How Social Media Filters Are Affecting Youth

Social media filters may be cute and fun, but they are having a deeper impact on the mental health of youth. Here's what parents need to know.

Person taking selfie
Photo: Getty Images. ART: Alex Sandoval

Arianna G.* started using filters on social media when she was 14. Her main goal was to hide her biggest insecurity: she felt her legs were fat. "I thought everyone would zoom in on my post and share it with each other to make fun of me," says Arianna, now 17. "I didn't look like the other girls around me and I desperately wanted to. So I decided to edit myself to match their posts: skinny legs, clear face, white teeth."

Her desire to use social media filters isn't unique. Just scroll through your Instagram feed or Snapchat stories and you're bound to see photos of kids of all ages and even their parents with heart eyes, anime cartoon depictions, Disney-inspired graphics, and more. Using filters can be fun and totally harmless.

But not all filters are created equally. Some are smoothing out the skin, enhancing features or making them smaller, and even changing skin colors. These filters geared toward beauty modification can be damaging to a child's self-worth and mental health, while also creating unrealistic expectations.

"With any form of social media, the user can create the persona or public face they want others to see," says Allison Chase, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and regional clinical director with Pathlight Mood and Anxiety Center, who specializes in the effects of social media on children and teenagers. "Reality becomes even more distorted when posts use filters and other feature-enhancing apps to change and enhance the appearance of the image."

A 2021 ParentsTogether survey of more than 200 U.S. teens ages 13 to 21 found 87 percent use a filter on social media, and nearly 1 in 5 use a beauty filter on every single one of their posts. The most common reasons for using the beauty filters were to "look more beautiful" and "hide a characteristic they don't like." What's more: 61 percent of those teens said beauty filters make them feel worse about their real-life appearance.

What's also dangerous is how subtle these filtered images sometimes are. A 2017 study in the journal Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications found that people only recognized manipulated images up to 65 percent of the time. And yet these highly filtered images online can affect a person's self-esteem, promote unhealthy behaviors like disordered eating or over-exercising, and impact how a kid views their identity. "When filters change the shape of facial features like the eyes, nose, and lips, or smooth and lighten the skin color, the message being sent to the child is that they are not enough the way they are," explains Dr. Chase.

Arianna now understands those effects firsthand. "That was the most damaging part—the fact that I thought I needed to be a replica to be accepted," she says.

She's far from alone. Research shows filters are leading to Snapchat dysmorphia, a term plastic surgeon Tijion Esho, M.D., coined in 2018 referring to one's toxic obsession with how their body and face look using filters. It's a form of body dysmorphic disorder, according to a study published in JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery, or an obsession with perceived flaws in one's appearance.

As a result of excessive face filters and editing apps, there has been a surge in cosmetic surgeries to fulfill patients' requests to look like their filtered selfies. A 2020 survey by the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery (AAFPRS) found 72 percent of facial cosmetic surgeons had patients who wanted to look better in their selfies in 2019, a 15 percent increase from the previous year. And in 2019, 74 percent of facial plastic surgeons saw an increase in minimally invasive procedures (neurotoxins, fillers, and skin treatments) in patients under 30 years old.

Of course, not all use of social media is bad, and filters can simply be a fun, light-hearted way to bond or interact. "For older children who have lost several years of middle or high school to the pandemic, online interactions can provide a good outlet for socialization and fostering relationships with peers," says Anisha Patel-Dunn, D.O., a psychiatrist and chief medical officer at LifeStance Health, a national provider of virtual and in-person outpatient mental health care.

But it's important to recognize that filter use may negatively influence mental health and there are ways for parents to step in to help their children with filter obsession without dismissing all usage.

Have Age-appropriate Conversations

Communication is key. Considering the child's developmental age and experience, parents need to have continuous discussions to separate reality from online perceptions.

"With younger kids, asking open-ended questions about their thoughts surrounding social media is a way to assess what the child understands and the impact it may be having on them," says Dr. Chase.

For teens, it's also a good idea to ask open-ended questions but parents can also take it a step further. "It can be useful to point out observations and known information and see what the teenager replies," Dr. Chase recommends. For example, a parent can say, "It looks like your classmate always uses filters or editing on her social media. Is that typical? What do you think of these pictures being altered?"

Encourage Them To Limit Screen Time

Research shows a link between heavy social media use and increased risk of depression, anxiety, loneliness, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts. That's why it's OK for parents to play an active role in monitoring their child's social media usage.

"Research suggests that use of social media is largely unrestricted," says Mary Beth DeWitt, Ph.D., chief of child psychology at Dayton Children's Hospital. "Parents should discuss the drawbacks and limits to social media and ensure discussion about internet safety."

That includes talking to your child about how often they should be using their phones and how long they can spend on platforms like TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat.

Validate Your Child's Worth

Children as young as 3 demonstrate signs of being unhappy with their bodies and wanting to change their body image, according to research from the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY). According to Dr. Patel-Dunn, the severity of these feelings can be heavily influenced by societal expectations and language/modeling from adults in the child's life, not just social media.

Knowing that beauty filters contribute to these feelings of "less than," it's important to remind your child of their value as a person, completely unfiltered.

"Parents should not encourage children to use beauty-enhancing filters," says Dr. Chase. "It's important to validate your child's worth and help them to love themselves for who they are and how they look."

*Last names have been withheld for privacy.

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