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Selfies and Ethics

April 10, 2014

Last week, the British newspaper The Mirror told the story of a teenager, Danny Bowman, 19, who had become addicted to Selfies. He became so obsessed by them that he would spend up to 10 hours a day, taking photos of himself. One day, having failed once again to take what he thought was the perfect Selfie, he tried to kill himself. He was suffering from what psychologists call Body Dysmorphic Disorder- an excessive anxiety about personal appearance.

Self-portraits are not new. Rembrandt, Durer and Van Gogh all made their self-portraits. (It is interesting to note that mirrors were not invented until the 15th Century.) Going further back in history, Egyptian and Babylonian monarchs erected gigantic sculptures of themselves for people to see. We could consider these sculptures as a grandiose expression of self.

Today, technology makes it possible not only for the powerful and wealthy to engage in self-portraiture but also for a much wider segment of the general population as well. As Prof. Pamela Rutledge of UCLA writes in Psychology Today: “Cell phones and Instagram have democratized self-portraitures, making it less precious and turning it into Selfies.”  In March 2014, Instagram, the most commonly used platform for Selfies, had more than 200 million users and over a billion photos uploaded.

Psychologists also tell us that self-image is important. Christine Erickson writes in her article, The Social Psychology of the Selfie published by Mashable.com, that: “(A Selfie) is how we define ourselves, and present for others to see. We rely on others perceptions, judgment and appraisal to develop our social self.”  I good picture of yourself will do wonders for your self-esteem.

I believe that the current trend in Selfies is more an expression of self-centeredness than one of narcissism. In preparing for this blog, I have asked a few of my colleagues, whether they would take selfies it they were not allowed to show them to anyone. The unanimous responses were that they would not. It seems that the primary reason people take Selfies is to show them to others.

What do Selfies have to do with ethics? One should presume that any societal phenomenon of this magnitude must somehow have a connection to ethics. What could it be?

I am sure that there are many legal and ethical issues surrounding the use of Selfies.

I personally believe that Selfies are essentially about self, while ethics deals primarily with how our behavior impacts others.

I remember seeing a cartoon in a Swiss magazine showing Mother Theresa coming up on a stage to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.  As she approached the podium, she immediately turned the spotlight that was supposed to be illuminating her onto a small child dying of hunger in Africa.

I do believe that the less self- centered our society is the more ethical it will become.

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