If you look at your favorite pseudoscientific website, you will probably find a story about how taking “selfies” (or photos of yourself) is indicative of narcissism and mental illness. Certainly, most sites we name on our “list of bad sources” have posted this at least once, even if they have since deleted it (you can check this using Google searches). This story originated, as much pseudoscience does, based on false reporting and an anecdote.

selfie

Christina Novelli taking a selfie at a concert via wikipedia commons

The false reporting took the form of a supposed announcement by the APA (American Psychological Association) that taking “selfies” had been classified as a mental disorder. Unfortunately, despite this story not being found anywhere on the APA site, the story went viral immediately. I literally still see this story being presented as if it was fact on a semi-regular basis.

The anecdote, which came to be the “savior” of a news story that never was, centers around self-deluded Danny Bowman. Danny apparently tried to commit suicide because his selfies weren’t good enough…seriously… If that isn’t a first world problem, so to speak, I don’t really know what is. Literally, the story of a single boy was then taken and used as evidence that the posting of selfies was indicative of mental disorder. Keep in mind though that approximately 91% of teenagers (according to the PEW research group) have admitted to taking and posting a selfie.

Fortunately, this viral storm of pseudoscience awoke a few real researchers at the University of North Florida, Jacksonville, who then decided to actually investigate the connection between social media use, selfies, empathy, and narcissism.

What these researchers found, published in April 2014, was that people use social media primarily to remain connected with their friends and family. They investigated the online behavior of about 400 Facebook users, and then gave them a standard questionnaire to measure their narcissistic tendencies. They only found a single link to narcissism: how they rated the attractiveness of their own selfies.

Psychology Today describes the differences observed between men and women, relative to their narcissism and selfies, by saying:

While men were more narcissistic according to the test, narcissistic women were more likely to rate their profile pictures as more physically attractive, glamorous, and cool. This may mean that narcissistic women are more likely to use Facebook as a reflecting pool than narcissistic males.

Literally, the only trait that reflected a person’s narcissism was how highly they valued their own pictures. Not the number of pictures they posted, how often they changed their status, how many friends they had, or how much they chatted. Although Facebook may be a tool for narcissists in their quest for excessive validation, it serves as a reflecting pool for us all.