The selfie vs. the group photo: which actually makes us happier?

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Moya Crockett
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If you’ve ever felt a surge of existential bleakness after spending 20 minutes scrolling mindlessly through a fitness model’s Instagram profile, you’ll understand why more and more research is being dedicated to the impact of social media on our psychological wellbeing.

So far, much of this research has examined the effect of posting on social media – particularly the proliferation of selfies. But now, a new study has examined what happens when we view different kinds of photos on sites like Instagram and Facebook.

Researchers at Penn State University in the US discovered that spending too much time looking at selfies on social media can have a serious impact on our sense of self-esteem and life satisfaction.

But viewing group photos, in contrast, was found to have the opposite effect entirely.

“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 behaviour,” said Ruoxu Wang, one of the study’s lead researchers.

She added: “People usually post selfies when they’re happy or having fun. This makes it easy for someone else to look at these pictures and think his or her life is not as great as theirs.”

While viewing selfies – both of themselves and others' – had a negative effect on people's happiness, looking at group photos was found to have a very different impact. Researchers found that frequent viewing of group photos was associated with increased life satisfaction and improved self-esteem.

Another researcher on the study, Fan Yang, said that she hoped the findings could raise awareness of the effects of social media use.

“We don't often think about how what we post affects the people around us,” she said. “I think this study can help people understand the potential consequences of their posting behaviour.”

Several studies in recent years have attempted to make sense of the effects of social media on our mental and emotional wellbeing, with varying results. A 2013 study by University of Michigan psychologist Ethan Kross, for example, found that the more time people spent on Facebook, the worse they felt, with their happiness and overall life satisfaction seeing a significant decline.  

A body image survey conducted by Today and AOL, in contrast, found that 65% of teenage girls said that posting selfies boosted their confidence. And this September, scientists at the University of California found that students who took a smiling selfie every day for three weeks felt more confident and comfortable in themselves over time.

But Yu Chen, the lead author of the study, was adamant that it wasn’t the act of taking selfies itself that increased the students’ sense of wellbeing. “It is not selfies that make you happy,” she said. “It is smiling that makes you happy.”

Images: Rex Features, RCS