x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Is taking too many selfies a self-destructive exercise?

The selfie has been around for longer than you may think, and there are reasons to be concerned about people who take too many of them.

Self-portrait without a beard by Vincent Van Gogh is one of the most expensive paintings of all time, selling for $71.5 million (Dh263m) in 1998. Van Gogh is considered a prolific self-portraitist, painting himself at least 37 times during a career cut short by suspected suicide when the artist was just 37. Today, however, 37 self-portraits in 37 minutes isn’t out of the question. The birth of the smartphone has greatly facilitated self-portraiture.

Most of our contemporary self-portraits, however, are works of technology, rather than works of art. The self-portrait has been reduced to the “selfie”. The term first appeared in 2004 on sites such as Flickr and MySpace, rapidly working its way into the global vocabulary of the technologically literate. By 2013, Oxford Dictionaries Online hailed “selfie” as its word of the year, defining it as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website”. Although many of us occasionally point a cameras at our own heads, we still tend to have mixed feelings about the selfie. On the positive side, we might view the selfie as the democratisation of self-portraiture: yet another example of a new technology enabling “the many” to have access to what was once reserved for an elite few.

More cynically, we might view the selfie as a vacuous act of vanity; the logical outgrowth of the “self-­esteem” movement. For decades we have taught our schoolteachers to cultivate high self-esteem in students, and many argue that this practice – along with a culture of empty celebrity – has contributed to generational narcissism. The generation – often referred to as Generation I – is characterised by individuals deeply committed to a belief in their own specialness, self-worth and entitlement.

In defence of the selfie, a Generation I Twitter user might argue: “I just want to share my beauty and amazing experiences with my followers.” And perhaps sometimes this is the case. For sure, the selfie is often a self-indulgent act of vanity and exhibitionism, but perhaps at other times, it is a form of generosity, selfless sharing – the selfless selfie.

From a mental health perspective, psychiatrists at Thailand’s department of mental health recently warned that those not getting enough positive feedback for their selfies often feel compelled to take and post more images, perhaps even increasingly risqué or outrageous images. This cycle of seeking self-esteem boosts by posting selfies is ultimately viewed as having negative consequences for mental health, ­especially when the expected level of positive feedback is not achieved.

It is also worth considering that the selfie is not always a decontextualised headshot. Very often it is an attempt to capture a special moment and generate evidence of one’s involvement – “this is me in front of Emirates Palace, and this is me with Steven Gerrard”. However, there is emerging evidence that the self-centric snap-happy may actually be degrading their memories while trying to capture magic moments.

Dr Linda Henkel, a cognitive psychologist at Fairfield University, Connecticut, describes this phenomenon as “photo-taking impairment effect”. In a recent article published in the journal Psychological Science, Dr Henkel describes an experiment where one group of students are asked to photograph exhibits at the Bellarmine Museum of Art, while another group simply browse the exhibits, eyes-only. When tested the following day, the eyes-only group were far better at recognising objects from the museum’s exhibit. Dr Henkel suggests that when we photograph objects it is often a rather mindless activity, so the memory doesn’t hold.

Ironically, in our often-desperate attempt to capture magic moments, we may actually be losing them. Some might argue: who needs a memory, when you can just review the images? But the poor organisation and sheer volume of the digital images many of us amass makes this a daunting task, especially if we are busy trying to capture new images.

During the final weeks before apparently taking his own life, Van Gogh painted prolifically. He painted no self-portraits, but rather, his attention was redirected to painting the natural world. Some art historians have suggested that Van Gogh’s lasting fame owes as much to his self-harm as it does to his self-portraiture. Perhaps in our age, self-portraiture is a form of self-harm?

Justin Thomas, an associate professor at Zayed University, is the author of Psychological Well-Being in the Gulf States: The New Arabia Felix