What do the Pope and the Kardashians have in common? They’re snapping selfies — and so are millions of social media users. Since their awkward debut on Flickr and MySpace almost a decade ago (in-front-of-the-mirror shots, anyone?), selfies have mushroomed into a social media mainstay.

What exactly has been driving this trend? Is it all about narcissism, or something deeper? And what, if any, are the consequences of constantly generating images of ourselves? Greatist investigates when — and why — social media became the new vanity mirror.

What's the Deal?

The word “selfie” was added to the Oxford Dictionaries in August 2013 (it was even their Word of the Year!), defined as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.” But selfies have been around for years. The word first appeared on Flickr in 2004, and Myspace quickly popularized the mirror pic. In the past two years, selfie-taking has exploded: In 2012, Google searches for “selfie” took off, and the hashtag #selfie has grown by more than 200 percent since January 2013. Today, more than 55 million posts on Instagram are labeled with the hashtag, and the number of #selfies and #selfiesunday posts are above 5 million and 4 million, respectively.

Why the rise in popularity? The advent of social media has led to a rise in selfies (chalk that up to “duh”), as has improved technology. Myspace pics were usually taken in a mirror, which required awkward camera-maneuvering and meant the camera was captured in the photo. Now, most smart phones have front-facing cameras, making it easier to both set up a photo and pose as the model (and look good while doing so). But ease of use isn’t the only reason millions of people are strutting their stuff for their own cameras.

According to some theorists, selfies are popular because they allow us to actively control the image we project. They’re a way to communicate that both the selfie-taker and his or her life is awesome, sexy, thoughtful, interesting, social — you name it. We snap selfies when we’re feeling glamorous and fashion-forward, or when we want to show off what we’re doing. Sometimes, a selfie is meant to attract the attention of a certain someone whom the selfie-taker knows to be following them on social media accounts.

As it turns out, avid selfie-takers might be right to invest so much time in cultivating their online image. One study that tracked users’ eye movements as they browsed Facebook found that cover photos are the first feature social media users notice and that users spend the majority of their time browsing through profile pictures. Another study found that profile pictures with more social cues (i.e., hints about a person’s interests) garnered higher levels of perceived attractiveness. Our perceived attractiveness increases even more when friends comment on our Facebook profile pictures, because browsers tend to trust others’ opinions more than a user’s self-presentation.

Why It Matters

In today’s online-centric world, it’s natural to want some control over our online presentation. But are prolific selfie snappers going too far?

One study found that sharing selfies too frequently can lead to a decrease in intimacy among friends and romantic partners. Another study concluded that women who base their self-worth on their appearances or others’ approval are more likely to share photos online, suggesting these photos may not be doing anything to improve self-esteem. The study also concluded that women are more likely to share selfies than men as a result of a cultural fixation on women’s appearances.

As selfies become more and more the norm, some social scientists worry the trend reflects growing narcissism and will have negative implications for individuals, whether that’s pictures that won’t appeal to a potential employer or dependence on external rewards, including ‘likes,’ as a measure of self-worth.

Still, taking selfies isn’t always a bad thing. Some psychologists argue that the rise in selfies reflects increasing body acceptance and self-love. Other theorists believe that selfies are a new form of communication — a conversation with the world, rather than simply a static post. In that sense, they can cultivate personal empowerment and social dialogue — they’re not just a self-portrait, but an invitation for a larger conversation. We don’t post pictures merely for others to observe, but to engage with our friends and social media followers.

As with so many things, it seems that, when taking selfies, moderation and self-awareness are key. Selfie yourself in a healthy way by keeping these three tips in mind:

  • Practice safe selfies. Always keep in mind that virtually anyone can see your selfies (and that includes future employers). Use positive social cues (i.e., pictures of you being your best self) when you’re choosing a profile picture and monitor photos for negative comments, including silly or sarcastic ones, that could lower your perceived professional attractiveness.

  • Find a balance. When taking selfies demands more of your time and energy than cultivating in-person relationships, it’s probably time to reassess the role that social media is playing in your life. Make sure cultivating healthy relationships with the people in your life comes first — and that includes your relationship to yourself.
  • Zoom out. Taking selfies can be fun, but take the time to regularly assess whether ‘likes’ or comments are becoming a measure of your self-worth. The pressure to be camera ready 24/7 can be daunting, and it’s important to bow out occasionally. Reflect on why you love to post selfies (and tweet and Facebook and Tumble) and consider letting your love grow stronger with some quality breaks from technology.
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