The Mental Health Impacts of Beauty Filters on Social Media Shouldn't Be Ignored — Here's Why

Let's talk about social media.

Whether you're on Instagram, Snapchat, or TikTok, chances are you've dabbled in playing with the filters on these apps. Filters can be fun, especially ones that turn you into Pixar characters or give you a whole new face. Sometimes they can even make us feel seen and beautiful, like the Belle filter on TikTok, which highlighted aegyo-sal or puffy under eyes, which is a feature that mainly Asian women have. Videos of TikTok users celebrating that they finally had a filter that enhanced their natural features went viral.

Unfortunately, though, more often than not, time spent on social media using these filters can do more harm than good by altering our expectations. Beauty filters on social apps are notorious for highlighting Euro-centric beauty features, like lighter eyes, a smaller nose, and flushed cheeks. And others completely change the face by smoothing out every pore, enhancing the size of the lips, and changing the shape of the eyes. It seems like every time we hop on the app we find yet another filter that turns us into completely different versions of ourselves.

The result? Social media users who are dissatisfied with their own features, specifically women. We've come across several videos of women upset at how much these filters change their faces on these apps. 

According to a report from the Wall Street Journal, this impact is real and it isn't a secret. In an internal document that was revealed, it stated Facebook is aware of the harmful effects these apps have on women. The document reported, "thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse" and "among teens who reported suicidal thoughts, 13% of British users and 6% of American users traced the issue to Instagram."

However, this issue extends beyond teenagers. "Children and adults of all ages have confided in me and shared that they are ashamed of posting photographs of themselves without the use of filters," says Dr. Leela R. Magavi, a Hopkins-trained psychiatrist and regional medical director for Community Psychiatry and MindPath Care Centers. "I have assessed some teenagers, men, and women who have discussed the idea of getting plastic surgery to look more like the filtered version of themselves," she says.

And the research agrees. Studies show that social media significantly influences plastic surgery trends, and people are bringing in photos of their filtered selves as their inspiration pictures.

In addition to cosmetic procedures, experts say there is a direct link between social media filters and lower self-esteem, self-confidence, and higher cases of body dysmorphia. "I definitely see a new theme to body dysmorphic concerns," says Dr. Josie Howard, a board-certified psychiatrist who specializes in psychodermatology and is on the scientific advisory board for Proactiv.

"People begin to expect themselves to look like their filtered self and can become obsessed with achieving that in the real world, which leaves them depressed, anxious, lonely, and disappointed," she says.

A Canadian study published in 2019 showed that time spent on social media could exacerbate or trigger body image concerns, explains Dr. Magavi. "This study contended that as little as five minutes spent on Facebook or Instagram could have the capacity to elicit this negative response." Other studies have coined "Snapchat dysmorphia" or "selfie dysmorphia" as terms to describe this phenomenon.

On top of low self-esteem, these filters can also perpetuate feelings of loneliness and isolation. "The same time that we are seeing people's self-esteem eroded by exposure to social media, we are also seeing an increasing sense of isolation because these filters create a self-reinforcing feedback loop that leads to people spending more time on social media, seeking virtual validation, and less time connecting with others in the real world," explains Dr. Howard.

But what if you're someone who can admit that the social media filters that completely change your face are fake and still use them because you don't explicitly feel any of these negative emotions? Well, subconsciously, these filters can have the same impact. "More than a game, these apps subconsciously implant the notion of imperfection and ugliness generating a loss of confidence," says LOUM psychodermatologist Dr. Francisco Tausk.

"Subconsciously, social media and filters can also remind individuals of painful times in their lives or highlight their insecurities, and consequently, heighten symptoms of depression and anxiety," says Dr. Magavi. "Excessive time spent looking at filtered versions of themselves can adversely affect individuals' mood, sleep, and overall mental and physical wellness."

Even those who don't spend a lot of time on these apps can still feel the ramifications of these filters because they have a way of affecting society as a whole.

"While the impacts may first be seen amongst the users of social media, they quickly bleed into and permeate the general beauty standards and aesthetic expectations of all of us," says Dr. Howard. "So, even if someone is not spending hours on social media, they are still exposed to images and products that are driven by the phenomenon of filter enhanced expectations."

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So, how can we combat the downward self-esteem spirals and pit of negativity from using filters on these apps? The first step is awareness, says Dr. Howard. "I think really cognitively and consciously challenging and reminding ourselves that these images are not real is a good first step. It's also important to have some awareness of when social media may be leading to depression, anxiety, or isolation."

Being aware of any early warning signs can help you remain proactive and signal when you need to take a break and ground yourself off-screen. Additionally, Dr. Magavi recommends curating your social feeds to be a realm of positivity, inspiration, and self-compassion. Social media apps are echo chambers, which means the algorithms are designed to constantly feed you one perspective and view of the world based on who you follow, what you engage with, and like.

That said, if you begin following those who are body-positive, people who don't use these filters as much, and accounts that promote authenticity, then you're more likely to surround yourself and believe in those views, too.

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