There’s been a lot of back and forth about the psychological effects of taking and sharing selfies. Some research suggests that taking pictures of yourself can dent your self-esteem and increase anxiety, while other studies have found that selfies can be a source of empowerment; one 2017 paper even found a combination of the two, suggesting that sharing selfies online can mitigate the damage to self-image often inflicted when a selfie is actually taken.
The hundreds of op-eds, articles and TV features that continue to focus on the issue also suggest that our interest in the phenomenon is unlikely to abate any time soon. And now a new study published in the Journal of Children and Media has added to the debate.
It suggests that taking selfies may not be as damaging as other research has claimed. Instead, it’s what you do after you’ve taken the photo that matters: it’s editing images that really hurts our self-esteem.
Larissa Terán and colleagues at the University of Arizona first asked 278 teenage girls, aged 14 to 17, about their selfie activities. Participants rated how frequently they share selfies, and were then asked how often they edited their pictures using various different tools (e.g. getting rid of red eye, smoothing skin or making themselves look thinner using editing apps). They were then asked about selfie investment: how much effort and time they spent choosing photos of themselves to post online, as well as how concerned they were about the reception these posts receive.
Next, a questionnaire looked at self-objectification, a phenomenon in which people view themselves as objects rather than human beings. Participants were asked to select how much they identified with statements including “looking attractive to others is more important to me than being happy with who I am” and “I try to imagine what my body looks like to others”.
Participants were then given questions on appearance anxiety, rating how tense they feel when people look at them or when they feel they are being negatively perceived, as well as questions on how ashamed they feel about their appearance and on how they would evaluate their own looks.
As hypothesised, those who spent more time editing, thinking and worrying about selfies were more likely to see themselves as objects than those who did not. This self-objectification, in turn, was linked to greater anxiety and body shame amongst participants, and worse evaluation of their own looks. That is, people who invested more into thinking about or editing selfies tended to have more negative feelings about their own body — and that seemed to be because they were prone to self-objectification.
Interestingly enough — and as the 2017 paper also suggested — sharing selfies more frequently was not significantly associated with greater self-objectification nor with increased levels of body shame.
The authors have several suggestions as to why simply sharing selfies wasn’t related to negative body image. Pictures may not always be shared with appearance in mind: sometimes teens want to demonstrate who they’re friends with, what they’re interested in or what they’ve been doing. In fact, the team found some evidence that greater selfie sharing was linked to better self-image — meaning posting pictures of oneself might actually decrease shame about looks.
Whether there is actually a causal relationship between these factors, however, is not so clear. It could be that editing selfies contributes to concerns about appearance — that the process of editing, in other words, actively increases body shame. But there is also a distinct possibility that those who already have negative body image are more likely to edit pictures in the first place: their self-esteem is already wavering or low, so they feel the need to edit out hated flaws.
If the results truly are reflective of how teenage girls perceive their selfie taking activities, it may be more accurate to say that the context in which selfies are taken and shared are more important than anything inherent to the act itself. So rather than condemning teenage girls for taking selfies — or banning them from taking them, if you’re a parent — it may be more useful to understand why they’re doing it in the first place.