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Today, nearly everyone has a phone in their pocket, and there is zero cost to pulling it out and snapping a photo. Many of us snap away, collectively churning out over 1.4 trillion digital photos each year. 4.5 billion pictures are shared daily on WhatsApp alone, to say nothing of Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and other platforms.
There is growing resistance to this phenomenon, with phones and selfie sticks being banned by municipalities, schools, and museums. Taking pictures on our phones is often seen as part of a broader, problematic trend of constant device and social media usage that harms our mental health, especially among young people.
However, the reality is a bit more complicated. Through my research at USC’s Marshall School of Business, conducted in collaboration with Alix Barasch of the University of Colorado and Gal Zauberman of Yale University, I have found that taking pictures on our phones can actually have a number of beneficial effects.
By directing our focus, the act of taking photos can hold our attention and make us more present. Whether you’re touring a museum or a new city, attending a special event, or trying a different cuisine, zooming in (literally) on what stands out can bolster enjoyment, understanding and memory. In a series of studies, we found that participants who were encouraged to take photos during bus tours, meals and museum visits experienced more enjoyment and better recall than those who did not have access to their phones.
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So, while constant selfies and compulsive sharing can pull us out of the moment, my research shows that there are certain contexts and ways of taking pictures that can enrich our experiences and help us be more mindful. Why, then, does photo-taking get such a bad rap?
Part of the problem is that the act of taking photos gets lumped together with the act of sharing them. An excessive focus on curating and sharing photos for others rather than for oneself can have negative effects. In a 2017 study, we reached out to individuals who were about to snap photographs at a tourist site. Those who planned on sharing the images rated their enjoyment of the experience as far lower than those who were planning to keep them as personal memories.
These findings align with existing research showing that a preoccupation with social media can be distracting and harmful to our mental health, especially for young people. But the problems tend to be the result of excessive social media or device usage, not necessarily the act of taking photos itself.
With just a little self-awareness, we can gain the benefits of using our phones to take pictures while avoiding some of the downsides. To improve mindfulness, here are four questions to ask yourself before taking photos on your phone:
1. How will taking photos affect my engagement with this moment?
If you’re going on an adventure where you’ll have your hands full, it may be best to leave the phone in your pocket — or not bring it with you at all. But for less active pursuits, like a museum tour, our research suggests that snapping pics of what you find interesting can increase your enjoyment and improve your visual memory. The key is to actually pay attention to what you’re photographing. If you mindlessly take a photo so you can examine a scene or object later while quickly moving on from it in the present, then taking the photo won’t have these beneficial effects.
2. Which elements of this experience are most important for me to capture?
Consider which photos will be most enjoyable or useful for you to have in the future. For instance, people often take several pictures of a beautiful landscape but don’t really enjoy looking at impersonal photos like these afterward. Snapping a more meaningful shot — perhaps including friends, family, animals or a unique object that attracted your attention — will serve as a better memory cue and be more enjoyable to revisit.
You should also consider whether listening to or looking at the world around you is more important. Because of how our attention works, when snapping photos, we automatically take in fewer auditory elements of a scene. In a study we performed on visitors to a museum exhibit, we found that taking photos bolstered visual memory but dampened people’s ability to recall the audio guide — meaning that they may have missed out on bits of information that could have helped them better understand what exactly they were looking at.
3. Am I taking these pictures for myself or for others?
Our research has found that taking pictures with the intention of sharing them with others via social media reduces our enjoyment of experiences. It makes us overly self-conscious and pulls us out of the moment into imagining how people will react to our photos in the future. Being more selective about your social media circle or limiting what and when you post could make you happier while taking and sharing photos.
4. Will my photo-taking be overly disruptive?
Documenting for the future shouldn’t disrupt the present. It’s important for each of us to be conscious of how photo-taking affects not only us, but those around us. Whether it be at a concert or a cathedral, institutions may take steps to stop one person’s photo-taking from disrupting others who are trying to immerse themselves in an experience. However, policy makers should be cautious about trying to protect us from ourselves simply based on the false notion that taking photos is always a harmful distraction.
There’s a reason we love taking pictures. Nostalgia, memory, communication and sentimentality can be bolstered by having a visual record of a moment, person or place. Our research shows that photo-taking can also change our experience in the moment, making us more engaged and helping us remember it more clearly.
Having a camera in our pocket everywhere we go is relatively new. We are still working out the social norms and personal guidelines for how to use our devices in a beneficial way. But if you’re aware of what you’re doing, and you’re really taking photos for yourself, then go ahead and take that picture! You won’t be ruining the moment. In fact, you may be making it a little sweeter.
Kristin Diehl is a professor of marketing at USC Marshall School of Business. She studies how people anticipate, experience and remember events that unfold over time, particularly through taking photos.
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