Is ‘selfie culture’ damaging to young mental health?

This was one of three features I submitted as part of my Final Major Project – I hope you enjoy it!


Experts have linked ‘selfie culture’ with rising statistics for anxiety and depression. 

Psychologists have expressed concerns that rising figures for Common Mental Disorders (CMD’s) such as depression and anxiety is putting pressure on young people, girls in particular, to look ‘perfect’ while comparing themselves to unrealistic edited images on social media.

Social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat have been linked with encouraging young people to have feelings of depression and anxiety.

Instagram, Facebook and Twitter all give the option to ‘filter’ images before posting, creating an unrealistic representation of young people.

Twenty-year-old Lauren Westgarth from Bournemouth posts selfies regularly. She described her thought process when posting online: “I only tend to take selfies when I’m dressed up with lots of makeup on, even then I take a few in different lights and angles to make sure any blemishes or imperfections are covered or blurred.

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Lauren says she will “always put a filter on my photos before posting online. My favourite filters are those that blur my skin to make it appear clearer or thinner.”

She added that once she has posted a photo of herself she will “check how many likes I have.”

However, Lauren believes that posting online isn’t all negative she sees posting selfies as a “good way of remembering events, almost like a diary”.


NHS Digital Report

New data from NHS Digital report shows that the number of young patients being treated on hospital wards has risen by 42 per cent in just one year, with thousands of pre-teen children being diagnosed with depression and/or anxiety.

The NSPCC have also revealed that their Childline service has seen a 35% increase in calls about anxiety from children in the past twelve months.

In these cases, anxiety can appear with children as young as eight, with girls seven times more likely to contact the organisation than boys.

Research from the charity have identified a combination of personal and political issues causing this sharp rise. One main factor is social media as one source of young people’s main concerns.

An spokesman for NSPCC, Greg Flucker, said:

“An increasing number of children and young people are being struck down with anxiety due to a number of different causes.

“Social media plays a part in how children and young people perceive themselves and their life with many feeling under pressure to meet completely unrealistic expectations, creating or compounding feelings of anxiety that if left untreated can become crippling.”


How much time do young people spend on social media?

Nearly everyone in the UK between the ages of 16 and 24 uses social media on a weekly basis, according to the most recent report from Ofcom (the UK’s communications regulator).

Pecentage of age groups that use social media weekly
99% of 16-24 years old use social media weekly, according to Ofcom.


How much of an impact can it have?

Twenty-year old, Katy Major has suffered with bulimia and self-harm issues since she was eleven. She believes that posting selfies’ is more than just taking a photograph.

She said: “Seeing images on social media makes me more conscious of what I post. It makes me feel like there’s an expectation of what I’m supposed to look like. I feel ashamed of how I look or what I’m doing if it doesn’t fit what I’ve seen”


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Katy believes that it depends on how sensitive a person is as to whether selfie-culture effects them.

She went on to say: “Sometimes I worry about how many likes and comments get because if I don’t get many I feel like the picture or post had been ‘disapproved of’ or I’m annoying people by posting and therefore won’t post at all. Other times I think it’s been so long that I haven’t posted so I need to post no matter how many likes or comments it gets because I feel like people will forget about me”

Katy admitted that receiving positive recognition from ‘selfies’ posted is almost addictive: “I think it’s addictive to receive likes and comments on selfies because it is a form of validation socially.

“It’s like you’re being accepted by other people for how you look, and the amount of likes you get is directly related to your self-esteem, so you want to keep getting more likes to reinforce or build on your self-esteem.”


What do the experts say?

A study in 2015 by The University of Bristol looked at the impact of Facebook on young women’s body image, concerns and mood.

Female participants aged 17-25 at a UK university were given 10 minutes to browse either Facebook, a fashion website (Cosmopolitan) or a body-neutral website (a home craft website). Following this they were asked a series of questions.

The study found women reported being in a more negative mood after viewing Facebook compared to the craft website.

Women were also more prone to appearance comparison, viewing Facebook led to a greater desire to change their face, hair and/or skin, compared to those who had viewed the fashion website.

Researcher, Jasmine Farody, was part of the study. She said: We found that browsing Facebook did not impact all women’s body image but it did have a negative impact on their mood.

“We also found that browsing Facebook made women, who have a tendency to make appearance comparisons, want to change aspects of their face, skin, or hair.”

Jasmine mentions, “I think an important message to take away from this study is that browsing Facebook doesn’t impact all women’s body image and that is it women who may be more concerned with their appearance in the first place for whom browsing can impact their body image.”

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It is thought that as many as one in six young people will experience an anxiety-related problem, according to the counselling directory.

Psychotherapist Dr. Aaron Balick, and author of The Psychodynamics of Social Networking agrees, with the study in that young people comparing themselves to peers can be more damaging than comparing to celebrities.

He said: “When you compare yourself to a distant celebrity, you have an awareness that there is a level of fantasy involved, like Photoshop and personal-trainers, personal chefs, personal coaches that keep them unattainably ‘beautiful’.

“However, on social media, we’re comparing ourselves to people that we know who are putting their best selves forward, so the urge to compare is stronger.”

Dr Balick goes on to say that although social media doesn’t cause these insecurities it does provide an environment where young people will compare themselves to others.

 “Comparison of the self to others is completely normal and happens offline as much as it does online. The problem with comparison on social media is that you tend to compare yourself with others who are presenting only the best aspects of themselves – and though we sort of know this, we still compare ourselves negatively.

“Once one gets into a cycle of negative self-comparison, it can become compulsive – with lots of checking over and over of social media profiles in a way that can be quite damaging to the sense of self.

“Being online makes you vulnerable. Twenty-four hours a day your presentation of self is laid bare to other people’s comments, opinions, or just being ignored. Many young people are experiencing anxiety and depression due to the importance that their online existence has for them.” 

He believes that more education should be introduced to prepare young people for the impact online activity may have on them.

“What education doesn’t cover is the emotional aspect of online life. For example, excluding people from your What’s App groups, posting hateful things about people on Facebook, asking permission from friends before putting their photos up. I think we need to develop a culture of respect and emotional intelligence online, and I think that’s lacking.”

‘Beauty standards have changed’

Twenty-year-old Amy Holman posts on her social media regularly. She believes that there are pressures on young people to look a certain way: “The beauty standards have changed and young girls feel the need to look like celebrities such as The Kardashians to feel beautiful”.

Amy Holman regularly posts selfies on Instagram but says that the site is full of “fake people” who want to look like celebrities.

She believes this could be a cause for the increase in depression and anxiety, however adds “I feel that social media is taken ever so seriously nowadays and people forget that it is a virtual world… people have to understand that it’s a dream world, people portray themselves differently on things like Twitter and Instagram.”

She admitted to posting a lot of ‘selfies’ but says she wants to come off some social media sites in the future: “I’m most likely to remove myself off of Instagram in the future”. 

For support young people can contact Childline online, on the phone (0800 1111), or via the ‘For Me’ app.

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