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The Difference Between Self-Exploration and Selfie Obsession

10/19/2015 05:38 EDT | Updated 10/19/2016 05:12 EDT
Todor Tsvetkov via Getty Images

I'm not a fan of selfies. Whenever I activate my front camera, I feel like I'm taking a dip in Narcissus's pool. But is that a byproduct of the notion that self-love (or selfie-love in this case) is just vanity? Or is it something else?

I'm originally from London, and I moved the U.S. several years ago after meeting my American husband on this side of the pond. As a desperate introvert, I would have been perfectly content to give all incarnations of social media the heave-ho. But when your family and friends are located across an ocean, snail mail isn't practical.

My family always ask me for more photos. After all, a picture says a thousand words. It's easy to take snaps of sunsets, and interesting swathes of graffiti, but it quickly becomes impersonal. When you're trying to give an intimate peek into your daily life, staying off stage becomes redundant.

My phobia of sharing selfies isn't completely irrational. Multiple studies have monitored the negative impact of our selfie obsession.

Studies have linked instances of psychopathy and narcissism to the selfie addicts. Another study went as far as to say that bombing your Facebook feed with selfies can damage your relationships. Then there's those who say that the trend of augmenting selfies with airbrushing is setting an unhealthy body ideal. After all, it's easy to spot unrealistic airbrushing in a Victoria's Secret catalogue. But it looks a lot more real when it's a candid image of Beyonce walking down a flight of stairs.

According to this Infographic from Dialed-In, 55 per cent of millennials have taken a selfie compared to nine per cent of baby-boomers. Additionally, a third of all selfies are taken by those aged 18 to 24. Swerving in at age 29, perhaps I missed the selfie party boat. It's easier to use something that's been a part of your coming-of-age story. But for me, it's still hard to acclimatize to the idea of posing with a hot dog on a picturesque pier. When I was 16, a selfie was nigh impossible to achieve, unless you had a remote shutter release for your camera. Even then, you'd have to wait until the film had developed to see how it turned out. The results were never pleasing.

Perhaps there's a deeper psychological bond between the abundance of selfies among whippersnappers, and the accusation that millennials are collectively suffering from Peter Pan syndrome.

Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan credited the "mirror stage" in infants as the beginning of our formation of self identity. In a nutshell, our identity begins to develop when we recognize our reflections, and can see ourselves through the eyes of another. Without mirrors, or selfies, we're blind as to how we appear to the rest of the world.

For those who came of age with a smartphone, you didn't need to be near a mirror to see your reflection. The revolutionary impact of social media meant that you didn't just see yourself through the eyes of your peers. You could curate your own narrative.

Back to the grim stuff, this has also caused a quiver of psychologists to point out the detrimental effects of creating your identity online.

Social comparison theory is a fancy variation of keeping up with the Joneses. The New York Times wrote about "The Agony Of Instagram" -- you thought your life was great. And then you compared yourself to one of your Instagram pals, and suddenly became awash with envy. It even has it's own acronym now, FOMO. The Fear Of Missing Out. The millennial version of the grass is always greener.

But aren't we taking this all a bit seriously? After all, it's only a selfie.

College student, Madison Holleran, appeared to live the perfect life through Instagram. Her posts carefully chronicled the life of a happy, popular, straight-A student. On January 17, 2014 she uploaded a snap that you often see amongst college students. A warm, festive shot of Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia. It was the sort of scene you'd stroll through while sipping on a Gingerbread latte and dreaming of the future. Nothing about the idyllic upload hinted at what would happen a few hours later, when Madison killed herself by jumping off a building. She was only 19 years old. For those who followed Madison online, the gulf between the 2D presentation of her life and tragic reality was a yawning chasm.

If we create an idealized portrait of ourselves online, do we feel that reality can never exceed it? And what happens if we realize that we've stumbled into the wrong typecast? Does reaching out for help threaten to dismantle the world we so carefully created? Madison Holleran's online life masked a battle with depression. Kiersten Rickenbach Cerveny, a former America's Junior Miss, and a celebrated doctor appeared to have a picture perfect life online. She died of a drug overdose, after battling an addiction that nobody could imagine.

Obviously, I don't see myself taking a daft selfie one day and spiraling into a mental breakdown the next. But I can easily see the temptation in crafting a picture-perfect world online. My favorite Instagram feed, Socality Barbie, is a hilarious parody of these so-called "perfect" lives.

The hashtag that the authour uses ubiquitously, #liveauthentic, is the amusing paradigm. We don't live authentically on social media, and perhaps that's my issue with it. We can fall easily into the trap of creating what we want we want others to see, and in turn offer up our lives to be scrutinized. In the extreme cases of Holleran and Cerveny, there's a danger of becoming so engulfed in maintaining the charade, that our true selves can get evicted from the script.

For 99 per cent of Instagram users, it's not an issue. But when putting your best face forward becomes obsessive, it has the risk of becoming a gilded cage. By choosing to #liveauthentic, I choose to form my identity outside of social media. Not within it.

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