Our smartphones have become an extension of ourselves, writes Aoife Walsh – and it’s putting our mental health at risk

The morning comes. Your alarm is ringing. Before you even get out of bed and open the curtains, your hand roams around for your phone. You eventually find it and turn off your alarm.

Check your email. Your lecture is cancelled. Close the Messenger app, open the Facebook app. Five notifications. Your best friend tagged you in a hilarious, relatable meme. You comment “so me haha!” Time to check Instagram. 30 new likes on the selfie you posted last night. Not as much as you expected. I mean, you thought it was one of your finer selfies. After all, you spent at least two hours doing your makeup and €50 on your outfit. All your friends agreed it was the best choice out of the two hundred other selfies that sit in your camera roll. Ping! Another like. It all makes sense, clearly people weren’t really on their phones last night. You didn’t post at a good time, but the likes are really going to start pouring in now. Your insecurities start to dwindle. Ping! Ping! That guy you met out last Thursday liked your selfie. Well of course he did! You look so amazing under the Valencia filter. Screenshot! Send that to your best friends. “Is it any surprise he liked it? You look so good.” Oh, but wait, the same guy has also liked another girl’s selfie. She has 300 more likes than you. Her picture isn’t even that filtered and her dress was way nicer than yours. Maybe people like her more? Maybe he finds her more attractive? Refresh. No new notifications. It would be a good idea to delete that selfie now, it’s obviously not as nice as you thought it was.

Your self-worth begins to decrease. Open Snapchat. Your feed is flooded with stories from last night. All your best friends had a movie night and didn’t invite you. Lock your screen.

Credit: www.rswebsols.com/

How many people can relate to this narrative? Our modern-day smartphones mock the classic brick Nokia and Sony Ericssons we once loved. Mobile phones are no longer utilized for just calling, texting, and playing snake or suduko. Now, smartphone users have the entire world at the touch of their fingers. Our smartphones are our alarms, our notebooks, our map, our camera, and our main form of communication. Our mobile phones have become an extension of our being and many of us fear living without them. No matter how much we want to resist it, we are a self -obsessed, oversharing, selfie-taking, Instagramming, brand-endorsing generation, and we love it.

The Fear of Losing Connection.

Smartphones have become an extension of our arms. And I don’t mean the extended arm pose we do to take our selfies. Our phones are now part of our bodies. They’re like the umbilical cord that we can’t cut loose. Researcher Russell W. Belk found that as long ago as 1988, “external objects become viewed as part of self when we are able to exercise power or control over them, just as we might control an arm or a leg”. The more control we have over our smartphones, the more we perceive them as a body part.

Nomophobia is a term coined by the UK post office during a 2010 study. Nomophobia is an abbreviation of “no-mobile-phone phobia”. It is the fear and anxiety experienced when a person is separated from their smartphone.  This condition develops through Fomo (Fear of Missing Out). Although social networking apps such as Instagram and Facebook allow us to maintain relationships, they also cause an emotional attachment to our phones. Our mobile phones become the relationships we have with people, and without them, we lose contact. When I surveyed ten (five female and five male) college students aged 20-24, I found that each person I questioned had at one point thought of deleting their social media platforms. However, they did not delete their social media accounts in the event that they lost touch with the world around them, or that they would miss out on inside jokes between their friends. Each student feared they would lose connection with their peers, and some said they felt they would be out of touch with the world and breaking news.

The Selfie Phenomenon and The Instagram Effect.

There are many types of social media users, but two stand out.One type finds the practice of taking a photo of yourself and posting it online as conceited, and attention seeking. The other are selfie-taking enthusiasts whose Instagrams are flooded with images of themselves, along with the occasional scenic picture thrown in (queue the #makeuponfleek and #blessed captions). In 2012, Time magazine described millennials as the “ME ME ME” generation – “entitled narcissists who still live with their parents.” And what does a narcissistic millennial love more than themselves? Social networks: the best place for expressing themselves online, interacting with other people and home of the beloved selfie.

The selfie first became incorporated from the early years of social networking, before the world even knew what a selfie was. From the mirror selfies nearly everyone had as their ‘Myspace pics’ in 2003, to their beloved Bebo picture, to a more sophisticated Facebook profile picture, our love affair with the selfie has been rumbling on for almost 20 years. In 2003, Sony released the Ericsson Z1010 which incorporated the first ever front-facing camera at 0.3 megapixels. Originally, the front-facing camera was intended for video conferencing, but when Apple released the iPhone 4/4s in 2010, front-facing cameras became the main go-to in a selfie-takers toolbox. The camera allowed the user to become a photographer, the model and the publisher. Contemporary users have become experts in retouching their photos.

With the arrival of the iPhone 4/4s also came the release of social networking apps such as Instagram and Snapchat. The concept of these apps are based purely off of quick image sharing.

Soon, the act of taking a selfie became common practice. By 2013, the word selfie had been used so often, it was added to the online Oxford English Dictionary, and was named to be word of the year.

