In a classic Greek myth, a prideful hunter named Narcissus is so enthralled by his own reflection that he admires it for days. Unable to abandon the sight of himself—even to acquire food—this obsession with his own image eventually causes his demise.
And he didn’t even have a smartphone.
“Selfie”—short for self-portrait photograph—was Oxford English Dictionary’s “word of the year” for 2013. Social media makes it easy to see why.
With the advent of front-facing cameras on newer iPhones and other devices, it has become more convenient than ever to snap a picture of yourself and post it to social media. Twitter and Instagram feeds are flooded with selfies—whether it’s teens pouting, making silly faces or hugging their friends as they photograph themselves.
“I like being able to manipulate how I look. When other people take pictures of me, I don’t know how it’s going to turn out.” — Lydia Xiong
According to a February 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center in Washington D.C., 55 percent of Millennials (ages 18 to 29) have posted a selfie to a social media site. Older generations don’t get anywhere close to that number.
With such an enormous group of teen and Millennial selfie-takers, there is something about the phenomenon that specifically appeals to young people. By taking and uploading selfies to social media, teens acquire likes, comments and exposure. Selfies also allow teenagers to document their activities and become the center of conversation.
“As teenagers, we think the whole world revolves around us,” said Lydia Xiong, a junior at St. Croix Preparatory Academy. “Sometimes when you take selfies, it’s not just you posing and looking cute. It’s sometimes you and your friends just hanging out and you want to record your experience.”
CAPTURING THE MOMENT
At the Oscars in March, Ellen DeGeneres snapped a celebrity-packed selfie that accumulated more than three million retweets—an all-time record for Twitter. That photo is not only documentation of a major event, it’s a representation of our modern era.
Any teenager who takes a selfie is capturing a moment in time and recording his or her personal history.
“Whenever I would feel bad about myself, I would just scroll back to the first selfie and hold down the key and watch myself kind of subtly grow up,” said Ruth Foster, a junior at St. Paul Central High School, who stores several selfies on her computer.
Selfies can also be reassuring and grounding for teens battling self image issues. It’s another reason for their popularity: They give teens power over the way they present and view themselves, Xiong said.
“I like being able to manipulate how I look,” she said. “When other people take pictures of me, I don’t know how it’s going to turn out.”
Added Foster: “I like being able to … control images that are taken of me. A lot of that is born out of self-consciousness about my appearance, or about how I should look or want to look.”
With selfie overload crowding the social media landscape—and as Oxford displayed, influencing our language choices—perhaps it was inevitable that scorn and judgment would surround the trend.
“#Selfie,” a parody song released in January by The Chainsmokers, uses spoken word lyrics like, “Oh my God, Jason just texted me. Should I go home with him? I guess I took a good selfie” to mock its intended audience. The song also highlights the use of selfies for flirting and attention seeking, and the music video bombards viewers with selfies splashing across the screen.
Despite the way it portrays selfie-takers, “#Selfie” landed on Billboard.com’s Hot 100 list.
“Of course people would make fun of a way for teen girls to capture their own agency and take hold of their own image,” Foster said.
Or as Pamela Rutledge, a psychologist and director of the Media Psychology Research Center in Boston, recently told the Star Tribune: (Selfies) “violate some of those Protestant work ethic kind of values, how you’re not supposed to brag and you’re not supposed to glorify yourself and all of that.”
It’s not really surprising that adults don’t always appreciate selfies the way teens do, said Niall Ingaldson, a freshman at St. Anthony Village High School.
“They don’t understand because when they were our age, they didn’t have the technology to take a picture of themselves. Even if you took a picture of yourself, you couldn’t see yourself as you were taking it,” he said.
Amanda Adams, a history teacher at Eagan High School and the leader of the Minnesota History Center’s Teen Advisory Council, doesn’t see selfie culture as “vindictive or malevolent.”
Rather, today’s youth have a mastery of technology that allows them to be expressive in a fun way. If adults had been able to do the same as teens, “we certainly would have,” she said.
“The selfie phenomenon is certainly reflective of the age in which we live. I think it’s definitely a trend or a sign of the youth culture,” Adams said. “It’s about them and about their perspective and what they’re doing right now.”