The Selfie Craze: Self-Expression? Or Self-Absorption?

03/19/2015 11:39 am ET | Updated May 19, 2015
Tara Moore via Getty Images

Whether we like it or not, image is terribly important to us. We often define ourselves via the appraisals and opinions of others. For many of us, this is how we develop a sense of self -- through the discerning eyes of our fellow humans. It is almost as critical to our existence as oxygen. But without the social context that our self-image is embedded in, we would live in a vacuum with no requisite to have an identity at all. There would be little reason to try and distinguish ourselves from others, or to be competitive or simply to even bother "looking good." So, then our self-image is not only important but an intrinsic part of being human. There's no escaping from it.

Accordingly, perhaps the concept of self-expression for young people via the much maligned "selfie" is highly over-scrutinized by experts. Maybe it's just a part of growing up digital and purely a new kind of "identity development" whose practice is so intermingled into our culture that NOT participating could be worse -- well, probably not, but nonetheless, we cannot deny that it is becoming a necessity to keep pace with a new era of social communication. For that reason, whether it's Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr or Snapchat, the online, photo-centric generation is here to stay.

Maybe one of the many reasons why the selfie is so trendy is because it provides the luxury of depicting ourselves in the way that we desire. Technology gives us the control to shape and manipulate who we are and perhaps mask our flaws and imagined shortcomings in a way that we could not off-line. It's an opportunity for us to showcase ourselves to the world with little or no repercussions. So, when the "likes" and affirming responses to our carefully selected selfies come in large numbers in a given week, the satisfaction of that kind of global validation is immeasurable. The seductive ego boost is hard to pass up. It's almost like a drug.

And, if we are so reliant on that validation to define ourselves in the arena of social media -- where throngs of these positive comebacks could potentially swarm our message "in box" -- it is no mystery why young people do it so often. Therefore, bottom line is, posting selfies make us feel better about ourselves. Nothing wrong with that, right?

However, experts will argue that it's a symptom of self-absorption and part of the "me-me" generation of narcissism that is talked about so often these days. A recent article in Psychology Today called the expanse of social media, "the narcissists reflecting pool." An limitless quarry of prospective followers and admirers.

The desire to be liked, respected and perhaps admired can be considered a normal type of healthy narcissism which we all need in life. But when the hyper-posting becomes a compulsion there could be problems. It also sadly becomes the kind of negative reinforcement that colludes with society's fixation with appearance, status, wealth, materialism, etc.

Psychologist and writer, Peggy Drexler Ph.D, says the selfie obsession is like "looking in the mirror all day long and letting others see you do it." And similarly, like directing and starring in your own reality show and deluding yourself into believing that your so-called followers find your varied selfie poses remarkable and your mundane activities of life somehow stimulating.

Therefore, if the only way we know how to cultivate self-worth is through the online substantiation of being special -- which is usually short-lived -- in the long run we may feel shallow and empty inside. Over time, our self-esteem may plummet because the validation is in a sense, artificial and only skin deep. Sometimes this digital self-expression we speak of is already a product of loneliness, depression or something deeper, which may continue to linger undetected. The veil of narcissism sometimes denies that realization as a defense disguised as confidence and bravado.

In my experience as a psychotherapist over the last 20 years, I have noticed that teens and young adults who have low self-esteem and most importantly, a long history of alienation by their peers are more likely to engage in frequent negative attention-seeking behaviors. Some will do almost anything to get noticed or to fit in with others. According to the same Psychology Today article, these are not the unhealthy narcissists and more of the "I just want to belong in the crowd" people instead of the "I want to be the center of attention" people.

I recently posed the same question to two UCLA college students at a Peete's Coffee last week in Westwood. One of them quite observantly pointed out that the "selfie-centric" young adults her age who are indeed dependent on this synthetic affirmation are "not really living life," she said, "because they are more preoccupied with their position in society than their position as human beings. It's really sad."

Another interesting point is that within that proposed self-absorption is a different crucial problem that never gets addressed. The digital age and social media era have indeed brought us "together" in many wonderful ways and has helped us connect and reach out to people we never thought was possible, but ironically, it also isolates us. We are indeed "connecting," but we are also "disconnecting" from each other because it deprives us of face-to-face human contact. It denies us the vital bonding we all need to feel close and intimate. Humans are social creatures of habit and to feel happy, whole and loved by others, there is no substitute for live human interaction -- the kind of human interaction that is not established by detached, online affiliations and carefully chosen representations of ourselves.

Albert Einstein said it beautifully more than half a century ago. His words are timeless: "It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity."