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The Hidden Danger of Online Beauty Filters

The more you edit your image, the greater the harm.

Apostolos Vamvouras / Shutterstock
Apostolos Vamvouras / Shutterstock

There are strong social and cultural incentives to look as good as possible, so it’s unsurprising that many people strive to present themselves in the best possible light—especially online. However, a growing body of research is revealing that digital beauty filters tend to have a negative impact on mental health.

Beauty filters are specific photo editing tools that use artificial intelligence to alter facial features in photos. Common filters are “the skinny filter” on TikTok, which makes your face look slimmer, and the “perfect face filter” on Instagram, which adjusts facial features according to an ideal ratio.

A City University of London report found that beauty filters have become increasingly popular on social media. For example, Snapchat found that over 90 percent of young people in the United States, France, and the UK use filter products on their apps. In addition, Meta reports that over 600 million people have used filters on Facebook or Instagram.

Researchers at the City University of London explored the adverse effects of filters on mental health. In a sample of 175 participants, with an average age of 20, 90 percent of young women reported using filters or editing their photos.

When asked what type of filters they used the most, participants said the most common filters were those used to even out skin tone, brighten skin, whiten teeth, bronze skin, and reduce body size. Participants also used filters on social media to reshape jaws or noses, make lips look fuller, and make eyes look bigger.

Why did the participants use filters? Ninety-four percent reported feeling pressured to look a particular way, and more than half described that pressure as intense.

Other research finds that young people with low self-esteem and poor body image are likelier to use filters, which can further reinforce the negative belief that their appearance isn’t good enough. These feelings and behaviors start quite early. Research conducted by the Dove Self-Esteem Project in 2020 found that 80 percent of girls have downloaded a filter or used an app to change how they look in photos by age 13.

In an experiment designed to investigate the relationship between selfie editing and body dissatisfaction more directly, researchers asked 130 women (average age 20) to view Instagram images of thin women or average-sized women as a way to induce body dissatisfaction in the former group. Participants were then asked to take a selfie on an iPad and were given ten minutes to edit the selfie. They completed questionnaires on their mood, body dissatisfaction, and facial dissatisfaction at baseline, after viewing the images, and after editing their selfies.

Viewing the thin images increased negative attitudes and body/facial dissatisfaction. Taking and editing the selfie increased both groups’ negative moods and facial dissatisfaction. Further, the time spent editing the selfies predicted the degree of increase in facial dissatisfaction.

Thus, it seems that investing in editing one’s self-presentation on social media is often a harmful practice for young women. And the more one does it, the more damaging it tends to be.

Young women are not only comparing their appearance to perfect images of celebrities and peers but also judging themselves against their filtered selfies. This constant comparison can be a source of great suffering and erode one’s positive body image and self-esteem.

Social comparison and beauty filters may cause users to strive for unrealistic beauty standards. As a result, young people may experience a disconnection between how they look and the edited images they share with the world. This is a specific kind of self-objectification that may even lead to serious mental health conditions like body dysmorphic disorder.

But maybe using filters on social media isn’t always bad for you. In a world where we are constantly judged (and judging others) based on appearance, it can be challenging to stop filtering your pictures. So are there ways to develop healthier filtering, posting, and scrolling habits?

First, you can start by becoming more aware of how your filters and social comparison behavior impact your body image, emotions, and well-being daily. Then, try these other suggestions for managing how you use filters that may help to preserve your self-esteem and to accept your appearance compassionately.

1. Use selfies mindfully.

Observe how much time you spend filtering and posting and how it makes you feel. Check in with your mood during and after the editing and posting process.

Once you post your selfie, notice if you want to keep checking for reactions and comparing your selfie to others. Do posting and social media comparisons enhance your well-being or detract from it? The answers may help you mindfully navigate social media in a way that will preserve or even improve your self-esteem and positive body image.

2. Consider the messages you are sending yourself.

Consider that every time you filter a selfie, you’re telling yourself, on some level of awareness, that you don’t look good enough as you are. You may ask yourself how much satisfaction you get from likes and comments if the image you represent isn’t really who you are. If our online image deviates too much from our actual appearance, we can become wary of meeting people in person. Thus, the use of beauty filters might increase social anxiety and contribute to feelings of social isolation.

3. Consider alternative social activities.

If you spend less time editing and posting, you’d theoretically have more time for outdoor activities, face-to-face interactions, or doing something creative. Think about whether filtering and posting have become a way of escaping real-life issues or expectations.

Managing your image online can give you a false sense of safety and control that we don’t have in face-to-face communication. Yet these real-time connections are among life’s most memorable and emotionally rewarding experiences. Research shows real-life friendships increase happiness and well-being far more than online connections.

4. Embrace your authentic self.

Remember that what we see as our flaws are part of what makes us interesting, honest, and relatable to others. You can practice self-compassion by accepting and appreciating yourself for all your qualities. Try Mirror Meditation to build a caring and supportive relationship with yourself. By looking at your unfiltered image for 10 minutes daily, you’ll become more comfortable with yourself as you are and more at ease with allowing your authentic self to be seen.

Tara Well, Ph.D. 2023

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Davi Costa/Shutterstock

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