Pope Francis poses for a selfie as he greets the crowd outside St. Mary Josefa Church as he arrives to celebrate Mass at the parish in Rome 2017. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Editorials: Selfies blur reality

  • May 31, 2018

Pope Francis often cozies up to young admirers as they raise their smartphones to snap selfies.  But it seems he may be having second thoughts about humouring the selfie generation.

It recently occurred to him that these seemingly harmless poses, intended to create a bond with young people, were creating physical proximity but promoting virtual disconnection. He made this realization in mid-May when he approached some excited teens at the Vatican.

“They were all there waiting for me,” the Pope said. “When I arrived, they made noise, as young people do. I went to greet them and only a few gave their hand. The majority were with their cellphones (saying), ‘photo, photo, photo. Selfie!’

“I saw that this is their reality, that is the real world, not human contact. And this is serious. They are virtualized youths.”

This virtual world has been challenging the real world for many years now. And, as the Pope noted, it can be unsettling. 

Selfies are often harmless fun, but other times the “look-at-me” generation seems self-absorbed and reluctant to connect genuinely with the world around them. Not long ago photography was about capturing an important moment, a stunning vista or special person. It was about what the photographer observed when looking through a lens. Now all of that is often a backdrop as the picture-taker points the camera at themselves. 

Today, even the Pope can become little more than a prop in a self-portrait destined for social media. It’s no wonder the words selfie generation and narcissism often appear in the same sentence. The world has never had so many showoffs.

“It worries me that they communicate and live in a virtual world,” said the Pope. “They live like this, communicate like this and do not have their feet on the ground.”

Is this the age of vanity? If often seems so. Selfies are all about looking beautiful, cool, accepted. Everyone is walking the red carpet. There are 1.5 billion smartphones in the world and millions of them are held aloft daily to capture poses that have one thing in common: the picture taker is the centre of attention. 

Much of it may be youthful exuberance, but we’re learning that obsessing over self image is connected to a wide range of problems — low self-esteem, depression, eating disorders. A recent poll showed that 42 per cent of American plastic surgeons have fielded requests for facial surgery from patients who are unhappy with how they look in selfies.

Recently at the Vatican, several young people missed a rare opportunity to experience the grace and wisdom of Pope Francis when, as he approached, they turned from him in order to snap a selfie. As pictures go, that image was rather sad.

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