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Is Jamie Oliver right, are selfies really the sugar of social media?

Was the TV chef wrong to ban his teenage daughter from posting selfies? 

In 2015, academics in Poland declared that selfie-taking and narcissism are linked. In 2016, academics in Texas said that actually, maybe they’re not.

There is no conclusive answer as to whether taking pictures of yourself makes you a narcissist, but the fact scientists frequently examine selfies through this prism shows how maligned the modern self-portrait is. Many people assume that selfies – which are often taken and uploaded by teenage girls – are inherently bad, and now TV chef Jamie Oliver has joined their ranks.

Oliver, a man whose entire career is a massive pouting selfie of “You can’t eat that, kiddo!!!”, has recently announced that he has forbidden his 14-year-old daughter from taking selfies. Speaking on the Lifestyle News Hound podcast, Oliver revealed that his daughter Daisy is “banned” from “doing selfies”, before going on to say that 13 and 14-year-old girls take photos which are “quite porno”, with “sort of luscious kind of pouty lips, sort of pushing boobs out.”

Oliver then described selfies as the “sugar of social media”, arguing that the like button allows people to get a quick, addictive hit. Scientifically speaking, is Jamie correct – or has he got it all turkey twisted?

Both the social media like button and sugar do give us a quick dopamine rush, activating reward centres in our brain. Yet both sugar addiction and internet addiction are hotly debated topics, with some scientists comparing sugar and social media likes to drugs, while others deny that each addiction exists at all. Leaving aside the extremes of addiction, Oliver’s main problem is his assumption that sugar and/or selfies are categorically bad.

Dr Natalie Hendry, a lecturer in Education at Deakin University, researched young people, social media, and mental health as part of her PhD. Frustrated by the fact that many studies approached selfies with the view that they are psychologically harmful, she examined how young women with mental health issues use social media to gain control of their identity.

“The rhetoric of selfie-as-narcissism deployed by popular media is not concerned for young people’s wellbeing,” she wrote. “Rather it is a moral judgement that chooses to label young people’s selfie practices without active engagement with young people themselves.” Hendry concluded that selfies can allow young people to visualise their identity, which is particularly therapeutic for those with mental health problems.

Sociologically and scientifically speaking, there is of course no conclusive way to prove whether selfies are “Bad” or “Good”. While Hendry’s research found selfies to be beneficial to some youngsters with mental health problems, in the past people with Body Dysmorphic Disorder have suffered with selfie-taking. It is probable that the benefits and risks of selfies vary on a case-by-case basis, but anecdotal evidence does show that selfies are positive in a way that is traditionally ignored by headlines and chip-stealing TV personalities. 

“I love selfies because they’re a way of representing myself when I feel the mainstream media fails to represent women like me,” says Bethany Rutter, a 28-year-old social editor and co-creator of the podcast What Page Are You On?

“I’m fat, and women like me are only seen as ‘before’ pictures in women’s magazines, so selfies are a way of documenting the fact I exist and feel good enough about myself to post online,” she explains. “It’s not surprising that someone like Jamie Oliver, who repeatedly displays condescending control-freakery of other people’s behaviour, is against them!”


Scrubbed up because apparently I’m going on ITV lunchtime news at 1:30 today Although my outfit is understated my @milktoothldn earrings are definitely not! Lips are Anastasia Beverly Hills in Soft Lilac

A post shared by Bethany (@archedeyebrow) on

Like Rutter, 21-year-old blogger and journalist Amelia Perrin believes selfies are far more beneficial than Oliver allows. In the past, she has been ridiculed by the press for her selfies, but says they helped her to get modelling jobs and the title of Miss South East in the Miss Great Britain competition.

“I’m not saying she [Jamie Oliver’s daughter] needs those things, but from my personal experience selfies have only enhanced my life, as well as leaving me with a huge portfolio of images I can look back in ten years’ time and laugh about,” Perrin says. “I feel like selfies are a fun way to express yourself or even just show off your look… by disallowing her from taking them he’s separating her from her peers – and with a famous family she probably already feels disparate from them – even further, for no reason. It’s hypocritical of him to find it empowering for him to be in the public eye, but won’t let his daughter be in the way she might want to be.”


personal growth: got the new iphone 8, somehow waited a full 24 hours before i took a selfie with it  #shotoniphone8

A post shared by beauty • fashion • luxelife (@ameliaperrin) on

Jamie Oliver’s moral crusade has left many angry, particularly as he is a man taking control of a woman’s bodily agency. Yet Dr Dawn Branley, a psychologist who specialises in the risks and benefits of internet and technology use, does warn that “revealing” selfies do have risks for young people.

“There are a few potential risks of sharing selfies online, particularly if those selfies are of a revealing nature. Unfortunately, content that is shared to the web is very easily shared, duplicated and distributed,” she says. “Young girls can often feel pressured to share selfies where the aim is to look attractive and/or sexy. This can lead to users potentially sharing photos that they later regret or result in the receipt of unwanted attention.

