Filtered images and unrealistic expectations: social media's link to depression and self-harm

It becomes particularly problematic when a chunk of the images teens and young people are exposed to are edited, offering a warped reality

Two samples of same image of teenage girl studio portrait for showing retouch difference and after editing for educational purposes
Powered by automated translation

Recently, I noticed that a friend’s Instagram pictures had a certain glow about them. At first I thought perhaps it was just the fact that I hadn’t seen her face in real life for several months, but the more I looked, the more I was convinced there was something different. Something good different. I mentioned this to her in passing, asking what her secret was, and was surprised to learn that it was not, in fact, the new-fangled diet or impossibly expensive serum I’d imagined. It was an app.“It’s great,” she said. “You just press the magic tool and it airbrushes everything away.”

Jawlines are slimmed, blemishes erased, teeth get whiter. It might seem harmless to some, but for many, small tweaks such as these are just the beginning. It's scary how quick and easy digitally altering an image has become. A quick online search will bring up numerous articles listing the best selfie-editing apps, while a scan of the various app charts reveals platforms such as FaceTune among the 100 most popular. Unlike Instagram and other veteran editing platforms, these newbies are not just offering a Valencia tweak here or a sepia update there; they are designed specifically to alter the face and body.

“Digitally enhancing images prior to posting online is now commonplace, as is the compulsion to constantly count ‘likes’ and ‘followers’,” says Nadia Brooker, counselling psychologist at the Priory Wellbeing Centre in Dubai. “Worryingly, social media is often the first port of call when seeking validation or inviting judgement. This is a dangerous road to go down as it can reinforce existing negative feelings [people] may already have about themselves.”

Teenagers are particularly vulnerable

According to another study, published in the Lancet Psychiatry journal, as many as one in five women and girls in the same age bracket have self-harmed at least once, reporting to have either cut, burned or poisoned themselves. The report finds that the number of people harming themselves had risen across genders and age groups, a trend mental health experts describe as “very worrying”.

This age-group – the 'touchscreen' generation – is significantly influenced by the internet and social media in particular, which often impacts multiple aspects of their day-to-day lives.

One’s teenage years are, arguably, the most vulnerable years in terms of self-esteem, and a new study declares that social media is responsible for a significant hike in the number of women between the ages of 16 to 24 suffering with mental health problems, with more than a quarter (26 per cent) affected. The report, produced by UK-based NHS Digital, also finds that young women in this age bracket were three times more likely to develop mental health problems than their male counterparts.

“This age-group – the ‘touchscreen’ generation – is significantly influenced by the internet and social media in particular, which often impacts multiple aspects of their day-to-day lives,” says Brooker. “As a result, they are constantly exposed to images of idealised beauty and unrealistic standards, greatly affecting how they see themselves. This creates a breeding ground for unhealthy and negative comparisons and can lead to an increase in body dissatisfaction, depression, low self-esteem and a tendency to self-harm.”

Warped reality leads to 'Snapchat dysmorphia'

It becomes particularly problematic when a chunk of the images teens and young people are exposed to are edited, offering a warped reality that is becoming harder and harder to separate from fiction. And unlike the generations that came before them, the so-called touchscreen generation has been inundated with these kinds of images throughout their most impressionable years. More dangerous yet, they are not only dealing with doctored images of celebrities and peers, they are also given the tools to edit out their own perceived imperfections – a new kind of self-harm.

Plastic surgeons around the world are reporting the rise of “Snapchat dysmorphia”, a term coined by researchers in Boston following the rise in people getting surgery to mimic the effect of filters.

“Filtered selfies can make people lose touch with reality, creating the expectation we are supposed to look perfectly primped all the time,” says Dr Neelam Vashi, director of the Boston University Cosmetic and Laser Centre. “This can be especially harmful for teens and those with BDD [body dysmorphic disorder], and it is important for providers to understand the implications of social media on body image to better treat and counsel our patients.”

The UAE, like other parts of the world, has seen a rise in the number of young women seeking help for mental health problems. While local experts say greater awareness, long working hours, and a transient or limited support network all act as contributing factors, the increasing pressure of social media is a commonly cited cause.

“The impact [of social media] is twofold. Firstly, it creates a false and distorted lens through which to view the world, others and themselves. If this lens is focused on a particular body type or beauty standard then it can cause negative self-evaluation,” explains Dr Catherine Frogley, clinical psychologist at The LightHouse Arabia Dubai. “Secondly, spending increasing time online and fewer real-life interactions can lead to a sense of disconnection from others, loneliness and depression.”


A woman takes a selfie using Snapchat's face filter.

(Photo by Reem Mohammed/The National)

Section:  NA
Plastic surgeons are seeing a rise in people asking for surgery to mimic the effect of filters. Photo: Reem Mohammed / The National

Social media platforms are trying to reverse the damage

Social media sites are beginning to wise up to the toll they are taking on mental health. Instagram is currently trialling hiding the like count on pictures in a bid to "remove pressure" felt by users to receive a certain number of likes for images they share. Mia Garlick, Facebook Australia and New Zealand director of policy, said the hope is that the update will lead to people feeling less judged, and help them to "focus less on likes and more on telling their story". Both Instagram and Twitter have also introduced new measures to prevent hurtful and hateful comments being posted online.

“It’s vital that young women in their teens are made fully aware of the ‘dark side’ to social media and its potential consequences, and turn instead to body-positive media,” Brooker says. “It would be helpful if schools and colleges in particular could promote positive body image through education and awareness.

“Only by following more positive accounts, and by staying away from social media that focuses on unrealistic standards and expectations of body image, eating and exercising, will they understand that nobody is perfect.”