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The Troubling Psychology of "Selfies"

Selfies are everywhere. Oxford dictionary even named “selfie” the word of the year in 2013. The selfie taken by Ellen DeGeneres and other celebrities during the Oscars broke twitter. Even President Obama and the Pope have taken them. And yet, these seemingly harmless, albeit perhaps annoying, pictures could represent a growing problem of narcissism and other related psychological issues in society.

Photo courtesy of Benjamin Watson/Flickr.

Photo courtesy of Benjamin Watson/Flickr.

In Psychology Today, Dr. Pamela Rutledge argued that while for most taking selfies is a harmless act, for some it can lead to mental health problems. With the rise of the selfie in popular culture has come an obsession for some people with perfecting their image.

The most extreme case of this obsession is Danny Bowman, a teenager who became depressed and attempted suicide after being unable to take what he called the "perfect" selfie. He would take hundreds of selfies a day in his attempt to find the perfect one, sometimes for several hours a day, and lost a dramatic amount of weight.

While this sounds extreme, several psychologists have connected obsessive selfie taking, like in the case of Danny Bowman, with Body Dysmorphic Disorder. In the case of BDD, the person's self-image is distorted, making him or her obsessed with what one perceives as appearance defects.

Photo courtesy of Dove/Facebook

Photo courtesy of Dove/Facebook

Body Dysmorphic Disorder is associated with suicide. Some studies suggest that around 25% of people with BDD attempt suicide at some point. Psychologist Dr. David Veale notes an alarming connection between selfies and BDD in his own practice.

However, there are positive psychological aspects to selfies as well. They put people in control of how others see their image. Dove, for example, used them as part of its Real Beauty campaign to promote healthy body image in young women.

Like many other trends that people view negatively, the problem is not necessarily with selfies themselves. The danger lies in the opportunity they provide to develop obsession or addiction, which could cause more serious problems.