Posted by drmarkgriffiths
In March 2014, the Daily Mirror published the story of Danny Bowman, a teenage ‘selfie addict’ who allegedly took up to 10 hours a day taking 200 selfies, dropped out of school, and tried to kill himself when he was unable take the perfect photo of himself. Taking selfies has become a very popular activity, particularly amongst teenagers and young adults. However, selfie-taking is more than just the taking of a photograph and can include the editing of the colour and contrast, changing backgrounds, and adding other effects, before uploading the picture onto a social media platform. These added options and the use of integrative editing has further popularized selfie-taking behaviour. From a psychological perspective, the taking of selfies is a self-oriented action which allows users to establish their individuality and self-importance and is also associated with personality traits such as narcissism. In an interview for the Daily Mirror, Bowman said that:
“I was constantly in search of taking the perfect selfie and when I realised I couldn’t I wanted to die. I lost my friends, my education, my health and almost my life. The only thing I cared about was having my phone with me so I could satisfy the urge to capture a picture of myself at any time of the day. “I finally realised I was never going to take a picture that made the craving go away and that was when I hit rock bottom. People don’t realise when they post a picture of themselves on Facebook or Twitter it can so quickly spiral out of control. It becomes a mission to get approval and it can destroy anyone. It’s a real problem like drugs, alcohol or gambling. I don’t want anyone to go through what I’ve been through. People would comment on [my selfies], but children can be cruel. One told me my nose was too big for my face and another picked on my skin. I started taking more and more to try to get the approval of my friends. I would be so high when someone wrote something nice but gutted when they wrote something unkind. [Taking lots of selfies sounds trivial and harmless but that’s the very thing that makes it so dangerous. It almost took my life, but I survived and I am determined never to get into that position again.”
While Bowman’s case is extreme, it doesn’t mean that obsessive selfie-taking is a trivial condition. Bowman was diagnosed as having (and eventually treated for) body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) which at its simplest level, is a distressing, handicapping, and/or impairing preoccupation with an imagined or slight defect in body appearance that the sufferer perceives to be ugly, unattractive, and/or deformed. Bowman’s psychiatrist, Dr. David Veale (one of the world’s most foreknown experts on BDD) said that: “Danny’s case is particularly extreme. But this is a serious problem. It’s not a vanity issue. It’s a mental health one which has an extremely high suicide rate.”
To date, there has been very little research on ‘selfie addiction’ and most of what has been academically published (both theorizing and empirical research studies) has tended to come from psychiatrists and psychologists in India. The main reasons for this are that (i) no other country has more Facebook users than India, and (ii) India accounts for more selfie deaths in the world compared to any other country with 76 deaths reported from a total of 127 worldwide. For instance, the death on February 1, 2016, of the 16-year old Dinesh Kumar killed by a train in Chennai while taking a selfie was reported widely in the media.
In 2014, there were a handful of separate media reports all reporting that ‘selfie addiction’ had been recognized by psychologists and psychiatrists as a genuine mental disorder. On March 31, 2014, a news story appeared in the Adobo Chronicles website that the American Psychiatric Association (APA) had classed ‘selfitis’ (i.e., the obsessive taking of selfies) as a new mental disorder.
The article claimed that selfitis was “the obsessive compulsive desire to take photos of one’s self and post them on social media as a way to make up for the lack of self-esteem and to fill a gap in intimacy”. The same article also claimed there three levels of the disorder – borderline (“taking photos of one’s self at least three times a day but not posting them on social media”), acute (“taking photos of one’s self at least three times a day and posting each of the photos on social media”), and chronic (“uncontrollable urge to take photos of one’s self round the clock and posting the photos on social media more than six times a day”). The story was republished on numerous news sites around the world but it soon became clear the story was a hoax. However, many of the academic papers exploring the concept of ‘selfie addiction’ have reported the story as genuine.
