With words such as “selfie” and “hashtag” added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary this year, it’s obvious online interactions have made a significant impact on modern culture. And according to Pamela Rutledge, a media psychologist and director of the Media Psychology Research Center in Newport Beach, California, social media is here to stay – whether people like the selfie culture or not.
“It’s not going away, so it doesn’t do us much good to say it’s negative,” Rutledge says. “We are now creating a generation that has a voice and expects that voice to be heard.”
Rutledge studies social interactions via technology and is working to understand online communication. Older generations engage on sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, but heavy social media use is attributed to teenagers and young adults. The selfie has become a modern obsession with teens, who post photographs of themselves in any and every situation.
According to Pew Research Center's "Millennials in Adulthood" study, 55 percent of Generation Y, otherwise known as millennials, have posted a selfie, and 81 percent have a Facebook profile. There has been little data collected about Generation Z – those currently in middle school and high school – but even at a young age, this generation already has a significant online presence.
While older generations may not relate to the selfie culture, as a parent, it’s important to understand the phenomenon and your teen’s social environment.
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What is the Selfie’s Purpose?
A selfie is no different from arriving at a job interview looking your best, Rutledge says. The photos intend to present yourself in your best light, and with social media, young people have the power to do so whenever they want. “I see selfies as primarily a form of communication that is more immediate, more authentic,” she says. “We care what other people think of us, and we care about monitoring the social environment, so how we present ourselves matters.”
Teenage years involve forming your identity through socializing, and in today’s world, social interactions can occur 24/7 through smartphones. In fact, social media helps many introverted adolescents make connections they may not have otherwise, says David Proost, a psychologist in Dallas who specializes in child and adolescent psychology.
“[Adolescents] are much more closely tied to each other than they've ever been,” Proost says. “You post [selfies] for people to see – for the world to see. There is a certain type of empowerment with that, that you can sort of choose what you do and how you present yourself.”
Selfies contribute to the online personas teens create for themselves. From pictures to statuses, each component builds their online identity. And while this might seem overly self-interested to some adults, Rutledge says teens today are no more concerned about their appearances than teens of the past. It’s the same culture, just presented in a new format.
“A lot of what you see in profiles is people’s aspirational self or their best self,” she says. “This shifting in identity isn’t unusual, it’s just people are seeing and aware of it now.”
Proost says when a teenager posts a selfie, his or her desire for likes or comments is part of the natural desire for peer approval. “You put [a selfie] out there because you're looking for that form of validation,” Proost says. “That’s the danger with teenagers overly looking for that external form of validation rather than trying to foster internal validation.”
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When is it a Problem?
Mary-Margaret West, a 14-year-old high school sophomore in North Carolina, says while social media is entertaining, she feels it has more negative than positive impacts on her social life. West recently gave up social media for the Lent holiday and says the experience was surprisingly liberating.
“I felt myself living in the moment with my family, and actually called my friends and talked to them and actually really interacted with people," she says, adding that she enjoyed "the feeling of not being connected."
West says she does not post selfies on her social media profiles because she views them as conceited, but she says many of her peers post selfies, and it has become part of their daily lives.
“There’s research to say that people who post too many selfies alienate their friends – well, people who talk about themselves too much also alienate their friends,” Rutledge says. “What we’re seeing is the visual version of that.”
Rutledge and Proost agree that selfies should be posted in moderation. While there is not a specific number of selfies a teen should or shouldn't post, once it becomes an obsession he or she is constantly thinking about, it could indicate a social media addiction.
Social media use can turn into a problem when a teen's sense of self worth relies on peer approval, Proost says. Whether they're posting from the football game bleachers or on a family vacation, teens can access social media anywhere and at all times. And because of the constant connection, it can be dangerous for young people overly concerned with others' opinions. They may feel like they can never escape the social environment and are constantly faced with peer pressure.
Proost says spending extended portions of time every day updating your profile or looking at others’ profiles could indicate an addiction or impact your mental health. "There is that danger that one negative comment can send you down this spiral of ridicule and depression,” he points out.
He adds that parents should look for changes in behavior or if a teen seems stressed by social media. While it's typical for teenagers to isolate themselves with their phones, drastic changes in mood could be a red flag.
“The mental health outcomes that we’re starting to look at now are things like body dysmorphic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, depression and anxiety,” Proost says. “We are starting to see those things creep up and be related conditions to excessive [social media] use.”
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What Can Parents Do?
Because older generations often don't understand photo filters and hashtags such as #TBT (Throwback Thursday) and #MCM (Man Crush Monday), young people are exploring new social territory without guidance or limits. By navigating this new terrain alone, some run into problems.
In moderation, selfies and social media can be positive tools for self-expression. Proost says parents can help their teen have a positive online experience by allowing access to social media when they feel their son or daughter reaches an age when they can handle it. Knowing how long your teen spends online is also important to ensure they're not spending an excessive amount of time on social networks.
While schools may teach about cyberbullying and online predators, it's important for parents to educate their teens on the mental dangers of social media addiction and advise them to not post anything too personal or identifying information such as their cellphone number or address.
“For parents, I would say it’s really important to talk to kids and not lecture them,” Rutledge says. “With most teenagers, making pronouncements doesn’t work nearly as well as negotiating.”
[Read: The Dangers of Posting Photos Online.]
Parents should also help their teens form an identity independent from their online profiles. “Empower them to explore their strengths and develop their skills,” Proost says.
Because teens’ decision-making abilities are still developing, it's imperative to always keep the discussion about healthy online behavior open.
“It’s all about balance – balance of purpose as well as balance of use,” Rutledge says.