Are Taking Selfies Healthy For Your Self-Esteem & Mental Health?

Photo: getty
woman taking selfies
Health And Wellness

"Who takes selfies and why?" This headline caught my eye while waiting in line at the grocery store.

"Who doesn’t take selfies and why not?" I asked aloud.

Seems like these days, that would be more newsworthy!

RELATED: How To Take A Good Selfie: 8 Tips To Help You Look Your Best In Pictures

Selfies have become as common as a feather is a light object.

The word itself needs no introduction. You hear the word "selfie," and you know that it refers to a person taking a posed photo of themselves, usually with a smartphone or a similar digital device.

The photo is usually posted on social media, such as Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, or Instagram.

Family and friends of all ages take or post selfies, including me.

Is that bad? Does it suggest vanity? Need for approval? Insecurity?

Or is it benign or even a good thing? Suggesting pride? Playfulness? Healthy self-esteem?

This got me thinking about the whole selfie industry...

Why do people take selfies, and what are the benefits and risks?

Are selfies healthy for self-esteem and psychological health?

Well, it depends on the 5 Ws:

  • Who is taking or posting the selfies?
  • For whom?
  • Why?
  • What purpose?
  • When does taking selfies become "selfie-itis" (i.e., over the top)?

To address these questions, I put my psychologist skills to good use and did a little informal research. Carpe diem!

I asked other people who were waiting in the grocery line. Over the next week, I sought additional opinions from my kids’ teenage and young-adult friends, my colleagues, peers, and even my parents and their peers.

The age range of the informal survey was 16 to 78 years old. Despite the wide range in age, most people responded similarly.

I, then, put on my more scientific cap and sought out published research.

Using both my informal research and published sources, here's what I found about behavior around taking selfies.

From my informal research, I asked people and then added on my two cents.

Using the example of a 12-year-old girl posting a selfie, every respondent said the type of image and the motivation for posting the selfie determine the effect on mental health and self-esteem.

This seems reasonable and obvious. No surprise here.

After all, it's one thing if the selfie is taken at a carnival while on a Ferris wheel by a 12-year-old girl having the time of her life. Such innocence and apple-pie Americana.

But it's a different story if the selfie is of her in a two-piece bathing suit, posing suggestively in her bedroom or by the pool. Not so wholesome.

Regardless of the platform or the intention, the takeaway of the two images is very different. So is the impact, short-term and long-term.

The first selfie example at the carnival has a cute and fun vibe.

The second example of the girl in the bikini has a provocative and quite possibly inappropriate feel to it. And the bikini-clad 12-year-old may not even realize the message she's conveying.

The intention of her selfie may be innocent, but the impact may very well not be.

Once something is posted on the internet, it's there forever. And that fact can get lost in the heat of the selfie-posting moment.

Here are 5 other questions to ask about the impact of selfies on mental health and self-esteem.

1. Are you heavily editing or filtering your photos?

Is there a filter or app being used to make yourself look "better" (e.g., thinner, older, younger, prettier)?

2. Do you care about likes or comments?

How invested are you in the number of likes or comments?

3. How does taking selfies make you feel?

How do you feel about yourself as you post the selfie?

4. What's the message?

What are you trying to convey in the selfie?

Selfies invite comparison and competition. 

As a body-image expert, I am not a fan of selfies overall, especially for girls and (most) women, particularly those under age 25 or so.

They also perpetuate concerning messages about weight and shape, popularity and status, worth, and value as a human being.

Selfies reinforce the cultural notion that self-esteem and popularity are due to thinness, flawlessness, and appearance, especially among tween and teen girls.

When looking at published scientific research articles on the topic, researchers have identified 6 main reasons people take selfies.

1. To improve confidence.

Selfies can act as a self-confidence booster.

2. To show off locations.

Selfies can be "environmental enhancements."

3. To obtain social media "likes."

Social competition is inherent in posting selifes. 

4. To get attention.

Attention-seeking behavior is couched in taking selfies. 

5. To get in a better mood.

Mood modification comes from taking selfies. 

6. To fit into a peer or social group.

Selfies can be used for subjective conformity.

Taking these six reasons into account, the answer to the original question, "Is taking selfies healthy for mental health and self-esteem?" is still, "It depends."

RELATED: 12 Signs Of Low Self-Esteem & How It Affects Your Quality Of Life

Selfies can be both good and bad — it all depends. 

It seems that when a selfie post does well (as defined externally by lots of likes and positive comments), there are many benefits — confidence, better mood, popularity, attention, and status for example.

There's no guarantee the selfie post will do well, though. How "well" the selfie is curated (i.e., filtered, adjusted using an app) also affects people’s response and the overall impact.

Unfortunately, some selfies end up eroding self-confidence, worsening mood, causing rejection, or generating negative attention. There's no way to guarantee in advance how many likes and positive comments a posted selfie will generate.

Speaking of likes and comments, another study focused on the use of selfies and social media among 11- to 21-year-old girls, and found the following:

  • Just over one-third of girls report they won’t post selfies unless they use a filter to make themselves "look better." The percentage is higher as girls get older.
  • Almost half (48 percent) of girls and young women use filters to make themselves "look better."
  • Almost half of girls and young women report they use filters for the sake of creativity.
  • At least one-third of girls report they’d delete selfies if they didn’t receive "enough" likes or comments.

The research confirms that the apps and filters available to erase blemishes, stretch marks, and pounds are an essential part of taking selfies, and they cause girls and women more pressure to look flawless.

Why is posting these types of selfies concerning?

The filtered images are simply not realistic. By definition, they are altered. They set a high bar for attractiveness and a standard that's not attainable for most of us.

Filtered selfies send the message that how a girl or young woman looks is uber important and possibly the most important thing that defines her worth.

Girls and young women have plenty of social pressures without the added demand of flawlessness.

Imagine the stress that then goes along with meeting people in person, fearing the effects of being seen without the filter’s effects?

Back to the question we started with. Is taking selfies healthy for mental health and self-esteem?

The "it depends" answer may be frustratingly noncommittal, but it's true.

For certain cohorts of people, the risk is greater than the benefit. It's important to think through your answer to the "W" questions and determine for yourself whether or not to post the selfie.

A mom in the grocery line made a refreshing comment about selfies. She explained that ever since she began to take selfies, the family has a lot of photos of her.

In the past, she was the one taking photos of others or wasn't part of the photoshoot, due to mom duties.

She was also thrilled that her children now enjoy being in charge of taking "selfies with mommy," except sometimes, there are arguments between the kids over who gets to hold the phone or camera.

There's nothing inherently good or bad about taking or posting selfies. Making an informed decision, however, is recommended, whether you're in a Ferris wheel or wearing a bathing suit... or both.

RELATED: 21 Ways To Build Self-Esteem & Uplift Your Confidence

Before you go,
subscribe to our newsletter.

Join now for YourTango's trending articles, top expert advice and personal horoscopes delivered straight to your inbox each morning.

Dr. Elayne Daniels is a psychologist in private practice who specializes in body image, Highly Sensitive People, and eating disorders.