Other academics claim in a rather uncritical way that ‘selfie addiction’ exists. For instance, in 2015, in an article in theInternational Journal of Emergency Mental Health and Human Resilience, Shah claimed that selfie-taking behaviour “classically fits” the criteria of addiction but then fails to say what these criteria are. He then goes on to argue that anyone taking more than 3-5 selfies a day “may be considered as a disease” and that spending more than 5 minutes taking a single selfie or more than 30 minutes per day may also be “considered as disease”. Such proposals add little to the credence of excessive selfie-taking being potentially addictive.
In a 2017 editorial entitled ‘Selfie addiction’ (in the journal Internet and Psychiatry), Singh and Lippmann asserted that knowing about the psychology of selfies and their consequences is important for both individuals and the communities in which they live. They claim that the taking of selfies can sometimes be “inconsiderate of other people, especially when ‘getting the perfect shot’ becomes an obsession”. They claim that excessive selfie clicking can become “a troublesome obsession and may be related to different personality traits” such as psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. More specifically, the argue that:
“Narcissistic people exhibit feelings of superiority and perfection, but also often harbor self-doubt. Those with psychopathy have little compassion about harming others. Persons with Machiavellian traits fulfill their wishes with diminished ethics. All three utilize social websites that allow posting and amending pictures. Individuals with low self-esteem, obsession, and/or hyperactivity also sometimes exhibit high rates of “snapping” selfies”.
In a very brief review of the literature on selfie-taking and mental health in a 2016 issue of the Indian Journal of Health and Wellbeing, Kaur and Vig concluded that selfie addiction was most associated with low self-esteem, narcissism, loneliness and depression. Also in 2016, Sunitha and colleagues also reported similar findings based on their review of selfie-taking in theInternational Journal of Advances in Nursing Management. In an online populist article in 2017 on the rise of the ‘selfie generation’, Tolete and Salarda interviewed a teen development specialist, Dr. Robyn Silverman about how and why adolescents might get hooked on selfie-taking. He said that teens “crave positive feedback to help them see how their see how their identity fits into their world. Social media offers an opportunity to garner immediate information…the selfie generation ends up agonizing over very few likes or one or two negative comments, as if these are the only metrics that will prove they matter. One can only imagine the vulnerability of their still fragile self-esteem in such an environment”.
Other academics have claimed that while the evidence for ‘selfie addiction’ being a social problem is lacking, it does not mean that it could not be a ‘primary pathology’ in times to come. However, there has been very few empirical studies that have examined ‘selfie addiction, and those that have been published suffer from many methodological weaknesses.
For instance, in a 2017 issue of the Journal of Contemporary Medicine and Dentistry, Gaddala and colleagues examined the association between Internet addiction and ‘selfie addiction’ among 402 Indian medical students (262 females). They reported a significant association between selfie dependence and internet dependence. However, they used Shah’s operationalization of ‘selfie addiction’ (the taking of three or more selfies a day; 4% of the total sample), therefore it is unlikely that very few of the participants would have been genuinely addicted to taking selfies.
Singh and Tripathi carried out a very small study on 50 Indian adolescents aged 12-18 years of age (28 females; average age 14.6 years) in 2017 (in the journal SSRN). They found that narcissism and hyperactivity were positively correlated with ‘selfie addiction’ whereas self-image was negatively correlated with ‘selfie addiction’. However, in addition to the very small sample size, the instrument used to assess selfie tendencies had little to do with addiction and simply asked questions about typical selfie behaviour (e.g., how many selfies a day/week are taken, how much time a day is spent taking selfies, are the selfies posted onto social media, etc.)
Finally, a 2017 study in the Journal of Medical Science and Clinical Research by Kela and colleagues examined the more medical effects of excessive selfie-taking. In a survey of 250 Indian students aged 18-25 years (56% females), it was reported that 30% reported lower back ache, 15% suffered stress, 20%, suffered from cervical spondylitis, 25% suffered from headache, and 10% suffered from ‘selfie elbow’ (a tendonitis condition). However, it was unclear from the methodology described to what extent these effects were specifically attributable to selfie-taking.
Taking the academic literature as a whole, there is little evidence – as yet – that ‘selfie addiction’ exists although if stories like Danny Bowman are to be believed, it does appear at least theoretically possible for an individual to become addicted to such an activity.
