The selfie effect: how smartphone cameras are distorting our self esteem

The selfie effect: how smartphone cameras are distorting our self esteem

It's no secret that people are taking more pictures than ever before. The ubiquity of smartphones means that we always have a camera at hand, to pick up and start snapping with at a moment's notice. It used to be that we only took pictures for special occasions; now we take them whenever we feel like it. But when it comes to photography, there's one subject that's almost impossible to ignore: the selfie.

Selfies are pretty ubiquitous these days. Everyone has taken at least one by now. Just consider the fact that every 10 seconds, approximately 1,000 selfies are posted to Instagram. That's the equivalent of more than two million rolls of film. However, new scientific evidence seems to suggest that our collective selfie addiction has actually left us confused. Apparently, the way we take selfies is inadvertently is distorting our own image of what our faces look like, and lowering our self-esteem.

This month, in a study published in JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery, Boris Paskhover, assistant professor at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, found that more than 40 per cent of surveyed cosmetic surgeons reported that their patients asked for surgery to correct facial features that they thought looked bad in selfies. However, when shown our own reflection in a mirror, often these "deformities" appeared to vanish suddenly. What's going on? Where has this perception come from?

The biggest gripe appeared to be the size and shape of people's noses. This is because our nose is much closer to the camera lens than the rest of our facial features, and thus looks bigger, broader and longer than it actually is in reality. Think about the way that an object in the foreground of a picture seems to be bigger than objects in the background if you want to understand this phenomenon. The widening effect is often just a simple case of forced perspective; the closer the lens is to the face, the more our selfie becomes an exaggerated caricature of our actual profile.

To prove that this phenomenon was bona fide, the researchers harvested data from national ergonomic databases. They determined the measurements of facial width, nose width, and numbers for facial geometry, and then calculated how these numbers appeared to outwardly change when viewed at different distances and from different angles. Paskhover learned that, when viewed close up, our noses measured around 30 per cent wider in a photograph taken from 12 inches away than one from five feet.

In a recent Reuters interview, Dr Paskhover stated: "Patients under the age of 40 take out their phones and tell me they don’t like how they look. They literally show me a selfie of themselves and complain about their noses. I have to explain that I understand they’re not happy but what they’re seeing is distorted ... At that standard portrait distance of five feet, everything evens off. That’s a classic portrait distance, which is fascinating. Photographers have known this for decades ... Kids need to know that is not what you look like: you look great, don’t worry about that. The selfie is kind of like a fun-house mirror."

This evidence seems to correlate with data provided by graduate student researchers working out of Penn State University. There, the eggheads surveyed 255 of their fellow classmates about their selfie-snapping habits and learned that people who routinely viewed other people's selfies had lower opinions of themselves. The "upward social comparison theory" explains that we use social media as a tool of comparison; it's like the Nasdaq report for our social shares, how we measure up in terms of success, sociality and agreeableness. When we see other people's selfies, and they feature niftier camerawork and better use of filters, we can end up feeling ugly when we compare ourselves to them. Whether you're taking them or viewing them, it seems like they're promoting unrealistic standards.

Credit: Getty

But the good news is that selfies aren't all bad. In fact, certain research has shown that posting selfies can often raise your self-esteem. For instance, the popular Instagram hastag #HealthySelfie has encouraged people to document their fitness regimen by chronicling their dieting and exercise plans through selfies. That way, people can chart their personal development and growth, and gain encouragement from others.

So there you have it. Selfies can cause issues for people, but they're not inherently bad. It's all about how you respond to them. If you keep a positive outlook then selfies can actually give you a confidence boost. So, by all means, keep taking them, but don't forget to look in a mirror from time to time. You never know, the face you see smiling back at you might be a lot better looking than you gave it credit for.


Featured illustration by Egarcigu