psychology; nude; selfie; science of social; Techcrunch

The Psychology behind the Naked Selfie

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If you're building a tech product that has anything to do with photos then you're probably feeling an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu lately, and it has to do with data security.

It's become so routine that it's hard to imagine a Monday without hearing about another set of iCloud photos that got hacked during the weekend. These aren't just pictures of the girl down the street and her new Black Labrador puppy though. Instead, many of them are more likely to be pictures of her using the puppy as a prop in a nude selfie. And it's not just Apple/iCloud products that are at risk for getting hacked. So is Snapchat, and probably all other major sites hosting photos. Scandals are popping up AGAIN and AGAIN around hacked photos, especially nude ones. Why do we keep seeing these scandals?

There are two opposing camps trying to explain why we're having nude photo leaks, but who's right?

One group says, "Enough, children. Want to stop nude photos from getting hacked?  Keep your clothes on in selfies and the problem will go away by itself."  Those on the other side of the debate insist we must not blame the victim and instead should demand better privacy protections for iCloud and other digital storage accounts. 

Sound familiar? That's because it is. We've had scandals about hacked photos going back every year for almost 10 years, and people keep writing these same reactions after each one.

Annually rehashing this debate for a decade hasn't gotten us too far.  While we should expect companies to update security features, we can also expect hackers will continue improving their toolkits. And as for warning people to not take nude selfies, since when has issuing warnings been the key to changing behavior? 

Take smoking behavior or drunk driving. Even with the enormous anti-smoking campaigns and Surgeon General’s Warning emblazoned on cigarette packs, smoking continues to kill more people than AIDS, alcohol, car accidents, illegal drugs, murders and suicides combined. People know the physical and legal dangers of drunk driving, yet, alcohol-impaired drivers are causing 30 fatalities per day.  The point is, education and warnings won't solve problems unless the problems were caused by lack of knowledge.

Why, then, do young(ish) people keep taking naked digital pictures of themselves that are bound to get hacked? They were probably aware of the other  nude photo scandals that occurred so it's not that they don't know what's going on.  Is the answer then that all of these people taking naked pictures are just really stupid and have too much time on their hands?

Not quite. There's actually a science behind why we keep seeing these repeated nude photo scandals—the science of social

The truth is, sexting—sending sexually suggestive photos or videos via cell phone—is increasingly common among this age group.  According to a recent Pew Report, 15% of adults ages 18 to 24 and 22% of adults ages 25 to 34 admit to having sent such a message. Knowing that, it's less of a surprise that in the past year thousands of young people have had their nude photos hacked, including famous ones like Jennifer Lawrence and Mila Kunis. 

Are we saying, then, that this is simply a case of peer pressure? Nope, that's not it.

Our research at the UCLA Center for Digital Behavior has taught that our perceptions of what is normal in our social networks affects our behavior.  In one study, college students viewed a selection of Facebook photos of their peers and were then asked to estimate the percentage of students who engaged in sex without condoms and sex with strangers, and whether they themselves behave this way.  When students saw more sexually-suggestive photos of their peers (e.g., kissing, flirting with the camera, wearing revealing clothing), they reasoned that more of their peers were having unprotected sex and sex with strangers. They also said that they themselves planned on having more sex without condoms and sex with strangers. 

The point is, what people think their peers are doing (regardless of what they are actually doing) influences their behavior. If people think their friends are taking naked selfies and putting these pics online (even if the truth is that their friends are sitting at home chatting with mom), then they will start uploading selfies in the buff.  And this psychology isn't unique to only youth. It affects all of human behavior.

So what should you do if you're working on a photo-related technology and want a solution other than more data security to keep your product out of the hacking spotlight? My advice, as a behavioral psychologist, is that adding another few lines to your legal page or slapping on a data security warning pop-up about the risks of photo hacking won’t work, just like it doesn’t work for smoking, alcohol use, or most other behaviors. You've got to change the social environment to change the behavior. The short answer to change user behavior is, build a community around how people upload and share pictures. Create a social norm on what types of photos should be taken and shared using your technology. It might sound difficult, but there's a science behind how to create a community for positive social change, and you can find that information right here.

Effective behavior change campaigns work by understanding and changing the social environment.  To combat the increasing trend of sexting, we must similarly apply this science of social.

Sean Young, PhD, MS is the Executive Director of the UCLA Center for Digital Behavior and a Medical School Professor in the UCLA Department of Family Medicine.