Are Instagram filters affecting your health?

By Paula Bowden

Filters. They’ve pretty much been around since the dawn of social media. Whether it’s a touch of sepia tone or the much loved dog-ears filter, you’d be hard pressed to find a social media user that hasn’t used a filter at some point. However, while the primitive filters of the past have simply changed the brightness and tone of an image, today’s filters offer users the opportunity to change their face shape, lengthen their legs and even make themselves appear slimmer, no tricky software required.

For many, filters are still a simple bit of fun but for some users, they offer up a dangerous comparison, and can have damaging effects on self-esteem, leading to a warped self-perception.

In 2018, Dr. Tijion Esho, coined the phrase “selfie dysmorphia” – the phenomenon of people requesting cosmetic procedures to resemble their filtered social media image. While previously, Dr. Esho and his counterparts were used to clients presenting pictures of celebrities for inspiration, a growing number of people are now taking their own selfies to the cosmetic surgeon and looking to make their own filtered images a reality.

While one may laugh at the initial absurdity of this idea, Mellissa McKeon (24) said her decision to get lip and cheek fillers four years ago was largely based on a desire to look more like her online presence in real life.

“When I was 20, I went on a date with a guy who I had met online and he basically flat out told me that I didn’t look like my social media pictures. He played it off as a joke, but it devastated me and made me completely question the way I looked and my confidence.

“when an app gives you that opportunity to change the thing about yourself that you hate, well I obviously jumped at the chance”

“I think from a young age I’ve always had confidence issues and my lips were always something I was really self-conscious about, I’ve always felt they were flat and just unattractive. So naturally, when an app gives you that opportunity to change the thing about yourself that you hate, well I obviously jumped at the chance, but I took it a step further and tried to create that look in real life.

“I will say, looking back at all my pictures from my very early 20s and the fact that they look nothing like me. It makes me sad to look back because I was so unhappy.”

With little or no self-esteem and a severe hatred of her own body, Melissa spent three months receiving treatment for body-dysmorphia and depression, learning how to change the obsessively negative way she thought about her appearance.

“It’s not like you’re ever completely cured,” said Melissa. “But I do treat myself better now, I’m kinder to myself and I don’t use social media as much which helps.”

Last month the social media giant, Instagram, announced a ban on so-called plastic surgery filters from their platform as they look at reviewing the terms of their wellbeing policy.  

One of the filters in question, dubbed fix me, mapped out lines on the users face giving indication of where a plastic surgeon might nip and tuck to create the perfect face, while another filter plastica gave users inflated lips and higher cheek bones, showing them what they might look like if they went under the knife.

“We’re re-evaluating our policies – we want filters to be a positive experience for people”

In a statement, Instagram said: “We’re re-evaluating our policies – we want filters to be a positive experience for people.” They added that while they were re-evaluating their wellbeing policies they would be removing all effects from the gallery associated with plastic surgery and stopping any further approval of similar new effects as well as removing current effects that are reported to them.

The fix me and plastica filters.
Credit: DANIEL MOONEY/INSTAGRAM

Spark AR, the augmented reality platform that creates the filters, also released a statement on their Facebook which said: “We want Spark AR effects to be a positive experience and are re-evaluating our existing policies as they relate to well-being. While this happens we’re removing all effects associated with plastic surgery from the Instagram Effect Gallery.”

These changes follow on from a recent ban by Instagram on posts that make “miraculous” claims about weight loss and are linked to a commercial promotion.

As well as this, Instagram also said that it would begin hiding promotions for cosmetic surgery and other diet products from under 18s. The new policies will also be applied to Facebook, which owns Instagram.

Barry Murphy is communications officer for the eating disorder association of Ireland, Bodywhys. He spoke to thecity.ie about the role that social media can play when it comes to mental health.

He said: “I suppose one of the challenges around social media is that it can heighten that sense of comparison maybe that we didn’t have many years ago, where we took all of our social queues in an offline context or in a peer context and obviously social media has kind of shifted a lot of that over.

“It’s become 24 hours a day, seven days a week potentially, but is there a simple answer to what effect this is having? I don’t think any one study or piece of research could really give you a succinct answer on that.”

“There’s a lot of information coming out now that social media is not particularly detrimental to youth mental health”

Barry continues: “I think when we’re talking about young people and technology we always have to ensure that that conversation is constructive and nuanced. We also have to remember that social media has not replaced traditional risk factors such as bullying or trauma. Social media has not superseded traditional risk factors in any way, they are very much still core.

“There’s a lot of information coming out now that social media is not particularly detrimental to youth mental health,” said Barry. “It’s a little bit of a mixed picture.”

Bodywhys can be contacted on 01 210 7906 or alex@bodywhys.ie.

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