Can selfies affect a child’s mental health?

By Dr. Linda Papadopoulos on

The desire to explore and manipulate our identity is a normal process of development and underpins much of the appearance-driven behaviour that we see amongst young people.

Up until recently, this was done in front of the mirror; experimenting with clothes, hairstyles and makeup.  More recently the selfie has begun to play a role.

While there is a benefit to articulating one’s identity and getting feedback from one’s peer group, the problem is that doing this via selfies means that this feedback group, which reflects back to us how we appear, has increased exponentially, and with it the uncertainty of how we are perceived, and indeed valued, by others.

The process of posting the ‘perfect selfie’

The act of taking multiple photos, scanning them in order to reject the unflattering ones, then editing them, whether through the use of filters or other apps, is literally an exercise in poor body image.  To compound this further, once this process is complete, we then post the selfie for all to see and comment on- and so begins the painful wait for the accumulation of likes that will hopefully (temporarily) allow us to feel ok about the ‘self’ we have created.

This access to up to date research on how we are received and where we stand socially can be debilitating- especially for young people where peer acceptance is paramount. The process is like having a global focus group providing running commentary on who you are and the decisions you make.

The worrying thing about this kind of exposure to others’ beliefs is that there is no end to it.  If what others think or believe about you matters and your visibility is not something that you can control then maybe you will never be able to firmly say who you are.

There will always be another like or comment or share ready to unsettle you- and if we are conscious of this, that’s when you lose the freedom to be you or to know who you want to be – and ultimately you begin to feel that you can never live up to the selfie they’ve created.

Using selfies as a comparison tool

The other issue, of course, is the fact that selfies are used as a means for comparison- a ruler to see how we measure up to our peers.  More often than not these are images that reflect their subjects in the most positive light: the right angle, perfect lighting, amazing friends, always having fun.

Lasting impression of selfies

Being exposed to idealised images day after day would have an effect on anyone, but on young minds, it can leave a more lasting impression that is much harder to shake off. When you’re faced with a constant stream of images showing perfect bodies in perfect locations with perfect friends, it’s hard not to avoid a sense of inadequacy and the feeling that you’re not keeping up. Those feelings can eat away at self-confidence and self-esteem, but avoiding social media isn’t really an option when all of your friends’ lives are playing out on there.

What parents can do to help 

My advice is simple; talk to your children. As adults, we understand that the world of social media, just like any other form of media, is stage-managed, but often we forget to reinforce that message to our own children. Explain that people aren’t perfect and talk to them about girls who are posting – who’s taking all of these perfect pictures? How many shots do you think they took to get that perfect angle?

Likewise, it’s just as important to talk to them about what they’re posting so they don’t get sucked into the cult of perfection. Real life is what you see all around you, not just what you see through the filtered lens of an iPhone. Discuss why it’s important to disconnect from the ‘constructed’ identities we all feel we need to develop online and underscore the notion of being free to be who you really are.

Keep an eye on who they’re following on sites like Instagram and what they’re posting and talk to them about the effect their images could have on other people.

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If you're concerned about your child's mental health, contact YoungMinds' parent helpline for one-to-one support, 0808 802 5544

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