Here Be Dragons

There's No Such Thing as 'Selfie Addiction'

By Martin Robbins

Mr. Pimp Goodgame, king of the Instagram selfie

Recently, the assembled hacks at the Sunday Mirror’s headquarters were deciding how best to cover the story of Danny Bowman, a teenager diagnosed with "selfie addiction." Taking the sensitive, appropriate route, the British tabloid sent a photographer to take lots and lots of photos of him.

Selfies are the latest trend in popular art—the cave paintings of the Age of Aquarius, only much less inspiring than anything our ancient ancestors ever produced. They combine two of the most potent forces in the modern world—computer technology and celebrity-fueled narcissism—to create a form of expression so powerful that it can literally cure cancer.

Nevertheless, with great power comes great danger, as anyone who’s watched the popular New Zealand hiking documentary Lord of the Rings will remember. In it, a ring becomes so powerful that a small man is forced to walk a very long way for reasons that are never made entirely clear before throwing the offending piece of jewellery into a volcano. Someone else becomes so corrupted by the ring's power that he starts talking to himself, loses all his friends, and ends up developing a pretty nasty skin condition from the stress of it all.

But is it possible to be addicted to taking selfies, the way you can be addicted to alcohol or nicotine or the One Ring? The case of Danny Bowman is certainly extreme. According to the Sunday Mirror article, "He dropped out of school, didn’t leave his house in six months, lost two stone [28 pounds] trying to make himself look better for the camera, and became aggressive with his parents when they tried to stop him. Finally, in a drastic attempt to escape his obsession, Danny took an overdose—but was saved by his mum, Penny.”

The article goes on to say that Bowman was treated for “his technology addiction, OCD and body dysmorphic disorder,” and breathlessly reports that “the top psychiatrist [Dr. David Veale] at the clinic where Danny was treated revealed ­addiction to taking selfies is becoming so widespread it is now a recognized mental illness.”

Recognized by whom? That isn’t said, and it’s worth pointing out that "selfie addiction" doesn’t appear to be recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), or any other diagnostic manual.

In fact, neither is "technology addiction" or "internet addiction." That isn’t to say that the symptoms suffered by people like Bowman aren’t very real and debilitating, but they can generally be explained as signs of an underlying condition, rather than a condition in their own right. There’s no need to invoke a whole new addiction to selfies to explain the behavior of someone with OCD and body dysmorphia.

The truth is, internet addiction isn’t in the DSM because there’s no good evidence that it exists as a condition in its own right. A meta-analysis of ten years’ worth of studies published in 2009 highlighted some of the problems with research claiming to find evidence of it, which sounds eerily familiar to anyone who's studied similar attempts to find, say, the harm caused by pornography.

In the words of the authors, “The analysis showed that previous studies have utilized inconsistent criteria to define internet addicts, applied recruiting methods that may cause serious sampling bias, and examined data using primarily exploratory rather than confirmatory data analysis techniques to investigate the degree of association rather than causal relationships among variables."

In other words, researchers were so focused on trying to prove that the condition existed that they couldn’t come up with a coherent, standard description of what exactly the symptoms were. The authors of the meta-analysis “found that prior studies on internet addiction have focused on 'proving' the existence of internet addiction or identifying the characteristics of internet addicts,” rather than doing the kind of rigorous analysis needed to rule out the possibility that these were just symptoms of other conditions.

Again, this isn’t to say that there aren’t instances where internet usage and mental health issues combine in a toxic way. Studies have increasingly shown links between internet trolling and personality disorders, for example, and I’ve spoken to several mental health workers in recent years who claim that groups of patients have joined forums to discuss ways to "beat" their therapists. The point here is that the underlying issue is the same, regardless of what technology is used—as those who checked into mental hospitals for "texting addiction" in the early 2000s will attest to.

A big problem not mentioned in the research, but noticeable in cases like Bowman’s, is that often these cases are being reported by private doctors who make money from treating the conditions they describe. Even if they have the best intentions in the world, Veale and his peers aren’t exactly unbiased observers.

Let’s be diplomatic, though, and assume that the promotion of terms like "selfie addiction" isn’t about profit. Could it be a useful way of getting stories about mental health into the media and raising awareness? Well, not if the comments under these stories are any indication. Of course, most people who leave comments on articles are cretinous morons, but some of the stuff posted on the coverage of Bowman’s case is particularly cruel, even by the standards of the internet's bottom feeders.

One Huffington Post reader offered Bowman life-changing medical advice: “Nothing a few firm slaps in the back of the head won't fix.” For other armchair psychologists, this is just another generational problem: “SELFIE ADDICTION. Really? How about we just admit that there are a lot of younger, lazier people who are incredibly egotistical that they need to make everything about themselves?”

So well done on the whole "raising awareness" thing, guys. Sure, comments aren’t the best indication of the impact of a story, but I can’t help feeling that giving faddish names to serious conditions isn’t the best way to get people to take them seriously.

Follow Martin Robbins on Twitter.

Comments