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The dark side of the ‘selfie’

Local BeSmartOnline! helpline dealt with 18 instances of children posting indecent images of themselves on social networking sites between January and June 2013.

Davinia Hamilton
29 July 2013, 12:00am
Lady Gaga
Lady Gaga


It's easy. You open the camera app on your phone. You raise the device at an angle. You look at the lens with assured self-awareness. You might even smirk - don't want to seem like you're taking yourself too seriously. And then, you take the photo, load it up on Instagram, apply a retro filter that forgives you your flaws, and upload it to Facebook or Twitter.

Within seconds, people have liked it, commented on it. You experience a rush of approbation.

Chances are, if you have a phone, especially one with a forward-facing camera, this ritual is not new to you.

The smartphone self-portrait, known as the 'selfie', is a growing phenomenon. Facebook feeds are flooded with them and '#me' on Instagram now contains over 90 million images.

Taking selfies can tap into the same impulse that leads so many people to keep a diary, to record their thoughts and daily occurrences. People can look back on photos of themselves, recall fond moments or cringe at ill-advised hairstyles and sartorial choices.

It all seems quite harmless, if a little narcissistic, but the ease with which one can now offer oneself up for public consumption and judgment on social networks also has a dark side: the growing trend, especially among adolescent and teenage girls, to take provocative self-portraits which show them in various stages of undress, pouting at the camera and posing in ways which, consciously or not, allude to the visual vocabulary of pornography and the female body as a sexualised object.

According to Dr Joanne Cassar, senior lecturer in youth and community studies at the University of Malta, provocative selfies might reflect a need for admiration, self-promotion and for feeling important.

"The display of oneself through sexy selfies could be motivated by the idea that they make one more desirable and therefore attract more popularity and power and grant entitlement to a greater choice of friends and dating partners," she explains.

Selfies - provocative or not - could provide an outlet for young people to actualise the identities they hope to establish, but could demarcate a rift between their offline personality and their online self-presentation.

"Adolescents might seek to understand who they are through the comments they get on the sexualised photographs of themselves. In this sense, through the sexy selfies, they might attempt to construct and form their identity by confronting, performing and experimenting with different aspects of their multiple selves," says Cassar.

They might also regard selfies as a way to gain validation of their physical appearance, draw attention, boost their self-worth and feel wanted.

According to Cassar, young people are aware of the fact that being "sexy" ascribes them "power", but she argues that the extent to which one internalises or accepts the Western concept of physical attractiveness as the thin, sexy body type varies and plays a crucial role in whether and to what extent young people will experience body image dissatisfaction.

"As they spend more time analysing the selfies ritually, they might become overly critical of their own bodies or other people's bodies. This contributes to the development of body-image dissatisfaction, especially among female adolescents, and could be detrimental to well being."

The effects could be negative for both girls and boys. The former are labelled "sluts" for sexualising themselves, while boys could end up victim to image-based cyberbullying, leading to an increased sense of vulnerability and shame. This is the price we pay for propagating the idea that power results from physical attributes first and foremost.

"When young people purposefully put their own bodies on display for other people's evaluation, internalise outsiders' perspectives of their own body image and regard their body as an object for others' physical pleasure, they self-objectify," says Cassar.

This could lead to increased self-consciousness and self-sexualisation, which occurs when a person finally believes his or her self-worth is based solely on how sexually attractive he or she is.

The practice has caught on in Malta, too. According to Mark Spiteri of the Malta Communications Authority, the local BeSmartOnline! helpline (179) dealt with 18 instances of children posting indecent images of themselves on social networking sites between January and June 2013.

"Some of them actually went a step further, producing a video and posting it on YouTube and other channels," he says.

BeSmartOnline! aims to act as the Safer Internet Centre in Malta. The project was implemented through a partnership coordinated by the MCA and including FSWS, Agenzija Appogg and the Commissioner for Children, with the collaboration of the Police Force Cyber Crime Unit, the Directorate for Educational Services, the Secretariat for Catholic Education, the Independent School Association, the University of Malta and Agenzija Zghazagh.

Spiteri says there are many risks associated with the distribution of selfies: "Once it is online, it is out there for the public to see and will form an integral part of one's digital footprint.

"A study by the Internet Watch Foundation has found that 88% of the self-generated, sexually explicit online images and videos of young people its analysts encountered had been taken from their original location and uploaded to other websites.

What some individuals fail to realise is that whatever is shared online is permanent and even if deleted, it could resurface years later.

"One's digital reputation also crosses over into the offline world. It is even harder to make a positive impact online, since the content uploaded, which is searchable, could give a wrong impression of oneself without the possibility to rectify the impression portrayed," says Spiteri.

A worrying prospect, considering that most employers admit to Googling potential employees and jobseekers.

What can be done to safeguard young people?

Educating them takes precedence, insists Spiteri. Adolescents are usually capable of making reasonable choices when presented with information. However, the BeSmartOnline! project operates a hotline at www.childwebalert.gov.mt, which takes reports from internet users on illegal content and also contributes to the European URL database of sites generating illegal activity.

The national Supportline operates the helpline (179) to answer online calls from children and parents related to problems encountered during their use of online technologies.

BeSmartOnline! also plans to set up a youth panel to empower children and young people to voice their opinions and share their ideas on internet safety.