It’s hard to say just when and where the term “selfie” was coined, but 2013 was certainly the year when selfies conquered the world.
It seemed that people — particularly young people who spend a great deal of time on social media sites — just couldn’t stop taking pictures of themselves. Selfie was even elected “Word of the Year” for 2013 by the Oxford English Dictionary.
For most people, the ongoing craze is a harmless way to take advantage of a trend in order to be a little self-indulgent. But a few stories suggest that an overabundance of selfies may indicate a greater problem for some people.
The most significant story of this kind is that of British teenager Danny Bowman, who became so obsessed with taking and posting selfies that he would post 200 pictures a day to various social media sites. The 19-year-old was obsessed with taking the perfect selfie, and when he felt that he had failed he became suicidal and attempted to kill himself with an overdose of pills. The cycle of selfie-posting began in 2011 after he was turned down by a modeling agency, and he grew more depressed as he continued his unsuccessful attempts to take a “perfect” portrait.
Are selfies an addiction?
Many stories have been quick to label Bowman’s problem as an addiction to selfies. However, there is a lot more going on in this particular story. Bowman was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder and body dysmorphic disorder, and was treated for these two illnesses at a London clinic in addition to receiving treatment for technology addiction. Body dysmorphic disorder commonly appears with obsessive-compulsive disorder or another kind of anxiety disorder.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, is characterized by obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors that can arise directly from these obsessions. For example, a person obsessed with germs may develop a compulsive need to wash his or her hands repeatedly. People with body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), become preoccupied with a minor or imaginary flaw in their appearance. This preoccupation can dominate their thoughts to such an extent that they are unable to conduct their lives normally.
Chasing the perfect portrait
BDD can lead people to feel so distressed and ashamed of their appearance that they seclude themselves from society. During his cycle of compulsive selfie-taking, Bowman dropped out of school and rarely went outside for six months. He also lost 15 pounds in an effort to make himself happier with his appearance and to improve his self-portraits.
This is not to say that Bowman’s case did not involve an element of addiction. Internet/social media addiction is receiving more attention from researchers and the public alike, and Bowman received treatment for technology addiction to help him break his habit of snapping and posting. Psychologists now say that selfie addiction may be a genuine risk for people if an underlying mental illness is present.
However, labeling Bowman’s troubles as selfie addiction is a major oversimplification of the overall nature of his illness. It’s tempting, because addiction is a concept that most people feel they understand, while BDD and to a lesser extent OCD are more foreign to many people. But it can be a disservice to people who are truly suffering from addiction (and those who want addiction to be viewed as the serious illness that it is) to quickly label any and all compulsive behavior as addiction. It can also be a disservice to the people for whom addiction may only be one part of a complex mental health picture.
Compulsive selfie posting or any other excessive use of social media shouldn’t be ignored, but it may be more useful as an indication of some underlying mental disorder. Psychologists report that, since the rise of selfies, repeated self-portraits have become a common symptom of people with BDD. Anxiety and depression can also lead people to seek attention and approval through social media posts, and create a cycle as they continue to seek more exposure.