How Looking at Selfies Affects Your Happiness

New research suggests you might want to take a break.

woman-taking-selfie
Photo by Tara Moore / Getty Images

Love them or hate them, selfies have become a staple of social-media culture. Now a new study suggests that the ubiquitous smartphone self portraits don’t just have psychological implications for the people taking them; they can also have a real impact on their friends and followers, as well.

According to Penn State University researchers, viewing frequent selfies is linked to a decrease in self-esteem and life satisfaction. Their findings come from an online survey of 225 social media users with an average age of 33, 80 percent of whom were active on Facebook. The participants also used sites like Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Tumblr, and Tinder.

We tend to compare ourselves to others when we see these photos—often carefully curated photos—the authors wrote about their findings, which can lead to feelings of loneliness, exclusion, or disappointment with our own lives.

Somewhat surprisingly, the researchers did not find any connection between posting frequency and self-esteem or life satisfaction. (Other research, however, has suggested that the quest for the perfect photo can seriously undermine real-life happiness.)

In this study, viewing behavior seemed to be more important: The more people were exposed to selfies from other people, the lower their levels of self-esteem and life satisfaction.

"People usually post selfies when they're happy or having fun," said co-author and mass communications graduate student Ruoxu Wang, in a press release. "This makes it easy for someone else to look at these pictures and think … his or her life is not as great as theirs."

When the researchers broke their results down based on personality traits, they did find one exception. People who expressed a strong desire to appear popular actually got self-esteem and life-satisfaction boosts from viewing selfies. Doing so may somehow satisfy their need for popularity, the researchers say, although the reason why isn’t entirely clear.

The study results also found a difference between selfies and “groupies,” or selfie-style pictures featuring more than one person. On average, looking at groupies seemed to improve self-esteem and life satisfaction for participants. That’s probably because the viewers themselves may be included in these groupies, the authors wrote, strengthening their sense of community and inclusion.

This research is important, says co-author and mass communications graduate student Ruoxu Wang, because it examines a lesser-understood angle of social-media culture. "Most of the research done on social network sites looks at the motivation for posting and liking content, but we're now starting to look at the effect of viewing behavior," said Wang in a press release.

And the findings suggest that even just “lurking”—the act of observing what others post on social media, rather than “liking” posts or contributing content of one’s own—can have a real effect on how people view themselves.

The authors hope that their study, which was published online in the Journal of Telematics and Informatics, can raise awareness among social-media users about how their posts might affect others in their network.

"We don't often think about how what we post affects the people around us," said co-author and graduate student Fan Yang. "I think this study can help people understand the potential consequences of their posting behavior.” Yang adds that it may also help counselors working with young adults feeling lonely, unpopular, or unsatisfied with their lives.