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Living Your Best Life When The World Isn’t Watching

Does taking photos for the purpose of posting on social media affect the enjoyment and memory of the experience?

Courtesy of BLACKDAY / Shutterstock
Courtesy of BLACKDAY / Shutterstock

Sometimes the best life or most meaningful moments lived happen when the world isn’t watching. So, with 1,000 selfies posted to Instagram every second,* why then do we choose to take ourselves out of meaningful moments?

I think there are many reasons—some based in narcissism but most coming from a healthy desire to preserve and remember a moment.

Overall, selfies get a bad rap. Selfie-posting on social media allows us to share big moments and little bits of joy with our friends and loved ones—instantly. Viewed objectively, posting selfies to our social platforms is a phenomenal way to stay connected from thousands of miles away. A Gen Xer, I’m still a big fan of selfies and, full confession, won’t travel anywhere interesting without packing my selfie stick.

Healthy Self Expression

Teens get slammed for putting too much time and effort into social media, but psychologists actually say that selfie-taking in teen years is a normal extension of something they’ve been doing since they passed notes on slates, which is performing for an imaginary audience.

“This is the idea that adolescents think people are more interested in them than they actually are, that people are always looking at them and taking note of what they are doing, even if it is just walking across the school cafeteria,” said Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a developmental psychologist to The New York Times Styles Section columnist Alex Williams.

“How cool it was, then, when the imaginary audience becomes real,” Williams noted.

A Timeless Compulsion—Facilitated by Tech

While the ease of taking selfies makes the process more habit forming, the mentality that drives this practice isn’t new. The tech industry has just made it easier to indulge, “supersizing” our compulsion to capture, contemplate and share our own image.  

For centuries, artists like Vincent Van Gogh, Andy Warhol, Frida Kahlo, Rembrandt, Pablo Picasso, and even former president George W. Bush have all used self-portraiture as a means of expression. And each one of these artists likely spent a substantial amount of time on these efforts. While it’s a stretch to paint Van Gogh and a Snapchat user with the same brush, it’s important to note that selfie-taking isn’t intrinsically a bad thing.

Dr. Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, feels that experts are over-analyzing the selfie.

In a 2013 column published by Psychology Today, Dr. Rutledge wrote that selfies are not all about seeking external validation. In defense of selfies, she wrote that they give us the ability to create a life narrative through images. Other sources describe them as an opportunity to change our images or enhance the active process of reinvention. 

“Images encode experience,” Dr. Rutledge wrote. “When we look at old photos, our brains revive the event allowing us to relive some of the emotions, context, and experience. We can look back on our motives and actions and gain insight we couldn’t get in any other way.” 

But, Yes, There Can Be a Dark Side 

While we (almost) all indulge occasionally, people who take the most selfies tend to fall into specific categories, with vanity and narcissism playing a role. An article by Alexa Tucker in Bustle states, “research points to narcissism as a predictor of how likely individuals are to post selfies. Although it’s not the first research to identify this, a 2016 study published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior found that ‘narcissism significantly predicts individuals’ intention to post selfies on social networking sites.’ They assessed 85 study participants with the 13-item narcissism personality inventory, and found that those who were higher in narcissism were likely to take a lot of selfies. 

Among the well-adjusted, however, there’s still a downside–selfies often kill the fun we’re having, rather than enhancing it. A study published by the Journal for Consumer Research argues that taking photos for the purpose of posting on social media as opposed to just preserving the memory reduces enjoyment of experiences.

“This effect occurs because taking photos with the intention to share increases self-presentational concern during the experience, which can reduce enjoyment directly, as well as indirectly by lowering engagement with the experience,” the study states.

The study adds that intent to share a photo can sometimes trigger anxiety at the moment the photo is taken, even if that’s long before the photo is shared. “Any time you’re trying to manage your impression, you’re going to get in between yourself and the experience,” explained behavioral scientist Alixandra Barasch, one of the authors of the study.

Ironically, for many a managed impression often comes with the desire for further management. Studies published in JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery journal state that the camera increases the size of your nose by 30 percent if you take a selfie photo from 12 inches. The fish-eye effect and front-facing camera lens distortion spoil the image, making our face proportions incorrect. This has given birth to the demand for digital beautification apps with catchy names like Facetune and Make Me Thin. It’s also spawned the hashtag #nofilter as a badge of honor to indicate an unretouched photo online.

A few years ago clients would visit cosmetic surgeons with pictures of celebrities, now its pictures of themselves “perfected” with these filters, according to an article in The Guardian. This article cites other research from the JAMA journal suggesting that filtered images blurred the “line of reality and fantasy” and could help lead to Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), where people fixate on imagined flaws in their appearance. Common sense tells us that the more time most of us spend taking pictures of ourselves and posting them to social media platforms, the more obsessed we’ll become with every real or imagined ‘flaw.’ 

Don’t Target the Selfie

Selfies aren’t the only culprit in diminishing experiences, however. Linda Henkel, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Fairfield University in Connecticut who specializes in memory, discovered that photography in general has an adverse effect on our ability to recall details. 

In 2013, she performed an experiment that looked at the effect of taking photos at a museum. She found that participants who took photos of statues could recall fewer details later compared to those who spent a similar amount of time simply looking at the art. 

Finding Balance

In my newest book Lifescale: How to Live a More Creative, Productive and Happy LIfe, I note that we haven’t lost our ability to live or experience life’s important moments, we’ve just put this skill on the shelf.

As the first generation ever to live with these mounting digital distractions, we don’t have much history to draw on. We need to develop techniques to live more intentionally and, with limited research to draw on, many of these techniques for balancing the tech aspects of our lives will be improvised and refined as we go. 

I conclude Lifescale with advice on living in the moment. “Take a moment to breathe, to appreciate the moment, and to remind yourself as you lifescale, ‘this is what I am working for . . . this moment, right now.’ For as long as you’re learning, growing and creating, wherever you are, is where you’re supposed to be.”

The hike, the spectacular beach vacation, the class reunion, your kid’s play, that day at the gym your abs started to pop–they’re all worth a few pictures. As long as we take time to breathe and appreciate the moment in the moment, we’ll remember more and our selfies will enhance those memories.

How can we optimize our experiences? How can we seize the moment and capture the image at the same time? As with most things tech-related, it’s an ongoing conversation that I hope continues to spread.

*Based on research published by the non-profit organization Rawhide,

**In fact, 55 percent of social media selfies come from millennials as opposed to 24 percent from Gen Xers and nine percent from Baby Boomers. While the number rises for Millennials, it shows no sign of tapering off for Gens Y and Z. If anything, it’s increasing. 

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