“Although selfies are not inherently risky per say, it is important to take into consideration the context and content of the selfie, the age appropriateness of the behaviour, and the potential for unwanted viewers.”

Jamie Oliver’s daughter isn’t banned from eating sugar, which perhaps illustrates the problem with the chef’s approach to selfies. While Branley highlights real risks, Oliver’s viewpoint doesn’t take into consideration the benefits of a selfie. “Mainly she doesn’t, but a couple slip up,” he said of his daughter’s selfie-taking habits. The fact that a selfie is seen as a “slip” or a mistake unnecessarily vilifies an act that many have found empowering.

In a now infamous clip from Noughties reality TV show Jamie’s School Dinners, Oliver shows a handful of children how chicken nuggets are made with bone marrow, skin, and connective tissues.

“Now who would still eat this?” he asks, once he has blended, formed, and bread-crumbed a nugget. Every child raises their hand. Despite Jamie’s comments at the weekend, children will still be raising their hands – ready to take and share a selfie with or without his approval. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Technology can change the world – provided we have a measure of democracy, too

You could say we need a technological revolution for the many, not the few. 

Over the last five decades, the American Consumer Technology Association’s annual jamboree has grown to become the world’s largest tech show: attracting over 190,000 visitors and 4000 companies, with 7,460 reporters filing 59,969 reports over the course of four days in Las Vegas. In the process, it has achieved an almost mythical status – from unveiling the first-ever home VCR (Philips 1970) to Bill Gates’ resignation from Microsoft in 2006, and has included cameo appearances by the likes of Jay-Z and Barack Obama.

As a fully qualified geek (Electrical Engineering degree, 20 years in tech – before it was cool) and the shadow minister for Industrial Strategy Science and Innovation, I couldn’t resist seizing the opportunity to venture to Las Vegas while on a family holiday to the US’ west coast; hoping, against all hope, to see the progressive future of a technology-enabled, more equal world.

If only.

But I did emerge with a renewed conviction that technology can solve our problems – if we use it to do so.

In some ways, the most remarkable thing about the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was the way it demonstrated how technology has taken over our entire world. CES was a car show in the middle of a health show, which happened to be around the corner from a home show, which was adjacent to a sports show that was next to an entertainment show. Just about every sector was represented.

Nissan had a huge stand for their new autonomous vehicle showcasing the ‘Brain-Vehicle Interface’, as did Philips for their new sleep enhancing devices, and Huawei for their connected home. In 2018, technology can be used as an enabling platform to aid just about everything. And in a world where near enough everything is politicised, technology is very political.

But this was not evident from CES: not from the stands, neither the keynotes, nor the participants. There were few speakers from civic society nor governments, and those politicians who attended – such as Donald Trump’s Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao – talked only of their ‘excitement’ at the sunlit uplands technology could guide us to. The show existed in its own, largely self-sufficient world. While Ford created an entire street to show off its autonomous cars, there was no reference to who would pay for the road, pavements, lamp-posts and guttering if only robots worked.

And as a politician rather than an engineer, it is the societal impact that matters most to me. One realisation brought about by my visit is that I have greatly under-estimated the consequences of driverless vehicles: communications, parking, urban layout, and public transport are all likely to be deeply impacted. The automobile industry is working to position cars as your personal moving office-cum-front room-cum-hotel-cum-lecture theatre; where you can work, maintain personal and social relationships, unwind and learn – all while going from A to B. How will crowded, under-funded public transport compete?

At the show, Nissan launched its Brain-to-Vehicle technology, which reads the driver’s brainwaves to determine when the car’s intelligence should intervene. Although I'm personally unsure about the inclusion of brain surveillance in the driving experience, it may well be the next logical step as we increasingly give up our data in return for ‘free’ services. Certainly the anthropologists at Nissan argued that this was the very definition of assisted artificial intelligence.

Fortunately, autonomous vehicles are not the only way to get around. Improvements in battery technology mean that – between electric scooters capable of folding away into airplane carry on, and electric bikes with the power of motorcycles – personal mobility has become a market in its own right.

Personal health and sport were also big themes at the event. Philips has brought back the night cap, which not only looks far more fetching than the Victorian original, but is now also capable of lulling you gently into a slumber before monitoring the quality of your sleep. Orcam’s discrete camera-glasses for the visually impaired can read text and recognise people, whilst L’Oréal’s UV Sense is a sensor small enough to be worn comfortably on your fingernail that detects ultraviolet exposure.

One aspect of the show that has remained largely unchanged is its demographics. Whilst the glossy adverts on the walls depict women and BME people using technology, those actually designing it were, with a few exceptions, male and largely white. As always, there were no queues for the women’s loos and while there were not any ‘F1 girls’, the gender balance was improved largely by attractive women, who were not engineers, being employed to ‘explain’ technological advances.

Weeks later, the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos was also dominated by technology, which the Prime Minister used as a fig leaf to cover the absence of vision for Brexit. Lacking in both the CES and Davos, was any sense that the interests of the many had any significant stake in what was going on. We need a Labour government to help change that.

Chi Onwurah is the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, and the shadow minister for industrial strategy.