22 October 2016Last updated

Features | People

Are selfies wrecking relationships?

It’s not a rosy picture in the least. Experts warn that selfie-obsessed people, whose lives revolve around gaining attention on social media, are putting their real-life relationships at risk

By Sarah Gibbons
24 Jun 2016 | 12:00 am
  • Source:Getty Images Image 1 of 2
  • Source:Shutterstock Image 2 of 2

Charlotte Michaels checks her make-up one more time, smiles excitedly and clicks her picture in a frenzy of activity ahead of her night out with friends.

Not 100 per cent happy with the result, the 23-year-old student presses delete, then repeats the process again, and again, and again, until she is happy that she has snapped the perfect selfie – the 65th of the day (so far).

More than an hour late to meet up with her friends, Charlotte apologises profusely, but only after striking a pose and snapping yet another selfie as she hugs and embraces her long-suffering chums.

‘It’s become a habit,’ says the music student, who indulges in 200 selfies a day, spending every waking moment posing or thinking about her next shot, often staying awake until 3am editing her pictures, so she’s sure she’s posting the best of the bunch.

And when she wakes in the night imagining a new photo opportunity, she reveals she cannot sleep until she has set it up. ‘It’s a compulsion,’ she admits. ‘The buzz I get when I see the likes on social media is like a drug to me. I’m completely hooked.’

But her obsession has had far-reaching consequences, apart from turning her into an insomniac – it’s resulted in her falling out with friends and wrecked relationships.

The grave news is that Charlotte is not alone. Millions of people across the globe are fast succumbing to the temptation of snapping innumerable pictures of themselves to post online, sharing with virtual friends, and notching up likes and loves and compliments on social media even as experts warn that the selfie-crazed generation risks more ruined relationships as people invest more time and emotion staring into their smartphones than developing their partnerships.

In a joint study by the Universities of Birmingham and Edinburgh, and Heriot-Watt University, researchers have concluded that ‘the increased frequency of sharing photographs of the self, regardless of the type of target sharing the photographs, is related to a decrease in intimacy’. Plus, as selfies by nature focus on seeking attention, they are negatively impacting many couples.

Florida State University (FSU) researchers Jessica Ridgway and Russell Clayton conducted a survey among frequent selfie posters on Instagram, and found that these users often struggled in their relationships despite demonstrating confidence in their body image.

Arguments involving frequent selfie posters centre on jealousy and perceived lack of commitment to a relationship. Some individuals flare up at the amount of attention their significant other is receiving (and/or seeking) and spend excessive amounts of time monitoring likes and comments on their partner’s social media profiles, fuelling jealousy and resentment. They also ramped up the amount of time invested in impressing those in the virtual world, rather than in face-to-face relationships.

This, in turn, can have a negative effect on communication between two individuals, often leading to break-ups or cheating.

Last year, Charlotte’s relationship ended because her boyfriend lost patience with her for not listening to him as she was constantly distracted by taking selfies.

‘He’d get annoyed that he’d have to repeat himself,’ she says. ‘It escalated into huge rows where he would storm out saying he couldn’t handle it any more. I was devastated.

‘I’ve tried dating, but after several weeks, men realise my selfie-taking is not a phase and tell me we have to end it.

‘My selfies come first, and if these men can’t handle that, it’s their problem. There just isn’t room in my life for a relationship and my selfies.’

Those posting frequent images often suffer from anxiety and see their stress levels rise when they fail to secure enough ‘likes’ for an image. This also threatens their ability to hold down a meaningful relationship as their focus is elsewhere.

Research has also shown that negative personality traits such as narcissism and psychopathy tend to be associated with increased sharing of images of one’s self. Since people with these personality traits also tend to have poor relationships, it’s not yet clear whether excessive selfie-taking is a cause or if it’s just another symptom.

Kim Stolz, a former contestant on America’s Next Top Model who now works on Wall Street, said social media has become addictive for the millennials, causing countless break-ups. ‘The rise of social media is definitely correlated with the rise of narcissism in our society. Our self-esteem depends on how many likes we get, how many followers we get, if someone texts us back...

‘When you see your phone light up from across the room, it’s that ping of dopamine in your system. You get that euphoric, excited feeling, and I think that’s addictive.

‘I think a lot of relationships have been ruined by one person’s addiction to social media, like when that addiction leads to a connection with a past love or crush. Sometimes, it simply means that you get home at night to spend time with your significant other and you have nothing to talk about because you’ve spoken about everything all day through social media or you’ve looked through each other’s social media feeds.

‘There has been an emerging body of research that shows that when you stop having offscreen interaction, you lose empathy and the ability to genuinely react to real problems and things.’

Kim believes that social media has accelerated break-ups. ‘I also think that we as humans are impulsive, and social media provides not only an indelibility for relationships in the past – where you just can’t seem to get away from them so you keep thinking about them – but also a really easy avenue to reconnect and make mistakes.’

She adds that she has seen a lot of relationships ruined ‘not because they weren’t going to work out, but because someone reconnected with an ex innocently, and that led to constant texting. Before you know it, they’re meeting up. And if you make a mistake, you get caught because of social media. And it’s over.’

Psychologist Tanya Byron, 49, offers another perspective – that the increasing number of sultry celebrity poses is damaging to young people.

Speaking at a conference recently, she said many celebrities ‘curate’ their social media profiles, which means they only share flattering and edited photos, but give the impression that the images are an honest reflection of their daily lives. Many impressionable young fans do not realise this and are sent into a spiral of depression and even fall victim to eating disorders by their inability to replicate such beauty.

‘It is no accident that we are seeing a massive increase in eating disorders and self-harming in young people with the increase of social media use,’ she says. ‘It needs to be thought about seriously.’

Friday readers recently joined the debate and seemed to find the selfie craze harmless fun, but warned against overindulging at the expense of a relationship.

‘I believe taking selfies shows a very casual and easygoing attitude,’ said Annu Chouraria. ‘It truly reflects my self-confidence. How can such an act wreck a relationship? Instead, for a person who connects so well with herself by taking selfies and posting them to world – imagine how well she would connect with her friends and relatives?’

Another reader, Fathema Abbas Ali said: ‘I think selfies are fun as long as they don’t flood your Instagram or Facebook feeds. Selfies with friends, family, children, or on vacation at picturesque spots are all very well, but ruining a relationship? That is unheard of as far as I am concerned.

‘But yes, a relationship requires time and commitment, so too much selfie-obsession takes a lot of time to indulge in, and if this time is eating into your time with your partner or children, then yes, it will affect your relationship in a not-so-positive way.’

However, the FSU researchers have a different take on the matter. Summing up their findings, they ‘speculate that Instagram-related conflicts might arise when users begin to monitor their partner’s Instagram selfie-posting behaviours. To this end, excessive online monitoring may then result in verbal disputes between romantic partners.

‘Moreover, romantic partners may experience jealousy given the amount of feedback (read likes and comments) a selfie has accumulated on Instagram. It is also possible that Instagram selfie posts may capture other users’ attention, resulting in 
the development of online relationships with other Instagram users.

‘From an applied perspective, our findings suggest that marriage counsellors should enquire about online behaviours, including selfie posting when couples have experienced or are nearing infidelity and separation.’

Blogger Karley Sciortino says selfies are rarely a reflection of the whole picture of a poster and his or her life. ‘With social media, we paint a picture of what we want our lives to look like. So, it’s important to remember that when we measure ourselves up to others online, what we’re comparing ourselves to isn’t real; it’s more of an aspirational version of lives and relationships.’

By Sarah Gibbons

By Sarah Gibbons