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It started when two canine scientists decide to become pen pals in an era of digital media...

Friday, 24 July 2015

Facebook, depression & dogs: Send me an Angel

Guest post by: Kirrilly Thompson, B.Soc Sci (Hons), PhD



A few years ago, my life changed. The impact of separating from my partner took me by surprise. For the first time in 12 years, I had to put on my ‘big girl pants’ and do things for myself and by myself.

I worked hard. I partied hard. I cried hard. Sometimes at the same time.

In the mornings, I would lay in bed waiting for a reason to get out of it. I had moved to the country to be closer to my horses, but I lost all motivation to ride.

I became obsessed with my appearance. Checking it, judging it, trying to improve it, searching for photographic proof that I was OK. I gained a reputation for being a ‘selfie queen’, but the photos were more like doomed ‘self-helpsies’. Each selfie posted to my Facebook page represented another 30 or so that I had discarded, too horrible for anyone to see, let alone myself. I hurriedly untagged myself from photos posted by friends without authorisation.

I was exhausted from being stuck in my own head, worrying about myself and why I was like this. My GP wrote a mental health plan and I saw a few different therapists. They introduced me to mindfulness techniques.

Like a curious scientist, I was encouraged to observe my feelings and thereby create some distance between them and myself. Instead of feeling sad, anxious, depressed, scared etc. and trying desperately to rid myself of those feelings, I was encouraged to ‘make space’ for them. This was done by examining them as if they were separate from me: what colour is my anxiety? Is sadness hot or cold... Instead of running from or fighting that emotion, I sat with it. Mindfulness.


I soon adapted mindfulness to suit my own visual preferences and affinity for animals. I turned my feelings into dogs. Even though I hadn't lived with a dog since my childhood, I would imagine which breed best represented my feelings and how I would treat it. If I was feeling scared, I would imagine a timid whippet sitting on my lap whilst I reassured it with pats. If I was feeling really angry, I would imagine a growling Doberman. I gave it space in the passenger seat.

A couple of Novembers ago, I was at a birthday celebration I had arranged for myself, all by my big self. Unbeknownst to me, a litter of Tenterfield Terriers were born on the same day. One of them was named ‘Angel Eyes’, but the breeders called her “Big Girl”.



I had no idea I would meet her a month or so later. That tiny four-legged scientist fell into my lap, sat down and stared at me. I chose her because she was mindful of me. We made space for one another. I brought Angel home on Christmas Eve. She became my therapist. I spent so much time wondering what was going on in her head that I got out of mine. I had a little thing that needed me to get out of bed each morning. She made me smile and laugh. If I slept in, it was to take photos of her sleeping on my bed. If my make-up-free face was in the photo, I didn’t care. Whilst I would never have made it through my ‘black dog’ patch without love and support from my colleagues, friends and family, we all agree that Angel changed my life forever. She also changed my Facebook page.



Kirrilly is a Senior Researcher at CQUni's Appleton Institute.
She is a trained anthropologists who uses ethnographic methods to research the cultural dimensions of risk-perception and safety. Kirrilly has particular interests in human-animal interactions, high risk interspecies activities and equestrianism. She has proposed the 'Pets as Protective Factor' principle, based on a DECRA project identifying how animal attachment can be re-considered as a protective factor for human survival of natural disasters. She is also a co-investigator on a sister project: 'MAiD Managing Animals in Disasters' with Dr Mel Taylor. This project aims to improve the interface of animal owners and first responders during all hazards. 

For a comprehensive publications list, see https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Kirrilly_Thompson


Further information

On the human desire to connect:
            Baumeister, Roy F, and Mark R Leary. 1995. "The need to belong: desire for interpersonal
            attachments as a fundamental human motivation."
Psychological bulletin no. 117 (3):497.

On dogs reducing depression:
Clark Cline, Krista Marie. 2010. "Psychological effects of dog ownership: Role strain, role enhancement, and depression." The Journal of social psychology no. 150 (2):117-131.

On unhealthy preoccupation with appearance:
Veale, David, and Susan Riley. 2001. "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the ugliest of them all? The psychopathology of mirror gazing in body dysmorphic disorder." Behaviour Research and Therapy no. 39 (12):1381-1393. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0005-7967(00)00102-9.

