Selfies and the New Age of Digital Narcissism

In 2013, the word “selfie” was elected “Word of the Year” by the Oxford English Dictionary. Selfie refers to a photo that a person takes of herself then posts on social media sites. As with so many things, the original idea behind the selfie was probably good, providing just another way to share a moment or an experience in a person’s life with family and friends.

For those in the behavioral health field, the selfie has become anything but a benign photo. For some, it is just one more tool used to chisel away at a person’s self-esteem or intensify an already negative body image. The term “digital narcissism” was coined to apply to the phenomenon of someone trying to inflate low self-esteem by over-promoting herself in social media.

Recently, a young man in Britain tried to commit suicide after he failed to take the perfect selfie. The 19-year-old became obsessed with this goal, dedicating hours every day to capturing the perfect shot. He dropped out of school, lost weight and became a recluse. When the perfect photo eluded him, he took an overdose of pills in an effort to end his own life.


Although we want so desperately to believe that such a radical reaction is surely an anomaly, something never seen again, it probably isn’t and we probably will.

From its inception, the world of social media has proven harmful to those with self-esteem issues and especially for those with a negative body image. Those with significant insecurities, particularly adolescent girls and women, used to have limited outlets to utilize for comparison purposes. The highly distorted and air-brushed images in magazines and advertisements always served to diminish their fragile egos. But now, they have untold numbers of Facebook posts and Instagram photos to compare themselves to and undoubtedly find themselves lacking.

The problem is that when these women and girls examine all of these beautiful images, they fail to remember the context. People only post photos in which they look their absolute best, are doing exciting activities, and are, above all, happy. These photos are rarely reflective of real everyday life. They will never show tired people washing dishes, paying bills, staying up all night with a teething baby.

And then there’s the ever-popular selfie. These same females who find fault in themselves because of their positive view of other people’s pictures on the internet will fail to extend the same grace to themselves. They will scrutinize photos of themselves, perhaps even pictures that they originally thought were fine, and be disappointed. It’s no longer out of line to suggest that an abundance of harsh or negative comments could literally result in an attempted suicide, or even worse, a successful suicide for some of those who struggle with severe insecurities or who are predisposed to mental illness.