposed to special treatment and indiscriminate praise (e.g., “You’re the smartest” or “You’re my favorite” or “You deserve more”).
- Parents should express their love for their children with parental warmth and in a way that communicates their love is unconditional and not attached to anything they do or do not do. For instance, parents should treat their children with kindness, letting them know they are loved regardless of their good/bad behavior or success/failure or how good/bad their selfies look.
- In short, parents should conscientiously tell their children “I love you” on a regular basis (unconditionally) while thoughtfully giving them praise only when their behavior merits it (conditionally).
Our psychology experts share more insights on the selfie generation. Learn how selfies might help your child form an identity.