What’s in a Selfie?

Study that explores the different types of narcissism behind selfie-posting among young adults could help inform future research and mental health professionals.

By Hanan Nasser

The findings of the study showed that – irrespective of the location – selfie-posting frequency was predicted by gender, geographic community and grandiose narcissism.

A study co-authored by LAU Assistant Professors of Clinical Psychology Pia Tohme and Rudy Abi-Habib, identifying two types of narcissism behind selfie-posting among young adults in Lebanon and the US, could help inform mental health professionals on the specifics of such behavior in an online era.

“The idea began when we noticed that selfie-posting increased in early adulthood, mainly with students aged 18 to 26, whether in the US or in Lebanon,” says Dr. Tohme. “We were trying to figure out what was driving it.”

Technological advancements, such as front-facing cameras on smartphones and the multiple online platforms that require the usage of selfies, “have made it possible to examine correlations between the selfie-posting behavior and the multiple facets of psychology including personality, psychopathology and mental health in general,” says Dr. Abi-Habib.

The study was based on an online survey – a comparison between three geographical areas – with participants from the Midwest US, Northeast US and Lebanon. This cross-cultural aspect, which sets it apart, allowed the researchers to generalize their findings in a stronger manner and set the pace for future similar studies, adds Dr. Abi-Habib.

Furthermore, while narcissism and egocentrism behind the phenomenon of selfie-posting has been tackled before, the current study looks past narcissism as one construct to explore the different kinds of narcissism that could motivate that behavior, focusing on overt and covert narcissism.

Covert or internal narcissism refers to someone who is sensitive to the judgement of others and seeks external validation and acceptance, while overt narcissism is more about the observable attention-seeking or grandiose behavior.

“We were interested in finding out if and how each type of narcissism could predict frequency in selfie-posting, and to see whether there would be cultural differences,” says Dr. Tohme.

Results showed that – irrespective of the location – selfie-posting frequency was predicted by gender, geographic community and grandiose narcissism: Women and overconfident people who had a bigger sense of self were inclined to post more selfies.

“In general, if we want to look at which type of narcissism allows us to predict how much we are posting selfies, it is less about the covert type and more about the observable,” explains Dr. Tohme. Such posts reflect a sense of overconfidence that whatever this person is doing is worthwhile and shares it in order to get others’ feedback.

The study, however, does not investigate the reasons women tend to post more selfies, and the subject remains open for further exploration to see if there are more cultural explanations.

Frequent selfie-posting, warns Dr. Tohme, could in the long run become a factor affecting the severity of mental health issues, especially among young adults. “We found that it is bidirectional. The more positive the feedback, likes and comments one gets, the more pronounced one’s narcissism becomes, leading to more selfie-posting. We get stuck in a loop of reinforcement.”

The danger, says Dr. Tohme, is when people start to rely more on their online presence or online persona and focus on the feedback rather than enjoying the moment and getting validation from being with friends or doing an activity.

“If we get stuck in this loop, and if there is some sort of dissociation or a gap between the real identity and the online identity, we might develop emotional difficulties, because there will be an overreliance on how others see us,” she adds. This could lead later on to anxiety ­– if we feel that we are not meeting the expectations we have of ourselves or of others – or to some form of depression, or mood fluctuations.

This is an issue that Dr. Tohme has faced in her practice. “We start seeing it in children and adolescents between the ages of 10 and 16 to 17. Sometimes they’d have a session for a different reason but appear clearly upset, and it would turn out to be because of a comment they got.”

She remarked on the time these young adults spend on preparing a post, using the right filter and so on. “It is a whole different dimension of narcissism; your expectations of yourself, of perfection, because you want to get the most feedback. You can get a hundred positive comments, but one negative comment can stick and affect you the most,” she says.

Finally, the study found that selfie-posting was also influenced by culture and subculture rather than by country.

“The results in Lebanon were closer to those of the Midwest and very different to those in Northeast,” notes Dr. Tohme. “What we need to understand about this narcissism is how much the culture is contributing to it, because in some cultures, it is encouraged to put yourself out there, share your accomplishments and your day-to-day activities. In that sense, selfies would not necessarily be seen as a sense of entitlement, grandiosity, nor narcissism but rather a cultural expectation.”

The added value of the study is in its contribution to further research and the field itself on differences between such behaviors in our online and offline personas.

Social media is developing at a pace that many mental health professionals can’t keep up with. Therefore, research in psychology has the tough task to keep up with this advancement in order to inform clinicians and try to predict future developments.

“Studying correlations between psychological entities and online modalities such as narcissism and the selfie-posting behavior will help inform both clinicians and researchers about the specifics of these phenomena and the differences they present with the offline era,” says Dr. Abi-Habib.

The next step would be to research the different facets of narcissism in Lebanon that are healthier than others and the ones that can potentially lead to some mental health problems.

“A future study would identify which types of narcissism are related to mental health difficulties and which ones actually can be pro-social and help us thrive,” says Dr. Tohme.

Meanwhile, her advice to young adults is to enjoy the moment rather than make selfie-posting a priority.

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