On what is mindfulness:
http://www.thehappinesstrap.com/mmindfulness
http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/allinthemind/is-mindfulness-actually-good-for-you/6462670

Multiple resources on mindfulness with guided meditations which particularly relate to anxiety and depression:

Lots of audio meditations using breath, sounds and body as objects of meditation

Compassion meditation resources:

On the benefits of mindfulness for treating depression:
Hofmann, Stefan G, Alice T Sawyer, Ashley A Witt, and Diana Oh. 2010. "The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review." Journal of consulting and clinical psychology no. 78 (2):169.

The idea of self-representation is not new in the social sciences. It is most notably associated with:
Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. London: Penguin Books.
Butler, Judith. 1999. "Performativity's Social Magic." In Bourdieu: A Critical Reader, edited by R Shusterman, 113 -128. Great Britain: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

But more recently, research has focussed on self-presentation in and through social media:
Siibak, Andra. 2009. "Constructing the self through the photo selection-visual impression management on social networking websites." Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace no. 3 (1):1. http://www.cyberpsychology.eu/view.php?cisloclanku=2009061501&article=1

Gonzales, Amy L, and Jeffrey T Hancock. 2011. "Mirror, mirror on my Facebook wall: Effects of exposure to Facebook on self-esteem." Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking no. 14 (1-2):79-83. http://www.liebertonline.com/doi/abs/10.1089/cyber.2009.0411

The ‘selfie phenomenon’ is widely discussed in the popular and academic media, often in pejorative terms of narcissism or vanity.
Kiprin, Borislav. 2013. "Go Selfie Yourself!". http://borislavkiprin.com/2013/12/13/go-selfie-yourself/

Buchanan, Kent. 2014. "The wide-screen selfie: Emma Thomson's' take your best shot'." Photofile no. 94 (Autumn/Winter):17-24. http://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary;dn=527807360465638;res=IELAPA

Franco, JAMES. 2013. "The Meanings of the Selfie." The New York Times no. 28.http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/29/arts/the-meanings-of-the-selfie.html?ref=technology&_r=3&

Mehdizadeh, Soraya. 2010. "Self-presentation 2.0: Narcissism and self-esteem on Facebook." Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking no. 13 (4):357-364. http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/cyber.2009.0257

Whilst there is little peer-review social science literature dedicated to the phenomenon, it does seem to be of interest to university students:
Montanez, Alexandria Marie. 2014. The Selfie Queen: Sexualisation, Representation, and Implications of Selfies on Women. Paper read at IUURC 20.
Vigliotti, Jeanette C. 2014. "The Double Sighted: Visibility, Identity, and Photographs on Facebook." http://digitalcommons.unf.edu/etd/506/

There is a clear need for research on the tension between, on one hand, the selfie as a liberating tool that provides women with control over their self-presentation and positions them as producers of their own image; eg.
Ehlin, Lisa. 2014. "The subversive selfie: Redefining the mediated subject." Clothing Cultures no. 2 (1):73-89. http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/intellect/cc/2014/00000002/00000001/art00005

and on the other hand, a disciplining technology that obliges people to produce the best version of themselves against limitless and dynamic criteria. The latter is reinforced by a developing market for selfie enhancing tools.
Kanazir, Marija. 2014. "Sony Unveils the Perfect Tool for Fashionable Selfie Lovers." http://www.brandingmagazine.com/2014/08/30/sony-kw1-perfume-camera/

Van House, Nancy, Marc Davis, Morgan Ames, Megan Finn, and Vijay Viswanathan. 2005. The uses of personal networked digital imaging: an empirical study of cameraphone photos and sharing. Paper read at CHI'05 extended abstracts on Human factors in computing systems. http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1057039

There is even research on the best selfie angle:
Yeh, Mei-Chen, and Hsiao-Wei Lin. 2014. Virtual portraitist: aesthetic evaluation of selfies based on angle. Paper read at Proceedings of the ACM International Conference on Multimedia. http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=2656401

And a facebook group for selfie-science:

Even animals are getting in on the act:
Schlackman, Steve. 2013. "The Telegraph is Wrong about the Monkey Selfie." Newsletter. http://artlawjournal.com/telegraph-wrong-monkey-selfie/