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Are selfies a sign of self-obsession?

| Monday, Dec. 29, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Michael McParlane | For Trib Total Media

At 9:40 p.m. on an otherwise dull Thursday, 159.2 million selfies were posted on Instagram.

A song has been written in its honor, snagging more than 257 million views on YouTube, and, in 2013, it was crowned “Word of the Year” by Oxford Dictionary. In fact, if things go as expected, by the time 2014 comes to a close, there will be 237 billion more of them floating around.

All hail the selfie. Our new favorite way to celebrate ... ourselves.

“When the students are all taking photos of themselves and sending them as a form of communication, and the elaborate filters that go with them, it's fascinating. It's absolutely fascinating. It's bizarre,” says Dr. W. Keith Campbell, professor and head of the department of psychology at the University of Georgia.

So fascinating had it become, he decided to spearhead a study to break down the psychology behind the phenomenon.

In the meantime, those sick of all the selfie love can take heart: An Internet task force has been specifically created to monitor the worst offenders, imploring them to redeem their selfie sins with a donation to charity.

“Call us crusaders,” says the Selfie Police website. “We are a team of students determined to define a generation by more than ridiculous amounts of self-taken bathroom mirror photos.”

Technology meets culture

Just how bad has our obsession gotten?

Type “are selfies” into a Google search bar and watch as a slew of auto fills are triggered, asking whether they are “ruining your relationship?” “Bad?” “Vain?” “A sign of insecurity?” “Dangerous?”

In July, a man was nearly killed as he tried to take one during the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain, setting off a police search for “the selfie man.” So problematic has the issue become, festival organizers have begun cracking down on selfie offenders with the imposition of huge fines.

“Doing anything distracting, whether taking a selfie or otherwise, seems ill-advised when a high level of focus is crucial to maintaining a good, safe outcome,” says psychiatrist Dr. Matthew Zimmerman, a New York City psychiatrist whose specialities include narcissistic behaviors.

Ill-advised or not, that kind of presentation begs the question of whether or not we're desperately trying to communicate something more than just a good hair day.

“There's a history of it, with people doing self portraits and things — usually artists,” Campbell says. “I think a lot of it is the technology meeting the culture. You have technology allowing you to take the photo and send it very quickly with social networks like Instagram. And you put these two things together and it's like a vector, to use epidemiological terms, of presenting yourself.”

Too close for comfort

On the flip side, there's so much talk these days about loving yourself as you are, could the silver lining be that we've finally gotten over our self-esteem issues? After all, if we're loving ourselves from every angle, could that mean a healthy body image is finally in vogue?

“My hunch, and again, there's no science behind this, but my hunch is that if you look at yourself all the time through the lens of selfies, you're actually going to become more self-conscious,” Campbell says. “That's one of those things that they find with anyone that's on TV a lot — you start looking at yourself and seeing flaws in yourself.”

According to a 2014 report released by the International Communications Research for the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, Campbell may be on to something. Across the board, members reported seeing a 33 percent increase in requests for plastic surgery as a result of patients being more self-aware of their looks, thanks to social-media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Hot on the list? Nose jobs and Botox.

But all that photo-taking doesn't exactly equate a sharp focus on reality, says Dr. Leo McCafferty, past president of the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery and the Allegheny County Medical Society.

“I have had a couple patients come in who felt like their nose looked a lot bigger than they thought it was,” Mccafferty says. “Then, when we take a few good pictures with a portrait lens, lo and behold, what they see isn't what they really look like on some of the social-media pictures.

“They'll say, ‘Some pictures I look great, other pictures I look terrible,' and it does have to do with the amateur pictures. The lenses that aren't so great, distortion can occur when you're too close to a camera lens,” he says.

While some see selfies leading us down the road to narcissism, others consider it to be a relatively harmless pastime.

“Many otherwise benign behaviors can pose a risk to a person's health or well-being when carried out in an extreme or unusual way,” Zimmerman says. “From my point of view, there's nothing inherently unhealthy about ‘selfies.' ”

Kate Benz is a features writer for Trib Total Media and can be reached at kbenz@tribweb.com, 412-380-8515 or via Twitter @KateBenzTRIB.

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