(Note: some of this material first appeared in the following paper: Griffiths, M.D. & Balakrishnan, J. (2018). The psychosocial impact of excessive selfie-taking in youth: A brief overview. Education and Health, 36(1), 3-5).
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Balakrishnan, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2018). An exploratory study of ‘selfitis’ and the development of the Selfitis Behavior Scale. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11469-017-9844-x.
Barakat, C. (2014). Science links selfies to narcissism, addiction, and low self esteem. Adweek, April 16. Located at: www.adweek.com/socialtimes/selfies-narcissism-addiction-low-self-esteem/147769
Bhattacharyya, R. (2017). Addiction to modern gadgets and technologies across generations. Eastern Journal of Psychiatry, 18(2), 27-37.
Gaddala, A., Hari Kumar, K. J., & Pusphalatha, C. (2017). A study on various effects of internet and selfie dependence among undergraduate medical students. Journal of Contemporary Medicine and Dentistry, 5(2), 29-32.
Grossman, S. (2014). Teenager reportedly tried to kill himself because he wasn’t satisfied with the quality of his selfies. Time, March 24. Located at: http://time.com/35701/selfie-addict-attempts-suicide/
Gupta, R. & Pooja, M. (2016). Selfie an infectious gift of IT to modern society. Global Journal for Research Analysis, 5(1), 278-280.
Kaur, S., & Vig, D. (2016). Selfie and mental health issues: An overview. Indian Journal of Health and Wellbeing, 7(12), 1149-1152.
Kela, R., Khan, N., Saraswat, R., & Amin, B. (2017). Selfie: Enjoyment or addiction? Journal of Medical Science and Clinical Research, 5, 15836-15840.
Lee, R. L. (2016). Diagnosing the selfie: Pathology or parody? Networking the spectacle in late capitalism. Third Text, 30(3-4), 264-27
Senft, T. M., & Baym, N. K. (2015). Selfies introduction – What does the selfie say? Investigating a global phenomenon. International Journal of Communication, 9, 19.
Shah, P.M. (2015). Selfie – a new generation addiction disorder – Literature review and updates. International Journal of Emergency Mental Health and Human Resilience, 17, 602.
Singh, D., & Lippmann, S. (2017). Selfie addiction. Internet and Psychiatry, April 2. Located at: https://www.internetandpsychiatry.com/wp/editorials/selfie-addiction/
Singh, S. & Tripathi, K.M. (2017). Selfie: A new obsession. SSRN, 1-3. Located at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2920945
Sunitha, P. S., Vidya, M., Rashmi, P., & Mamatha, M. (2016). Selfy [sic] as a mental disorder – A review. International Journal of Advances in Nursing Management, 4(2), 169-172.
Posted by drmarkgriffiths
I recently published a response to a debate article by Dr. Vladan Starcevic and his colleagues in the Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry. Unfortunately, my response was restricted to a stringent word limit so I am using my personal blog to provide the original version of my response before it was edited. My published version can be found here. Below is the original version:
The article by Starcevic, Billieux and Schimmenti (2018) made a number of assertions concerning my research with various co-authors. While I am always grateful that my work is being read and cited, some of the assertions made were arguably unfair, misguided and/or not stated in context (and could therefore be construed as untrue). In this short article, I first address some of the claims made about our research into the construct of ‘selfitis’. I then address a few of the wider issues made by Starcevic et al. in relation to behavioural addictions more generally because they used some of my other research into various behavioural addictions to make their arguments.
The construct of ‘selfitis’
Starcevic et al. noted that there has been a trend “to medicalize problematic behaviours” (p.1) and used the example of ‘selfitis’ to make their point. The way the article was written it would appear to the naïve reader that I and my co-author (Janarthan Balakrishnan) had coined the term ‘selfitis’. For instance, the article by Starcevic et al. cites our paper in specific reference to the following assertion:
“Instead of labelling an excessive and sometimes dangerous practice of taking selfies a ‘selfie addiction’, this behaviour was conceptualised as an inflammation-like selfitis (Balakrishnan and Griffiths, in press)”.
