Have We Entered the Era of Digital Narcissism?

April 29th, 2014 § 0 comments

Is digital narcissism a real issue or is it a just a term made up by the media to fuel scaremongering around our use of technology? For nineteen-year-old Danny Bowman who tried to commit suicide when he couldn’t take the perfect selfie, the issue is all too real.

Bowman dropped out of school, lost his friends and would take up to two-hundred images a day as part of his quest to capture the perfect photo of himself. He would take ten pictures immediately after waking up. Frustrated by his failed attempts to take the ‘perfect selfie,’ Bowman eventually tried to take his own life. He overdosed but was saved by his mum.

‘I was constantly in search of taking the perfect selfie and when I realized I couldn’t, I wanted to die. I lost my friends, my education, my health and almost my life,’ he told The Mirror. The teenager is believed to be the UK’s first selfie addict and has had therapy to treat his technology addiction as well as OCD and Body Dysmorphic Disorder.

Part of his treatment at the Maudsley Hospital in London included taking away his iPhone for intervals of 10 minutes, which increased to 30 minutes and then an hour. ‘It was excruciating to begin with but I knew I had to do it if I wanted to go on living,’ he told the Sunday Mirror.

Bowman is not alone. There are more than 80 million photos on Instagram that have the hashtag #me and more than 31 million with the hashtag #selfie. A recent study by the Pew Research Centre confirmed that 91 percent of teenagers have posted a photo of themselves online.

Part of the reason for their popularity? ‘The cult of the selfie celebrates regular people,’ says Pamela Rutledge, Ph.D., faculty director of the media psychology program at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology.

‘There are many more photographs available now of real people than models.’ And posting selfies is an empowering act for another reason: it allows you to control your image online.

‘I am painfully self-conscious about photos of myself,’ admitted Samantha, a nineteen-year-old from Missouri. ‘I like having the power to choose how I look, even if I’m making a funny face.’

The problem says psychologist Jill Weber, Ph.D. is that there’s a danger a person’s self-esteem becomes tied to the comments and ‘Likes’ received when they post a selfie. However, these comments are based on not who a person is but rather what they look at that given moment.

Dr. Weber says the trend tends to be more common amongst young girls who only see themselves as lovable or worthwhile when others value them. ‘In my experience, girls who repeatedly post selfies struggle with low self-esteem,’ she said.

‘Selfies frequently trigger perceptions of self-indulgence or attention-seeking social dependence that raises the damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t spectre of either narcissism or very low self-esteem,’ said Dr. Rutledge in Psychology Today.

While selfies give young people the chance to see ‘ordinary’ people online, it also gives them the chance to compare their images with those of celebrities. Even though we’re all aware that celeb shots are photoshopped, it doesn’t stop people wanting to look as good as Beyonce or Miley Cyrus.

What these young people forget is that stars like Bey and Cyrus have a team of stylists to create their images. In short it takes work! Very often these young people are not prepared to put in the work, so when they don’t get the same results, they feel frustrated and their self-esteem plummets.

As a result, psychologists now believe that online manifestations of narcissism may be little more than a self-presentational strategy to compensate for a very low and fragile self-esteem.

Be that as it may, our fascination with the selfie doesn’t look like it’s going to dissipate any time soon. A quick glance at Instagram shows the variety of selfies now in circulation: selfie at the gym, selfie in the car, selfie in the bathroom or bedroom, selfie with a pet or just woke up selfie are just some of the categories.

And a few weeks ago, the University of Narcissi in Greece, launched a degree course on selfies which will form part of its undergraduate sociology degree. It will focus on why the ‘power of the selfie’ and why it appeals to so many.

Issues explored include whether the selfie encourages a projection of a false persona, how peer pressure plays a role in the trend’s world domination, and why selfies can have negative emotional, mental and psychological effects.

Despite all the controversy there are times when the selfie can be beneficial, which the Cancer Society proved when they ran their #nomakeupselfie campaign. Countless women posted images of themselves sans make up online and raised millions for cancer research in Ireland and the UK.

Whatever your opinion on the practice of the selfie, there’s no doubt that this epic trend is revealing a whole new side of human nature. The question is this a side we really want to reveal?

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