Facial Filters Can Take A Toll On Teen Self-Esteem & Mental Health

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 

Call them augumented reality, face filters, or — the term Google’s adopted — “face retouching,” they started out as cute puppy dog ears, vomiting rainbows, flower crowns, and… that blue filter that smooths out your complexion. Now every major social media platform, from SnapChat to TikTok, Facebook to Instagram, has them, and we’re all guilty. Raise your hand if you don’t have a fave Insta filter. When I drink with friends on Facebook Messenger Chat, I put on kitty ears once I’m drunk: they’re not only cute, but they also make my eyes bigger and my face a touch narrower. A friend halos herself in angel wings and blue light. We’re smoother, prettier, digital versions of ourselves.

We’re also almost forty.

Teens grew up in selfie culture. Sophia tells MIT Technology Review that she was in fifth grade when filter use became widespread, and she and her friends were definitely trying to make themselves look better. “Twelve-year-old girls having access to something that makes you not look like you’re 12?” she says. “Like, that’s the coolest thing ever. You feel so pretty.” But what happens when our digital self doesn’t match the person in the mirror? We’re conducting a massive social experiment, and we’re using primarily teenagers and women to do it.

Face Filters Are Ubiquitous

Caroline Rocha, a makeup artist and photographer, tells MIT Technology Review that she sees women who won’t be shown filterless. “They refuse to be seen without these filters, because in their mind they think that they look like that,” she says. “It became, for me, a bit sick.” She says she’s even struggled with it herself: “I have to make my nose thinner and give myself a big lip because I feel ugly.”

Even Zoom now has a “touch up my appearance” option.

Teen Vogue talks about Kim Kardashian sharing a a video of herself receiving an expensive facial, which involved removing her makeup and concealer. Camera turned on herself, she may have ditched her makeup, but she never ditched her “skin-smoothing, eye-brightening Snapchat flower-crown.” She’d show her skin treatment, but not her actual skin.

And if Kim Kardashian won’t go filterless, who are we to step into the digital eye without one? According to Media Blaze, 63% of teens 13-17 use Instagram daily. 54% go on Snapchat. 62% of TikTok users are between 10 and 29, and it’s the most downloaded app in the world, says Oberlo. 64% of users have tried facial filters or lenses. I’m in my late thirties, and I don’t post a damn thing on social media without filtering on my phone or through social media. If I know what’s happening and I still do it, what’s happening to teen girls who think filters are normal?

But Face Filters Don’t Stop At Smoothing

Maybe you’ve heard of Facetune or Meitu. These apps allow a user to play around with their actual facial features. Don’t like your nose? Make it smaller. Eyes? Make them bigger. Lips get bigger; everything’s smoothed, and photos get that ineffable digital glow. Teen Vogue says “most of us” have run pictures through one of these apps, which is absolutely terrifying. 21 year-old Alec Bayot tells Women’s Health that she’s deleted Facetune “multiple” times. “I’m on social media basically 24/7,” he says. “I make most of my hair, fashion, and beauty decisions based on what I see there, so it plays a big part in what I look like.”

Except she doesn’t look like that.

MIT Technology Review asked 19-year-old Veronica to describe the “Instagram Face.” “Small nose, big eyes, clear skin, big lips,” she says. Face filters that change the “size and shape of certain facial features” are called “deformation” or “facial distortion,” and teens say they prefer them. Thousands of these are available on every social media platform; Facebook banned them in 2019 but reinstated them, as long as they didn’t explicitly promote plastic surgery.

This All Adds Up To Mental Health Issues

Heather Senior Monroe, a licensed clinical social worker who holds a masters in social work and serves as the director of program development at Newport Academy, a mental health treatment center that provides support to teens and their families, tells Teen Vogue that there’s a “clear link” between media use and body image issues. Depression and self-esteem issues are also common as teens compare their real selves to the filtered versions of their friends… and find their mirror selves lacking. “These ongoing comparisons and attempts to live up to an impossible ideal most definitely take a toll on mental health,” Monroe says.

Peace Amadi, PsyD, an associate psychology professor at Hope International University in California, tells Women’s Health that a negative link between social media and mental health is well-established. “Instagram has been tied to anxiety and depressive symptoms,” she says, “but also to concerns such as anxiety related to physical appearance, increased body dissatisfaction, and lower self-esteem.”

Since so many teens are using Instagram — and its filters — daily, that’s frightening information. These concerns can easily spiral into obsessive-compulsive issues about appearance, she says. This can include body dysmorphia disorder, which Monroe describes to Teen Vogue as “a very serious mental health condition in which a person’s misperception of how they appear becomes obsessive to the point that it severely affects their everyday functioning.”

Facial filters have become so ubiquitous that people now bring retouched photos of themselves to plastic surgeons, says Media Blaze. In fact, in 2017, 55% of plastic surgeons say they saw people who stated that they wanted to look better in selfies. In 2013, that number was 13%. Teens are learning that this augmented reality they see in facial filters should be their reality. They should see their filtered selves in their mirrors, and when they don’t, they fall short.

That mismatch causes self-esteem issues, depression, and more serious psychological disorders. Face filters are fun. But we’re raising girls who think they need them, who believe they unattractive if they aren’t digitally retouched. Forget the Polaroid.

Unless you mean the filter.

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