This sentence clearly gives the impression that it was Dr. Balakrishnan and I who conceptualised ‘selfitis’ and that our conceptualisation was that it was “inflammation-like”. However, we made it very clear to readers in the very first paragraph of our paper that the concept of ‘selfitis’ originally started a hoax claiming that the ‘disorder’ was to be included in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The original hoax report defined selfitis as “the obsessive compulsive desire to take photos of one’s self and post them on social media as a way to make up for the lack of self-esteem and to fill a gap in intimacy” which we again made clear in the second sentence of our paper. The two studies in our paper were exploratory and merely set out to examine whether there were individuals who were ‘obsessive selfie-takers’. In many parts of their article, Starcevic et al. appear to insinuate that our paper equates ‘selfitis’ with ‘selfie addiction’. For instance, they wrote:
“Interestingly, the components of selfitis that were identified (environmental enhancement, social competition, attention seeking, mood modification, self-confidence and subjective conformity) have practically nothing in common with behavioural addiction…Therefore, selfitis appears to be a construct that is very different from ‘selfie addiction’, and its purported link with compulsivity also seems tenuous” (p.1).
The six components comprising selfitis in our new psychometric tool (the Selfitis Behavior Scale [SBS]) were correctly reported but at no point in our paper did we ever say that ‘selfitis’ was a behavioural addiction. What we did write was that (a) “selfitis is a new construct in which future researchers may investigate further in relation to selfitis addiction and/or compulsion” (p.8), and (ii) “the qualitative focus group data from participants strongly implied the presence of ‘selfie addiction’ although the SBS does not specifically assess selfie addiction” (p.11). They also noted that our published paper on selfitis:
“…did not go unnoticed by the media, always ready to exploit everything that is ‘novel’ and sensational. Thus, one newspaper reported that selfitis, ‘the obsessive need to post selfies’, was a ‘genuine mental disorder’ and quoted one of the authors of the aforementioned article that the existence of selfitis appeared to be confirmed (www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2017/12/15/selfitis-obsessiveneed-post-selfies-genuine-mental-disorder/)…The word has thus become enriched by one more ‘condition’, complete with an assessment tool to establish its severity and a suggestion that people with selfitis may need professional help” (p.2).
While it is true that our study did not go unnoticed by the media (and was reported in hundreds of news stories around the world), only one newspaper journalist ever interviewed me about the study and at no point either in our published paper or in any conversations with the broadcast media did we ever say that ‘selfitis’ was a mental disorder. Our paper simply concluded that obsessive selfie-taking was a condition that appears to exist and made the observation that selfitis has “psychological consequences (which may be both positive and negative)” (p.12). In fact, we talked about the positive aspects of selfitis throughout the discussion section of our paper. In short, I would like it to be made clear that (i) we did not coin the term ‘selfitis’, (ii) we have never anywhere in published print (academic papers or the print media) claimed selfitis is a mental disorder, (iii) we have never claimed selfitis is a behavioural addiction, and (iv) we have never equated ‘selfitis’ with ‘selfie addiction’ (although we have just published another paper briefly reviewing the studies that have examined the concept of ‘selfie addiction’ [i.e., Griffiths & Balakrishnan, 2018]).
The construct of ‘behavioural addiction’
Starcevic et al. also claimed in their article that the term ‘behavioural addiction’ is “vague, misused and applied to an exceptionally wide variety of activities” (p.1). I would argue that the far from being ‘vague’, behavioural addiction has clearly been defined as any addiction that does not involve the ingestion of a psychoactive substance (Griffiths, 1996, 2005). I agree that it is sometimes misused and I have written dozens of populist articles on my personal blog pointing this out. However, I totally disagree that behavioural addiction has been applied to an ‘exceptionally wide variety of activities’. As I noted in a recent paper: “Very few of the thousands of leisure activities that individuals engage in have ever been written about in terms of addiction in peer-reviewed scientific papers” (Griffiths, 2017; p.1719). Starcevic et al. would be hard pushed to name more than about 20 leisure activities that have ever been empirically examined as a possible behavioural addiction. Of the five activities named by Starcevic in an attempt to show the behavioural addiction is being misused three of them were actually just sub-types of more widely researched behavioural addictions (i.e., stock market addiction is a sub-type of gambling addiction, study addiction is a sub-type of work addiction, and dance addiction is a sub-type of exercise addiction) as made clear in my papers on these topics.
