What Your Phone Photo Reveals About You

If your main phone screen shows an image of you and your friends, it's clear they matter to you. (Photo: Lipik Stock Media/Shutterstock)

Never before have we had the ability to carry so many images around with us at all times. And while in years past, people may have kept a special photo in their wallets (and many still do), the smartphone home screen has become the most common repository for our most treasured people. It's easy to see and simple to show off — even if we think the image is just for us. And because that image can be changed so easily, what we put there reveals something about what we value. (And if it's always the same image, that reveals something too.)

I feel a bit awkward about my own phone's background image. I always have a snap of my favorite painting or sculpture from my latest museum visit — but my partner's phone usually has a picture of me, a picture of our cat, or a picture of me and the cat. What does my seemingly non-personal choice mean? Am I a horrible person?

To find out, I interviewed psychiatrist Dr. Damian Sendler, who is chief of clinical research at Felnett Health Research Foundation and a digital epidemiologist. Sendler consults on forensic psychiatric evaluations, and he says our phone wallpaper is significant enough that it's one of the pieces of evidence he looks at when a case comes in.

"Whatever we choose to include on the screen has to have certain meaning to us," says Sendler. "[It shows] what we are interested in, what we believe in, or what kind of things — or people — we care about."

Sendler went into so much great detail that I decided to share more of the interview, which has been simplified and condensed from the original.

MNN: Something interesting about a phone background is that it’s for the owner of the phone — but also a projection of ourselves to the world, since people will see the image. (It's hard not too look at someone's buzzing phone!) What impact does this personal/public aspect have on image choice?

Dr. Damian Sendler: People who are more outgoing and adventurous are more likely to include photos that stimulate a response. A more conservative person will not include images that might be embarrassing or political. Others choose to have no pictures at all, instead choosing backgrounds that are content-neutral, artistic, or just plain. They do that because it decreases their preoccupation with the image itself and focuses attention on practical use of the phone to make calls, read emails, and so on.

The most obvious choice to express yourself is to put up a picture of your family or someone you love. Aside from relationship building, some people use imagery to attract a specific type of audience. For example, certain religious denominations encourage putting up specific imagery as cellphone background to recruit potential members in a non-forcible way. It’s sort of like sparking an interest in the image to open up a conversation.

Woman takes photos of dog on the beach
This will make an excellent screen saver. (Photo: majivecka/Shutterstock)

The most common backgrounds seem to be selfie, pets, kids, collage images, some kind of default image wallpaper that comes on the phone, or a sunset or other image taken on vacation. Can you tell us (generally) what each one says about the person who chooses it?

Selfies: Self-centered individuality. Most people, when asked clinically about their self-perception, prefer not to see their own image as it might remind them of certain imperfections. It takes some special guts to like looking at yourself most of the time.

Pets: This reveals a kind-hearted, nature-loving person. Dogs specifically remind us about camaraderie and unconditional friendship. Animals, especially small ones, are intrinsically cute and adorable and so their imagery lights up our day when all else fails.

Kids: Especially important for new parents, as it reminds them about the purpose of their life and why they’re committing to specific work and leisure assignments to help a small human being grow and be the best they can be.

Collage images: When the person can’t decide which image best fits in with your mood, or when there are several important people in their life they want to have on their mind on-the-go. This is especially important for moms of two or three children — it would be awkward to include a picture of just one kid.

Nature: Green colors generally calm us down. Imagery of leaves or clouds help us reposition ourselves toward the natural habitat where people first lived. Nature is stimulation-neutral, meaning that it doesn’t evoke negative emotions; it’s quite the opposite — it is mesmerizing and gives each one of us the chance to have unique image up on our screen.

A snapshot of autumn on a smartphone, bright yellow boots in foliage
A snapshot of a fleeting moment can be reflective and also self-indulgent in a healthy way. (Photo: fetrinka/Shutterstock)

As mentioned, I keep art from my most recent museum visit. Occasionally I'll use one of the natural patterns I like to photograph when I'm out running, and I have a couple other friends who use nature images (flowers, waterfalls) or travel images (pictures of Greenland from above, etc.). What about less-common images?

This shows a high level of individuality and the ability to distance yourself from petty things to reflect on significant events, places, and products of artistry. Most people look for simple solutions, so they’ll lean toward images of nature, animals, or a default picture. When someone takes time to select the right image to remember a certain significant event, like recent travel, it shows that the person wants to re-live that moment because it brings back good memories. It’s all about healthy self-nurturing.

* * *

When I polled my friends on Facebook, several of them mentioned that they kept inspirational or motivational images on their home screens. Several friends who are serious travelers had photos of specific places to remind them to book their next trip. Quite a few others also had pieces of art, as I do — the door to Georgia O'Keefe's house, a set of pop-art plates, a graphic cut-out of a chicken, and an ancient bas-relief. All the rest kept pictures of pets or kids.

So I guess I'm not so weird after all — and probably, neither are you.