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Can you get addicted to taking selfies?

Dubbed 'selfitis' in a fake news story, we wanted to know if people can get addicted to taking and sharing selfies.
Image: Christmas tree selfie
Young women take a selfie by Christmas trees.Sergei Savostyanov / TASS / Getty Images

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a selfie is a “photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media.” From a psychological perspective, the taking of selfies is a self-oriented action that allows users to establish their individuality and self-importance; it is also associated with personality traits such as narcissism.

However, selfie-taking is more than just the taking of a photograph: It can include the editing of the color and contrast, the changing of backgrounds, and the addition of other effects before uploading. These added options and the use of integrative editing have further popularized selfie-taking behavior, particularly amongst teenagers and young adults.

On March 31, 2014, a story appeared on a website called the Adobo Chronicles that claimed that the American Psychiatric Association (APA) had classed “selfitis” as a new mental disorder. According to the author, the organization had defined selfitis as “the obsessive compulsive desire to take photos of one’s self and post them on social media as a way to make up for the lack of self-esteem and to fill a gap in intimacy.” The same article also claimed there three levels of the disorder: borderline (“taking photos of one’s self at least three times a day but not posting them on social media”), acute (“taking photos of one’s self at least three times a day and posting each of the photos on social media”), and chronic (“uncontrollable urge to take photos of one’s self round the clock and posting the photos on social media more than six times a day”).

The story was republished on numerous news sites around the world, but it soon became clear that it was a hoax.

One of the reasons that so many news outlets republished the story — other than that it seemingly fit certain preexisting stereotypes in people’s minds — was that the criteria used to delineate the three levels of selfitis (i.e., borderline, acute, and chronic) seemed believable.

Therefore, as scientists, we thought it would be interesting to examine whether there was any substance to the claims that taking selfies can be a time-consuming and potentially obsessive behavior — the stereotype underlying many people’s credulity about the fake story. We empirically explored the concept of selfitis across two studies and collected data on the existence of selfitis with respect to the three alleged levels (borderline, acute, and chronic), ultimately developed our own scientifically tested scale to assess the sub-components of selfitis (the Selfitis Behavior Scale, which can be used to assess the severity of an individual’s issue).

We used Indian students as participants in our research because India has the largest total number of users on Facebook (a place where selfies proliferate), even if the total penetration is lower than the United States. We also knew India accounts for more selfie-related deaths in the world compared to any other country, with a reported 76 deaths reported out of a total of 127 worldwide since 2014. Those deaths usually occurred when people attempted to take selfies in dangerous contexts, such as in water, from heights, in the proximity of moving vehicles, like trains, or while posing with weapons.

The study began by using focus group interviews with 225 young adults with an average age of 21 years old to gather an initial set of criteria that underlie selfitis. Example questions used during the focus group interviews included What compels you to take selfies?, Do you feel addicted to taking selfies? and Do you think that someone can become addicted to taking selfies? It was during these interviews that participants confirmed there appeared to be individuals who obsessively take selfies — or, in other words, that selfitis does at least exist. But, since we did not collect any data on the negative psychosocial impacts, we cannot yet claim that the behavior is a mental disorder; negative consequences of the behavior is a key part of that determination.

Based on the findings, we constructed a scale of the six main motivations of selfie takers and rigorously tested it on a further 400 participants, also young adults.

The six components of selfitis, tested on the further participants, were: environmental enhancement (e.g., taking selfies in specific locations to feel good and show off to others); social competition (e.g., taking selfies to get more ‘likes’ on social media); attention-seeking (e.g., taking selfies to gain attention from others); mood modification (e.g., taking selfies to feel better); self-confidence (e.g., taking selfies to feel more positive about oneself); and subjective conformity (e.g., taking selfies to fit in with one’s social group and peers).

Our findings showed that those with chronic selfitis were more likely to be motivated to take selfies due to attention-seeking, environmental enhancement and social competition. The results suggest that people with chronic levels of selfitis are seeking to fit in with those around them, and may display symptoms similar to other potentially addictive behaviors.

With the existence of the condition apparently confirmed, we hope that further research will be carried out to understand more about how and why people develop this potentially obsessive behaviour, and what can be done to help people who are the most affected. However, the findings of our research do not indicate that selfitis is a mental disorder based on the findings of this study — a claim made in many of the news reports about our study, possibly demonstrating how deep the stereotypes about selfie-takes run — only that selfitis appears to be a condition that requires further research to fully assess the psychosocial impacts that the behavior might have on the individual.

If you are interested in assessing your own behavior, click here to download the self-assessment test in the Appendix of the paper or take the survey above.