“But first, let me take a selfie.”
This phrase, which was first popularized in The Chainsmokers’ 2014 breakout hit song “#Selfie,” has become a common saying in today’s culture — and one that is sometimes used to satirize younger generations who can’t seem to experience something without documenting it with a self-portrait.
On the surface, the act of taking a selfie can seem shallow or self-promotional. But Amanda Winburn and Amy King, both counselor educators who have a background as a school counselor, say that when used intentionally and in a structured way, selfies can become a therapeutic tool and a way to spark self-reflection, engagement and connection with younger clients.
“We know that children are engaged in” taking selfies, says Winburn, a licensed school counselor, licensed professional counselor and registered play therapist. “So why not take the positive attributes of this practice and expand upon it” in counseling?
Selfies in session
Winburn and King, who have presented on the therapeutic power of selfies at conferences of the American Counseling Association and the American School Counselor Association, have used selfie activities as a therapeutic intervention in individual and group counseling settings.
“This is just one more way we could give children and adolescents an opportunity to express themselves and narrate their story,” says Winburn, an associate professor of counselor education at the University of Mississippi. “We try and incorporate [clients’] worlds in our work, and selfies are an everyday part of our world and everyday part of expression for children, adolescents and adults. It really is the new self-portrait.”
However, Winburn and King stress two important caveats to this work:
- Practitioners should take care to ensure that any selfies captured in sessions are not taken with a device that is connected to the internet (i.e., not the client’s personal cellphone) so the images cannot be shared or used in a nontherapeutic context.
- Practitioners must obtain consent from a parent or guardian to capture the image of any client under the age of 18.
King, a certified school counselor and provisionally licensed professional counselor in private practice in Mississippi, uses a tablet computer that does not have internet access to allow students and clients to take selfies. She prints the selfie images and keeps them in a client’s file to refer to during sessions and deletes the images from the device. The tablet and client files are kept in a locked cabinet in her office when not in use, she explains.
Tapping into self-expression and boosting empathy
Having young clients take selfies during counseling sessions can serve as a visual and relatable way for them to track their progress in therapy, Winburn and King suggest.
Selfies can document physical aspects of improvement and growth in ways that a client may not notice without a visual record, such as smiling or holding their head up more, sitting tall and appearing more confident, Winburn explains.
When she was a school counselor, King once used selfies to help a student who was struggling with self-confidence. The student kept the printed selfies that she took in counseling sessions in a journal, to which she added notes and drawings. When King and the client talked about her therapeutic progress and looked through the selfies together, the young client was able to recognize that she looked happier and more confident in her progression of photos throughout the year.
She was able to note that she had gotten taller and that her smile was brighter. “She was glowing because she was looking at herself in a really positive way and reflecting about that,” King recalls.
King, a lecturer in counselor education and supervision at Boise State University, finds that students love to look back at their progress in counseling, and by using selfies, young clients can visualize that progression of moving away from having a tough time to having a better outlook on their situation or life.
In addition to strengthening expression and self-confidence, using selfies in this way also provides an opportunity for counselors to explore and process clients’ feelings of self-doubt or self-criticism, Winburn says. In therapy, selfies can be a visual portrait of a client’s narrative and a discussion starter for work that increases self-awareness and emotion recognition.
Winburn advises counselors to ask clients questions to understand the motivations behind their self-expressions and explore if they are trying to portray themselves differently than they really are. For example, she says clinicians can ask, “How does seeing that image make you feel?” or “What makes you feel that way?”
Winburn asks her counseling students at the University of Mississippi to take a selfie at the beginning and end of their day for an entire week. She tells her students, “It’s a way to step out of your comfort zone and process how you were feeling [that week] and how you portray yourself.” Then they reflect together in class on the story their selfies tell, which can be quite eye-opening, Winburn says.
King also used selfies in group counseling with second grade girls during her time as a school counselor. The group’s focus was on building confidence, communication, friend making and social skills. Learning to give and receive positive affirmations — to oneself and others — was an important component of this group work, King notes.
King, assisted by graduate counseling interns, had each group participant take a selfie with a school-issued tablet computer. The student would first look at the selfie themselves and then share it with the group. This activity allowed participants to open up and talk about the feelings their selfie elicited and, in turn, prompt group members to offer positive feedback.
It was a powerful experience that boosted the second graders’ empathy, reflection and listening skills and their ability to consider others’ perspectives, King says. The students would listen, connect and make comments such as “your eyes are really sparkling in that one,” she recalls.
After the group had been meeting for a little while, teachers and recess monitors at King’s school began to report that the students who were in her counseling group started to have more positive interactions during recess, she says.
Using selfies in counseling can help children actively learn and foster positive feelings about themselves as well as learn about individual and cultural differences in group settings, King notes.
“There’s no right or wrong way to make a selfie,” she adds.
Keeping an open mind
King and Winburn acknowledge that counselors can sometimes be skeptical of using technology in sessions, especially mediums such as selfies that can have negative connotations. However, they feel that when used in an ethical and appropriate way, selfies can strengthen trust and the therapeutic alliance with young clients.
It can also be a way to model that technology can be used in a positive way, to build each other up, King adds.
“Make sure you’re using safeguards to keeps clients safe, but try it [using selfies], embrace it and be open to it,” Winburn urges. “Especially with adolescents, counselors need to be playfully engaged and aware of where they are. This is an active way of embracing the world that they live in and meeting them where they are.”
Related reading, from Counseling Today:
- “Helping clients develop a healthy relationship with social media”
- “Coming to terms with technology”
- “Critical social skills to incorporate in a 21st-century social skills group”
- “@TechCounselor: Navigating social media with teens”
Bethany Bray is a senior writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.