photograph © Wavebreakmedia Ltd | Dreamstime.com
When the Oxford Dictionary pronounced “selfie” the Word of the Year for 2013, they simply confirmed what parents already knew. Thanks to cellphones equipped with cameras, people, especially kids, are taking lots of pictures of themselves and posting them on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and other social media sites.
The urge to capture an image of one’s self has been controversial ever since Narcissus starved to death because he couldn’t look away from his own reflection. Today parents are asking whether a selfie is an unhealthy form of self-absorption or a creative form of self-expression. The answer, of course, is “It depends.”
For better or worse, taking selfies and getting reactions from others has become one way teens answer the age-old questions: Who am I? And how do I fit into the world? Since there’s no way to put this genie back into the bottle, parents need to help teens think about the role selfies should play in their lives.
Instead of making hard and fast rules that will inevitably get broken, parents can use the selfie explosion as a teachable moment that will help children think about who they want to be and how they present themselves.
What’s the motive?
People have lots of different reasons for taking selfies. Teens, in particular, may want to try out different looks, experiment with creative effects, record experiences, or share experiences with friends. In general, parents can encourage selfies that get a young person to reflect on his own experiences. Unfortunately, because selfies are posted in social media, many teens become hyper-aware of the effect they are having on others. In pursuit of “likes”, teens may post photos that reveal too much or are intended to provoke envy in others. Help your child understand that although everyone enjoys approval from others, self-esteem has to be based on something more solid. Is your child living up to his or her own ideals? Do they have the respect of people they trust? If so, likes and, for that matter, dislikes will matter much less to them.
What’s the platform?
Parents can learn a lot by knowing where a teen prefers posting selfies. Facebook has earned the derogatory name of Fakebook because so much of what shows up there is carefully curated to make the person look happy, normal, and successful. At the other extreme, Snapchat tends to be used for photos that are funny, outrageous, or provocative. Because the selfie is supposed to disappear in a few seconds, there’s more of a sense that anything goes. On Instagram, selfies tend to be more carefully composed, and users are often aware that they are playing a part for the camera. Talk to your child about where he or she posts, and why that’s their preferred platform.
How frequent are posts?
Many young people go through a phase in which they want to document everything that happens in their lives. Although these photos may be meaningful to your child, encourage her to be selective about what goes online. One research study found that, instead of promoting closeness, posting too many selfies actually decreases the sense of connection. You may also want to talk about how taking pictures alters and may diminish an experience. In one interesting study, researchers found that young people on a trip to a museum were much more likely to remember what they had seen if they weren’t taking photos.
What about editing?
Loving the face and body you have can be challenging in adolescence, so kids are often tempted to use tools that will “improve” their looks. Some apps add filters, frames, and splashes of color. Others make it possible to alter the photo itself, airbrushing out flaws and doing what one commentator called “selfie surgery.” Talk to your child about what tools they use to change their selfies. Is this a digital version of dress-up? Where do they get their ideas about how people “should” look? What are the complications of looking one way in a photo and another in real life?
Are sexy selfies OK?
In a culture saturated with sexual images, it’s not surprising that young people want to imitate what they see. This is one area where rules may actually be helpful, but before you talk to your child, think about your own sense of what’s appropriate. Are you okay with photos of kids in swimsuits? What about pajamas or underwear? Is it okay for a teen to post a selfie from bed? In front of the bathroom mirror? Coming out of the shower? How do you feel about the sexy pout aka the duck face? Sometimes, for pre-teens and teens, the simplest rule is the best — if you’d be embarrassed to show the photo to your Mom, don’t put it online.
How about an unselfie now and then? Most adults find they are happiest when they think less about themselves and more about others. Give your child a glimpse of this possibility by encouraging unselfies that highlight connections with other people or activities done for the common good. Some people have also begun using unselfies to promote ideas and causes that make the world a better place. You’ll find examples you can share with your child at unselfie.me.
The point of all of these conversations is to bring selfies out of the shadows so kids can think more clearly about what they are doing. When selfies make young people more self-aware, they can definitely be a constructive part of growing up.
Carolyn Jabs, M.A., raised three computer-savvy kids including one with special needs. She is working on a book about constructive responses to conflict. For more, visit growing-up-online.com.