In 2014, an English teenager appeared on the news after a suicide attempt because he failed to take the “perfect selfie”. His story, so sadly symptomatic of our times, had made headlines around the world and sent parents into a panic. Since then, many researchers have worked to investigate the influence of selfies on the mental health of adolescents. According to a study by the Journal of Children and Media, taking pictures of oneself is not a bad thing in itself, but if a young person is obsessed with it, it can have a very negative effect on mental health, with girls particularly at risk.
For their study, researchers at the University of Arizona followed 278 teenage girls between the ages of 14 and 17. The girls were invited to complete an online survey to find out how often they shared on social networks and how often they used photo retouching techniques (applications to soothe the skin, reduce swelling or correct red eyes). They also answered a series of questions to measure the time and effort required to finally select a picture they deemed of sharing on social networks. Finally, girls were asked questions to assess their degree of self-objectivity and their concerns about their appearance.
“Our main conclusion is that we should not worry too much about children taking and sharing selfies; this is not the reason for the negative effects. It’s the time invested in editing that has caused the negative effects,” says Jennifer Stevens Aubrey, principal author of the study. The girls who complained were more ashamed of their bodies or more concerned about their appearance. Self-objectification is the idea that you see yourself as an external object that can be seen by others,” she says.
The role of parents and educators
In their study, the researchers explained that they focused on adolescent girls because they are particularly vulnerable to this phenomenon. “Girls are socialized in a way that makes them self-objectifying to a greater extent than boys; this is a very consistent result,” says Larissa Teran, co-author of the study. For this reason, girls also suffer more often from body image disorders that can lead to depression or eating problems.
“Self-objectification is the path to so many things in adolescence that we want to prevent. That’s why interventions should focus on how we can encourage girls to develop self-confidence that isn’t just related to the way they look into the eyes of others,” says Jennifer Stevens Aubrey.
So parents and educators need to be vigilant. If a teenage girl seems obsessed with selfies, maybe we should talk to her about it to “avoid problems in the future,” they suggest.
A lot of studies of this kind have already taken place
This study is far from the first of its kind. In December, an Australian survey of 996 teenagers of both sexes showed that many Snapchat and Instagram users tend to skip meals and do excessive exercise to lose weight or avoid gaining weight.
“One of the key elements in preventing eating disorders is getting the message across that our self-esteem needs to be defined by a combination of our skills, values, and relationships,” says the researcher, who asks parents to take responsibility. Parents play an important role in their children’s early use of social networks: “Previous research has shown that controlling the time spent on networks is associated with greater life satisfaction among prepubescent girls and boys,” explained the researchers at the time.
In 2016, a study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics linked social network dependency to anorexia, bulimia and other eating and body image disorders. Based on a cross-analysis of two questionnaires completed by almost 2,000 young adults, the most connected individuals are twice as likely to be at risk, regardless of age, income or gender.