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Caitlin Cozine, 15, of Los Gatos likes to have selfie photo shoots with her friends at Hakone Gardens in Saratoga.

Who doesn't love a good picture of themselves? Even the camera-shy are less likely to feel bashful when they're in control of the photograph. Just twist to your good side, look up slightly (you want to avoid a double chin, don't you?), extend your arm and shoot. Now, post to Facebook and wait for the barrage of compliments. Feels good, right?

In a relatively short time, selfies have become our culture's collective visual diary. Currently, the hashtag #selfie yields more than 31 million hits on Instagram, and the Oxford Dictionaries selected selfie as the Word of the Year for 2013. Even President Barack Obama was photographed last week taking a selfie at Nelson Mandela's memorial service. Clearly, we're in the midst of a self-portrait renaissance.

Stephanie Eads of Walnut Creek likes getting memorable backgrounds into the selfies she posts for her family in the Midwest.
Stephanie Eads of Walnut Creek likes getting memorable backgrounds into the selfies she posts for her family in the Midwest. (Courtesy of Stephanie Eads)

Some think it's turning us into a nation of narcissists, but psychologists say that in moderation, selfies are a feel-good and often creative way, particularly for teens, to chronicle their lives and emotions and express their personalities. And people who post selfies assert that they can have an effect on their moods and self-esteem.

Stephanie Eads, of Walnut Creek, sees shutter-bugging as a healthy habit. The 35-year-old receptionist snaps several selfies a day with memorable backgrounds -- the beach, a beloved Raiders game -- and posts at least one a week to her Facebook page. Because her family lives in the Midwest, selfies are Eads' way of showing them her day-to-day experiences.

"I'll usually post if I have a new haircut or makeup, or if someone's in a bad mood I'll text them one where I'm making a goofy face to cheer them up," Eads says. "It just makes me feel good, and when you're by yourself, it's my way of not feeling alone."

John Casey, a procurement contract specialist in Santa Clara, has been posting selfies to his Facebook page every Saturday for the past four years. He says it's a ritual he loves because it gives people he's never met a glimpse, literally, into his personality.

File - In this Oct. 24, 2008, file photo Michelle Obama, left, takes a picture with a supporter. Selfie" the smartphone self-portrait has been
File - In this Oct. 24, 2008, file photo Michelle Obama, left, takes a picture with a supporter. Selfie" the smartphone self-portrait has been declared word of the year for 2013 by Britain's Oxford University Press. ((AP Photo/Tony Dejak, File))

He sits at his desk and shoots the selfies while donning different hats. Over the years, he's snapped selfies in hard hats, Giants caps, beanies and fedoras. He typically gets about 50 comments or likes. If he gets a negative comment, he shrugs it off and deletes it.

"It's cool to have people say nice things about your picture," says Casey, 57. "Selfies have made people who are reticent to chat with me more likely to do so. That's also a good feeling."

Selfies can damage our self-esteem, though. When we get so distracted by the marketing of ourselves, we can lose touch with our authentic identities and struggle to build real relationships, says Lucie Hemmen, a Santa Cruz clinical psychologist and author of "Parenting a Teen Girl: A Crash Course on Conflict, Communication and Connection with Your Teenage Daughter" (New Harbinger, 2012).

"There's a continuum of health and authenticity in what you shoot and post," she says. "A secure, mature person is going to post selfies that are spontaneous and not overly engineered or edited, and they're going to do it less often. A more insecure person is going to post staged or sexualized photos, and they're going to do it so much that they become consumed by it and the comments they receive."

Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center in Boston, calls selfies a "really interesting psychological shift" in self-portraiture and in our relationships with ourselves. "Selfies allow you to be the producer, director, curator and actor in your own story," says Rutledge, an adjunct professor at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology. "In this new relationship with yourself, you're using creative expression to show not just how you look in that shirt but how you feel in the moment. It's an interesting progression in communication, like telling a visual story."

Teenagers are among the largest group of storytellers. According to a recent study from the Pew Research Center, 91 percent of teens have posted a photo of themselves online. Many also use photo messaging applications such as Snapchat to attach text.

Fifteen-year-old Brandon Garnsey likes to include inspiring song lyrics or film quotes to his daily selfies on Instagram.

"I like the whole idea of expressing where you're at and getting to freeze a moment in time," says Brandon, a Danville resident. This past Sunday, after seeing "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," he posted a series of moody selfies with the caption, "I had to do it just once," quoting Gale Hawthorne, a character in the film.

Brandon Garnsey, 15, of Danville posted this stressed out selfie and received comments of homework co-miseration on Facebook.
Brandon Garnsey, 15, of Danville posted this stressed out selfie and received comments of homework co-miseration on Facebook. (Brandon Garnsey)

"It was my first time posting a selfie on #selfiesunday so I thought the quote was fitting," Brandon says. No matter where he is or what's in the background, he always makes sure to angle his face to the left, his "better" side, and comb his hair to the left.

"I just think it looks better, and when I like the way I look, it motivates me," he says. "It makes me feel more confident."

Even when he's not at his best, positive comments can help lift his spirits. Recently, Brandon posted a selfie looking stressed out and frustrated with a pile of homework behind him. One of his 700 followers responded, "I feel the same way." "It made me feel like I wasn't alone," he says.

Robert Ward, of San Jose, can relate. When his mood is sour or pensive, Ward says he still posts selfies. His mood improves tremendously when he receives a nice comment on Facebook asking what's wrong or saying that he looks handsome.

"Especially when they're comments from girls from the high school days," he says.

In fact, taking selfies over the years has helped him learn to capture his best image. The 58-year-old screenwriter has never liked the way the dark circles under his eyes appear in photos; with a selfie, the blue-eyed brunette has mastered how to minimize them: He shoots looking up.

"It makes the circles lighter and your face thinner," Ward says. He rarely gets negative comments, just an occasional sarcastic jab from a friend, like "Nice '70s hair, dude!" Those don't bother him, Ward says. What does is no comments at all.

"That means I didn't affect anyone enough to comment or even take that millisecond to tap Like," he says. "Getting no comment on a freshly posted selfie is like asking people to dance, and they shake their head no in front of everybody."

To get their best comment-worthy selfies, Caitlin Cozine and her friends in Los Gatos like to wear "pretty dresses" for selfie "photo shoots" in Vasona Park or Hakone Estate & Gardens and take turns snapping shots of each other and themselves in flattering poses.

"It improves your social status and makes you feel good to see the comments, 'Gorgeous' or 'You look so nice,' " says Caitlin, 15. "But I think selfies are good as long as they're done in moderation because if not, it looks like you're fishing for compliments."

Therein lies the challenge: practicing selfie control. Because teenagers are often driven by insecurity to construct a desirable persona, they are particularly vulnerable to the negative side of self-portraiture, Hemmen says.

"If a young girl poses provocatively and gets 300 likes for that photo, that's false self-esteem for that kid," she says. "Selfies can be fun and give people a burst of satisfaction in the moment, but we still want to encourage people to have authentic identities in real time and with real people."

Reach Jessica Yadegaran at jyadegaran@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow her at Twitter.com/swirlgirl_jy.