Although columnists, commentators and concerned parents level accusations of narcissism at selfie-loving teens, researchers disagree. According to Psychology Today, given the popularity of selfie-taking the act of taking a picture of yourself is now deemed normal social behaviour, which makes it perceived as an acceptable act to engage in. Researchers Hu, Manikonda, and Kambhampati found in 2014 that nearly half of the photos uploaded to Instagram are categorised as selfies, or selfies with friends. This study also found that using Instagram as a form of self-representation is highest among university students. Dr.Terri Apter of University of Cambridge contends that selfies have become a way in which we find out who we are, and project that image on to other people across various online platforms, such as Instagram.

The introduction of Instagram in 2010 gave social-networking users the chance to represent themselves through a series of photographs and short videos accompanied by a caption. Captions include relevant descriptions and hashtags related to the photo in order to ensure people will view your post. Instagram is a never-ending stream of photographs and videos. Users also have the option to “like” or comment on a post, similar to Facebook. As of April 2017, Instagram had a community of more than 700 million monthly users and 95 million photos are posted to Instagram each day.

Instagram is often referred to as the ‘highlight-reel’ of the user’s life. Users put forward the best versions of themselves and their lifestyle. We post the selfies of ourselves right before a night out, but not a picture of our hungover heads the next morning. We are happy to upload a picture of our new designer bag, or expensive watch, but we don’t show the hard work that went into saving for that item, or the month of living off of €1 Pot Noodles to afford it. We will showcase our relationships with our other halves and publically express our love for each other online, but we don’t disclose every time we fight with them. We would much prefer to share a photo of ourselves looking #onfleek than one of mascara smeared down your face, stuffing down a chicken roll after your night out. In other words, a picture does say a thousand words, but it doesn’t reveal the full story. We tend not to share our reality. Reality doesn’t get as many likes. We decide what content we upload and in doing so we become a product, with our followers acting as the consumers buying into the image we upload. We put our self-worth in what other people want to see, and we are rewarded with likes. At the time of publishing, 224.4 million posts on Instagram contain the hashtag #likeforlike, 220.3 million are captioned #follow4follow, while #beautiful is one of the most popular hashtags used, ranking at 445 million posts. This shows we are mostly concerned with attractive images, followers and likes.

‘You Have No New Notifications.’

When we communicate through likes and comments on apps such as Instagram and Facebook, we are providing feedback on a post. If selfies are a way in which we convey an image of ourselves, how does it impact users when an image of themselves receives what they perceive as poor feedback? Moreover, if a curated, edited and filtered version of ourselves doesn’t get attention, how are users going to feel about their real-life self?

If you Google ‘How to Get More Likes on Instagram’, thousands upon thousands of results pop up in the form of articles and videos. The advice given includes something along the lines of “use a consistent filter”, and “add blue tones to the picture” because apparently red and orange toned pictures do not get as many likes. We live in a world where we can purchase likes and followers to provide the illusion that some users get a lot of feedback. Clearly, there is a high value placed on likes to the point that some people will choose to hand over money for extra double taps on their Instagram.

Arguably, whether or not likes affect your mood is down to varying factors such as self-esteem and a person’s general usage of social media. So much so, researchers at Facebook found that those who were reported to have a low level of self-esteem felt sad when something they posted did not gain the amount of likes they expected it would. This is significant when considering the idea that low self-esteem aids the development of mental health disorders such as depression and eating disorders. If a user posts a selfie and does not gain a lot of likes, but is constantly exposed to ‘Instagram Influencers’ and bloggers whose selfies gain a lot of attention and recognition it prompts the questions, “why do I not get likes like them? What is wrong with me?” Research carried out by University College London found that the constant viewing of ‘#fitspo’ and ‘#thinspiration’ pictures that receive a lot of positive feedback in the form of likes can have an effect on social media users. Equally, research has shown that Instagram has played a strong role in the growing rates of orthorexia nervosa – the obsession with eating ‘clean’ in a bid to lose weight. Since Facebook introduced the “like” button in 2009, the meaning behind the action of “liking” something has grown deeper and the main body responsible for this is the social media users themselves.

What’s the Solution?

Social media shows no signs of going away, nor should it. It is now an integral part of our lives. It presents to us many opportunities in the lines of employment, new relationships, and maintaining current relationships. It offers users the opportunity to be in control of representing themselves, and it is a source of entertainment. Despite this, it is important to be aware of what you post, why you post it and what others post. You don’t have to quit taking stunning selfies, but if a picture you like of yourself does not get the likes you want it to, it still is a nice picture of you and it’s okay to know that. Acknowledge what social media is. Remember that you cannot measure your own self-worth or other people’s affection or feeling towards you through the number of likes or comments people leave on your posts. Try not to obsess over followers, likes and who unfollowed you and why. Turn your phone off once in a while. Instead of trying to withdraw from your smartphone completely, minimise how much you rely on it for self-validation and maintaining relationships. When you go out to eat, you don’t always have to post a perfect picture of your meal. Instead, spend that time communicating with the person sitting across the table with you. Focus on real-life connections and use the smartphone as simply a tool to maintain them.

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