We don’t view ourselves the same way any more. Or, to put it another way, we view ourselves a lot more. Our lives have been changed by our phones and how easy it is to take pictures and send them anywhere. This makes us much more aware of how we look—and compare with others. When we think about some of the more serious dangers of technology, especially porn, this hardly seems like something to get too excited about. A little more self-awareness can’t be too bad, can it?
For some, just talking about selfies will seem trivial. Especially for young people, reactions to technology get old. So I think it’s only fair to say at the outset that taking pictures of ourselves hardly poses an existential threat. This is a far less threatening issue than porn, for sure, and probably less of a threat than the simple perpetual distraction of our devices. And I even think that our new ability to take photos can be a net benefit. There’s nothing wrong with taking selfies—I take them myself, occasionally. But there are clear downsides. What’s more, our default response to selfies is likely to be less than the best. My concerns aren’t theoretical, either. Can anyone argue that the net result of selfies and proliferation of personal images among young people has been positive in any way? I think the answer speaks for itself.
Quickly, before I dive in: I’m not limiting my analysis strictly to selfies. More generally, I’m going to consider how we’re influenced by the many photos of ourselves and others. Some of these concerns could have applied to the use of photography before cell phones. It’s simply that the extent of the influence of photography has mushroomed exponentially as our world becomes more and more visual.
- We’re tempted with vanity
Vanity is a human problem—it’s nothing new. We’ve always been tempted to be preoccupied with our appearance. This is something entrenched in our hearts, not something we can blame on technology. For some, this means we should focus on our hearts, not on the technology that brings our vanity to the surface. And indeed, any attempt to fight our vanity by cracking down on technology risks missing the deeper root of the problem. But it’s strange to be concerned about our hearts without also looking at the ways they are practically pulled away. Because we have vain dispositions, we need to be careful with technology that feeds them.
Our ability to take selfies is not something neutral. Think of it this way: would it be possible to spend an hour a day taking selfies without becoming more vain? Perhaps it’s a bit like mirrors: they can only benefit us if used in moderation. The more inclined we are towards vanity regardless of our devices, the more we will find the pull alluring. It would be strange to spend a lot of time in front of the mirror—or taking selfies—and then wonder why our vanity problem doesn’t go away.
- We’re tempted to compare
We’re increasingly aware of ourselves, and so is everyone around us. When we spend too much time obsessed with our appearance, it doesn’t just affect us. Vanity is centered in comparison with others. In fact, if you’d take away the comparison element, vanity wouldn’t be an issue. People are concerned about their appearance because they want to look better than others or worry that they’re inferior. Now of course this is an issue far wider than simply taking pictures. But again, our new technologies compound an existing problem. As photos of our friends go around, we want to look the part—or feel insecure if we don’t. And it’s ubiquitous: especially with social media, we’re constantly bombarded with pictures of other people.
Do I think the answer is to stop looking at pictures? Of course not. But there comes a time where we need to back away. Are we taking photos so that we can keep up with others? It can be our personal appearance, but it can also be our homes, yards, or vacations.
- We lose capacity for solitude and intimacy
Our phones are distracting. I’ve written about how they distract from personal reflection and relationships. But I think it’s worth considering how selfies—and photos in general—can keep us from treasuring special moments. Imagine that you are out for a walk on a particularly gorgeous day, perhaps even at a famous national park. As you’re taking in the beauty, you think, “Oh, I should really take a picture of this!” Maybe you’re with some friends. So out comes the phone, you take a selfie, and a bit later you’ll post it to your social media account. We’ve all felt the impulse. And it’s perfectly valid to want to capture a special moment. But can we think about the pictures we’re going to take at the expense of the magic of the moment? If we are worrying about how well our photo of the sunset will turn out instead of simply enjoying it, that’s rather sad. These moments of awe can’t nearly be captured by a photo.
If we stop and think about it, some of the most special moments can’t be shared—and that’s the whole point. If a couple is having a romantic, moonlit walk, it would be strange to think, “Wow, this is so romantic! We should take a picture so that all of our friends can see.” No! A special experience is happening that the couple wants to enjoy together—without sharing. That’s why couples having a date don’t invite all their friends to watch. We laugh at the absurdity of the idea, but we should think about some of the implications—and not just for romantic relationships. I think of many moments with a family member or friend that are branded forever in my memory. We often don’t realize until later just how special they are. The more we’re present at the time—actually enjoying each other, and perhaps some beautiful scenery—the more meaningful the moment and memory will be.
I don’t think the solution is complicated. Sometimes we need to back away, making sure we guard moments of solitude—and special times with others. For me, this means there are times I leave my phone behind before going on a walk or visiting with a friend. It works for me; I’m probably more easily distracted than most so this just removes the issue entirely. (I’m also hardly a great photographer.) There are times—most of the time, I’d argue—that we should enjoy our surroundings and the people around us without trying to share the moment with others by taking photos.
And of course this does tie back into my prior point about comparisons. If you had a friend that recently took a trip and got fantastic photos, don’t even think about competing. We go on vacation to enjoy the moment with friends or family. Frankly, unless you’re a professional photographer, no one is interested in seeing your photos anyway. A picture was only worth a thousand words when they were rare and not obnoxiously vying to dominate every social interaction.
- We don’t know how to be ourselves
We all get tired of photo shoots pretty quickly. It’s exhausting to keep up a perfect smile for moments on end. Think about it: do you have any fond memories of getting your picture taken? Thankfully, most of the time we don’t need to worry about trying to look perfect—or so we’d hope. But as we become increasingly visually driven, it’s much harder to go about everyday existence without putting a lot of thought into how we look. We’re bombarded with advertisements of made-up people and sometimes we try to compete. Could this be part of the reason why it’s so common to see fake, plastered smiles? It’s much harder to be genuinely ourselves, but it’s vastly superior. In the process of presenting a perfect, photogenic smile at all times, personality is lost. Whenever I talk to someone, I want to feel that they are giving me their attention, that their words and facial expressions are actually reflective of what they are specifically thinking about me and our conversation. I think it’s dreadful when someone has rehearsed their perfect smile in the mirror—or selfie mode on their phone—and then turns it on for every social encounter. But I’m afraid this is hardly a hypothetical concern.
It takes work to naturally relate confidently with others. And I don’t think the ubiquitous nature of photos is the only thing that makes this hard. But does it make it worse? As children of God, we should be jealous to allow our expressions to reflect our love for God. This doesn’t mean that we’ll always look happy. Sometimes we’ll look serious or sad. There’s a beauty in allowing God to flow through us so that we can genuinely look people in the eye and feel love for them—not a contrived emotion but a genuine love soaked with our adoration of Christ. In a day where everyone around is increasingly mechanical and distant, this will stand out.
In summary, it’s great to have new technology that enables us to record special memories. But if we simply let our photo-taking ability run its natural course without careful thought, it’s going to dominate our lives in ways that hurt us and hinder our effectiveness. So instead of allowing our phones to detract from the quality of our lives, let’s personally consider how we use them in enriching ways.