We all know of a person that takes way too many selfies. Perhaps that person is you! Taking selfies and posting them on Instagram and Facebook is fun and lots of us do it, but did you know that indulging in selfie-taking could also be a sign of a mental health condition?
First, a little selfie history...
Though Hollywood socialite, Paris Hilton claims she was the one who invented the selfie, technically, the first selfie ever taken was by Robert Cornelius in 1839 in which he set up his camera and took his own self-portrait.
The first time the word ‘selfie’ was ever used online was in an Australian Internet forum by a man who posted a picture of his injured lip which of course he took himself after a night of heavy drinking on September 13, 2002: “Um, drunk at a mates 21st, I tripped ofer (sic) and landed lip first (with front teeth coming a very close second) on a set of steps. I had a hole about 1cm long right through my bottom lip. And sorry about the focus, it was a selfie.”
The Oxford Dictionary declared selfie the word of the year in 2013 and defined it as “a self-portrait photography of oneself (or oneself with other people), taken with a camera or camera phone held at arm’s length or pointed at a mirror, which is usually shared through social media”.
Selfie-taking has become a phenomenon in its own right which doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. However, some scientists and researchers think some selfie-takers may actually have a mental illness and they even have a name for it: Selfitis.
Though it started with a hoax in 2014 after a bogus news story published online in the Adobo Chronicles claimed the American Psychiatric Association had classified selfitis as a new mental health disorder, researchers weren’t as quick to dismiss the possibility. Studies ever since have been examining whether selfitis falls into the category of technological addictions such as internet addiction, online video game addiction, mobile phone addiction and social media addiction and whether it could one day legitimately be classified as a technological mental health disorder such as nomophobia (no mobile phone phobia), technoference (constant intrusions of technology into everyday life), and cyberchondria (feeling ill after searching online for the symptoms of illnesses).
So how can you tell if someone has selfitis? Is it fair to say that it even exists at this point?
According to a recent study published in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, selfitis not only exists, it can be measured using the Selfitis Behavior Scale (SBS) which researchers developed with the help of students from India.
In the unfounded Adobo Chronicles article, the author suggested that selfitis could be categorized into three diagnoses: Borderline (“taking photos of one’s self at least three times a day but not posting them on social media”); Acute (“taking photos of one’s self at least three times a day and posting each of the photos on social media”), and Chronic (“uncontrollable urge to take photos of one’s self round the clock and posting the photos on social media more than six times a day”). Though fake, researchers decided to use those three categories for selfitis in their study.
What the researchers did first was categorize 225 students with an average age of 20 from two Indian universities into one of the three categories of selfitis. Of the 225 students, 43 were deemed to exhibit signs of borderline selfitis, 72 students showed signs of acute selfitis, and 33 students demonstrated traits of chronic selfitis.
Next, researchers used focus groups to ask the ‘diagnosed’ students questions such as: “What compels you to take selfies?”, “Do you feel addicted to taking selfies?”, and “Do you think that someone can become addicted to taking selfies?” The answers to these questions and more helped the researchers come up with six categories for their scale: Environmental Enhancement; Social Competition; Attention Seeking; Mood Modification; Self-Confidence; and Subjective Conformity.
Once the SBS categories were established, researchers moved to phase two of their study where 734 new participants, once again students from Indian universities with an average age of 20 years, were categorized into one of three selfitis categories: Borderline (136), acute (162), and chronic (102). Of the 734 participants, 400 were found to belong to one of three categories. Those 400 students were then put through the newly created, SBS and answered a total of 20 questions.
The participants responded to each question using the 5-point Likert scale (5=strong agree; 4=agree; 3=neither agree or disagree; 2=disagree; and 1=strongly disagree). “The higher the score, the greater the likelihood of selfitis.”
In the category of Social Competition, those with chronic selfitis scored the highest among all other categories. Researchers believe that taking and posting selfies may serve socially competitive needs also observed in other studies related to videogaming, gambling and drug use. Said Karthik in phase one of the study, “Sometimes I explicitly compete with my friends to get more likes for my selfies.”
In the category of Environmental Enhancement, researchers noted that for the purposes of their study, selfies taken in the context of environmental enhancement related to “feeling good, self-expression, memories, and trophies.” Previous studies have found that the environment contributes to excessive substance use and behaviors. The SBS scale showed that participants with chronic selfitis scored the highest and that participants appeared to “feel privileged to connect with the environment via a selfie.” Said Harish in phase one of the study, “Friends create moments, moments create happiness and enhances the environment and it compels me to take a selfie.”
In the category of Attention Seeking, researchers believe their study has “opened up the possibility” that it could be related to selfitis. In regards to narcissism, attention-seeking has been proven to be a prime indicator and those with chronic selfitis scored the highest on the SBS scale in this category. Said Raj in phase one of the study, “My primary reason for taking selfies or posting them in social media is to gain attention.”
In the category of Mood Modification, researchers believe selfitis could be an important factor in reinforcing behavior in both addicts and non-addicts as previous studies have shown to be the case with various addictive behaviors. “Findings from the present study suggest that selfitis could perhaps be another potentially addictive behavior where mood modification is a key factor.” Those with borderline selfitis scored high in this category. The authors of the study say more research needs to be done on the positive and negative effects of selfie-taking with regards to mood modification. Said Santhosh in phase one of the study, “Sometimes taking selfies helps me to come out of any depressive thoughts.”
In the category of Self-Confidence, once again as in Mood Modification, it was those with borderline selfitis which scored the highest. Low self-confidence has been proven to lead to excessive behavior and addiction and researchers believe more research is warranted in this area when it comes to selfie-taking which can boost one’s confidence for at least a short time online. Said Anitha in phase one of the study, “When people like and comment on my selfie postings, my self-confidence rises greatly.”
Lastly, in the category of Subjective Conformity, it was the individuals with acute selfitis which scored the highest whereby “selfie-takers appear to follow implicit protocols to gain social acceptance.” Said Kapil in phase one of the study, “Sometimes, by trying new selfie poses, my friends accept me as a strong group member.”
The authors of the study believe that further research could validate their SBS and that the scale could one day be a “valid instrument for assessing selfitis,” when and if selfitis, of course, is proven to be a real mental health disorder.
The New York Times, (Nov 2017), Paris Hilton Said She Invented the Selfie. We Set Out to Find the Truth, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/20/style/paris-hilton-selfie.html
Janarthanan Balakrishnan, Mark D. Griffiths, (2017), Springer, An Exploratory Study of “Selfitis” and the Development of the Selfitis Behavior Scale, https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007/s11469-017-9844-x.pdf
Alexandra Petri, (June 2017), The Washington Post, A brief history of the selfie, the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year, https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/compost/wp/2013/11/19/a-brief-history-of-the-selfie-the-oxford-dictionaries-word-of-the-year/?utm_term=.761c942aadd2
Oxford Dictionaries, (Nov 2013), Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2013 is.., https://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2013/11/19/video-word-of-the-year-2013/
BBC News, (June 2013), Self-portraits and social media: The rise of the 'selfie', http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-22511650
Patricia Tomasi is a mom, maternal mental health advocate, journalist, and speaker. She writes regularly for the Huffington Post Canada, focusing primarily on maternal mental health after suffering from severe postpartum anxiety twice. You can find her Huffington Post biography here. Patricia is also a Patient Expert Advisor for the North American-based, Maternal Mental Health Research Collective and is the founder of the online peer support group - Facebook Postpartum Depression & Anxiety Support Group - with over 1500 members worldwide. Blog: www.patriciatomasiblog.wordpress.com