How worried should parents be about teen selfies?

If the word 'selfie' is foreign to you, there's a good chance you don’t have a teenager living in your house.

Because if you do, this is one phenomenon you’ll be all-too familiar with.

For the uninitiated, the selfie is the self-portrait of the digital world… only instead of sketching your likeness in the mirror, you only have to pose and tap the screen on your smartphone.

These photos are easy, instant and can be shared with friends in less time than it takes to say “cheese”, making them the perfect time-killer for the modern, smartphone-wielding teenager. Sometimes they’re silly, other times cute, pensive or even intentionally ugly. But it’s the “sexy selfie” that has people talking right now.

Most recently, blogger Kimberly Hall caused a stir when she wrote a post condemning teenage girls for posting sexy selfies on social media for her young sons to see. "If you want to stay friendly with the Hall men, you’ll have to keep your clothes on, and your posts decent.  If you try to post a sexy selfie ... you’ll be booted off our on-line island," she wrote.

In July a Year 11 student, Olympia Nelson, also tackled the topic in an op-ed for Fairfax. Nelson describes the “sexual rat race” flourishing on online social networks in the form of pouting mirror shots and “sexually suggestively posed” photos of teenagers - typically girls.

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“The popularity of girls is hotly contested over one big deal: how sexy can I appear and bring it off with everyone’s admiration?” she writes.

“Everyone likes receiving compliments and it makes us feel awesome that our own appearance can provide us with an ego boost. But what kind of photos produce an epidemic of “likes”? Nothing with too much creativity but hip, titty and kiss.”

She's talking about the sexy selfie. Characterised by a plumped pout (i.e. "duckface"), smouldering eye contact and sometimes a bare stomach or a hint of cleavage, the purpose of these snaps is clear - to look hot. Rihanna's a fan, Miley Cyrus loves a sexy pose - even Justin Bieber's guilty of the bedroom-eyed shirtless shot. And it's not only the confident, vivacious teens taking sexy selfies - evidently, even the typically "demure" types are getting involved too.

So just how concerned should parents be about this new-age trend?

There's nothing inherently wrong with taking or sharing a selfie. Sure, having to scroll through fifty of them in a row on Facebook is annoying, but image has always been a part of self-exploration and identity - and especially during the teenage years. How many different hair styles and fashions did you experiment with in your youth? And how many times did you examine your face in the mirror? Exactly.

Selfies are self-curated memories -  a little narcissistic, maybe, but not much different to other teenage behaviours like diary-writing or blogging. However, the problem with these photos is that, when shared online, they are subject to public scrutiny which can influence a teen's ideas about beauty and their self-worth.

It would be disingenuous to say young people upload their selfies to Instagram and Facebook under the guise of 'teenage self-exploration'. In many instances, the aim of selfie-sharing is to be complimented. In itself, that's not an issue - who doesn't love being complimented?

However, it seems the number of 'likes' and comments posted in response to selfies is perceived as a valid judge of beauty for young women. When another girl's seductively-posed Instagram or Facebook snaps attract hundreds of gushing comments like, "Babe!", "Model, much?" and "Why are you so pretty?", it can make two or three likes feel like a dismissal, and sends specific messages about what is and isn't considered hot. And that has the potential to be very, very damaging to a girl's self-esteem - especially when the photos move into the wider public domain.

Take, for instance, the selfie beauty pageant movement among teens and tweens that emerged earlier this year. These pageants involved girls as young as 12 and 13 uploading their selfies to Instagram, where they were grouped together and then voted and commented on, "hot or not"-style, by hundreds of strangers.

A similarly heartbreaking trend sees girls hashtagging their Instagram shots with #amipretty and #rankme, in order to encourage users outside of their group of followers to judge their appearance. You can only imagine the cruel, denigrating comments that can surface and the crushing impacts they have on the recipient. There's also a huge threat to privacy when images are shared publicly and can be saved to anybody's computer.

So what's the solution? As Olympia Nelson wisely argues, restricting access to social media isn't going to work, even though it seems like the obvious course of action.

It's important for parents to understand that, right now, teenagers are living in a world with far more visual pressures and scrutiny than ever before. The selfie has emerged from this environment as an avenue for young women and men to explore their image and sexuality - as teenagers have done for generations. And, like the trends that came before it, the selfie will eventually pass. (Phew.)

In the meantime, the best action parents can take is to help their daughters - and sons - understand their worth derives from more than just their appearance and how others react to it. Encourage teenagers to pursue their interests and ambitions, to embrace different experiences and to seek out friends who appreciate them for who they are. That way, likes and comments will only serve as passing ego-boosters, and not their only source of confidence.

 Is there a selfie enthusiast in your house? Does the trend concern you?

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