A study recently published in the journal Sex Roles sheds new light on the relationship between selfie behaviors, self-objectification, and depressive symptoms in women.

Since women often receive the message that they are valued primarily for their physical attractiveness, the researchers were interested in exploring how self-objectification was related to online behaviors.

“I have been collaborating with Mindy Erchull on issues related to objectification theory for several years. I had also begun to be interested in the effects of social media on people’s experiences and had recently taught a senior seminar on the topic,” explained the study’s lead author, Miriam Liss, a professor of psychological science at University of Mary Washington.

“Mindy and I became interested in how objectification relates to experiences with social media — particularly Instagram, which is a platform that is based on posting visual images. Other studies on the topic had largely looked at how feelings of self-objectification can be a consequence of social media. We wanted to look at how self-objectification can change how one behaves when taking and posting selfies.”

For their study, the researchers surveyed 164 female students from a public liberal arts university in the Southeastern United States. The survey assessed photo manipulation, average number of selfies, body surveillance, perceived social media deception, and depressive symptoms.

Most of the participants reported taking 2-5 selfies before posting one to Instagram, while approximately 5 percent reported taking more than 20 on average. The researchers found that women who took a larger number of selfies before choosing one to post to Instagram tended to have higher levels of body surveillance and more symptoms of depression.

“Many women tend to view their body from an observer’s perspective. This is known as body surveillance, which is considered a manifestation of self-objectification. We found that this is related to how one uses social media,” Liss told PsyPost.

“Specifically, women who engage in body surveillance are more likely to use photo manipulation tools on Instagram and are more likely to take a large number of selfies before they select one to post. These behaviors, in turn, are related to symptoms of depression.”

Additionally, photo manipulation behaviors — such as using a filter to change the overall look of the photo, editing to hide blemishes, and making specific body parts look larger or look smaller — were also linked to depressive symptoms.

“Photo manipulation appears to influence depressive symptoms through the feeling that one is presenting a deceptive self online,” Liss said.

“We note that this can put women in a double bind. While they may want to present the best possible image of themselves on social media, doing so can actually make them feel worse about themselves. This may be partly because they may have a sense that they are being dishonest about how they are presenting themselves. We concluded our paper by saying that your first selfie may very well be your best selfie!” Liss said.

But the study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“This was a correlational study so we cannot make causal conclusions. Women who are depressed may be more likely to feel engage in photo manipulation or taking a large number of photos before posting and are also more likely to engage in body surveillance. There is probably a feedback loop instead of a one-directional arrow of causality,” Liss explained.

“I also think the question of how genuine one feels about one’s self-presentation online should be looked at in other contexts. People may feel disingenuous not only about pictures they post but about how they present their lives. There are many people who present a very curated version of their lives on social media and don’t like to post about their struggles.”

“Of course, this gives the impression that no one else is struggling which can make people who are struggling feel more alone. But I think it might also negatively affect the people who don’t post in a genuine way. On the other hand, in some contexts, there may be there some advantages to presenting one’s best self online. I think this is a topic worth further investigation,” Liss added.

The study, “Picture Perfect: The Relationship between Selfie Behaviors, Self-Objectification, and Depressive Symptoms“, was authored by Sophia J. Lamp, Alyssa Cugle, Aimee L. Silverman, M. Tené Thomas, Miriam Liss, and Mindy J. Erchull.