Starcevic et al. also noted that a group of scholars (Kardefelt-Winther et al., 2017) “recently made an effort to reach a consensus, promote conceptual rigour and avoid misuse by proposing an open (modifiable) definition of behavioural addiction” (p.1). More specifically, Kardefelt‐Winther et al. provided four exclusion criteria and argued that behaviours should not be classed as a behavioural addiction if:
- “The behaviour is better explained by an underlying disorder (e.g. a depressive disorder or impulse-control disorder).
- The functional impairment results from an activity that, although potentially harmful, is the consequence of a willful choice (e.g. high-level sports).
- The behaviour can be characterized as a period of prolonged intensive involvement that detracts time and focus from other aspects of life, but does not lead to significant functional impairment or distress for the individual.
- The behaviour is the result of a coping strategy” (p.1710)
I doubt anyone researching in the behavioural addiction would disagree with the third exclusion criterion because to have a genuine behavioural addiction, the behaviour has to comprise significant functional impairment or distress for the individual. However, I would point out that if these criteria were applied to substance abuse, very few substance users would ever be classed as addicted (Griffiths, 2017). More specifically, I have written elsewhere that three of the four exclusion criteria proposed by Kardefelt‐Winther et al. (2017) are simply untenable:
“For instance, it is proposed that any behaviour in which functional impairment results from an activity that is a consequence of wilful choice should not be considered an addiction. I cannot think of a single addictive behaviour that when the person first started engaging in the behaviour (e.g., drinking alcohol, illicit drug-taking, gambling) was not engaged in wilfully…Also, not being classed as an addiction if the behaviour is secondary to another comorbid behaviour (e.g., a depressive disorder) or is used as a coping strategy again means that some other substance addictions (e.g., alcoholism) would not be classed as genuine addictive behaviours using such exclusion criteria because many substance-based addictions are used as coping strategies and/or are symptomatic of other underlying pathologies” (Griffiths, 2017; pp.1718-1719).
Throughout my 30 years of research into behavioural addiction, I have never simply looked at a behaviour and claimed that it cannot be potentially addictive. Using my own operational criteria for what I believe constitutes a genuine addiction (i.e., salience, conflict, tolerance, withdrawal, mood modification, and relapse; Griffiths, 1966, 2005) very few individuals would be classed as being addicted to activities such as sex, work, exercise, or gaming. However, if there is evidence of what I consider to be the core components of addiction in activities that others believe should not be pathologised (e.g., dancing or academic study), I would not choose to ignore such evidence if such activities caused significant functional impairment and distress for the individuals concerned.
Balakrishnan, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2018). An exploratory study of ‘selfitis’ and the development of the Selfitis Behavior Scale. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction. Epub ahead of print. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11469-017-9844-x
Griffiths, M.D. (1996). Behavioural addictions: An issue for everybody? Journal of Workplace Learning 8(3): 19-25.
Griffiths, M.D. (2005). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use 10: 191-197.
Griffiths, M.D. (2017). Behavioural addiction and substance addiction should be defined by their similarities not their dissimilarities. Addiction 112: 1718-1720.
Griffiths, M.D. & Balakrishnan, J. (2018). The psychosocial impact of excessive selfie-taking in youth: A brief overview. Education and Health 36(1): 3-5.
Kardefelt-Winther D, Heeren A, Schimmenti A, et al. (2017) How can we conceptualize behavioural addiction without pathologizing common behaviours? Addiction 112: 1709–1715.
Starcevic, V., Billieux, J., & Schimmenti, A. (2018). Selfitis, selfie addiction, Twitteritis: Irresistible appeal of medical terminology for problematic behaviours in the digital age. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, Epub ahead of print. https://doi.org/10.1177/0004867418763532