I am fat. I am really fat. Why does this girl’s face look better than mine? How many likes did she get on her last selfie? Wow. 17,649. Does she eat at all? Her cheeks look so thin. Maybe she is on a low-carb diet? Maybe she does facial exercises to slim her face? Agh, her lips are so big. She is lucky. Or maybe she used fillers? No, she definitely did not. I am just ugly. Hmm, ugly. I. Am. Ugly.
Welcome to the world of 18-year-old Jenny Guraspashivili, a typical teenager who starts her morning with an Instagram feed. After scrolling through 200 photos, she leaves bed at 5:50 am, brushes her teeth, washes her face, and stars her regular makeup routine. She creates a perfect base with a primer, foundation, and concealer; contours her face with bronzer, illuminator, and shimmer; accentuates her eyes with smudged eyeliner, brown shadow, and high-intensity mascara; and neutralizes her lips with nude lip liner and lipstick because “that’s the rule, you either play up with your eyes or your lips,” said Jenny. She finishes with a sweep of powder over her face and at 7:03 am she is ready. Ready to take a perfect selfie.
Today, the use of social media like Snapchat or Instagram is almost universal among adolescents, with 95% owning a smartphone and 97% using at least one of six social major media platforms. On average, 93 million selfies are posted on Instagram every day. The process is simple: get ready, apply some Instagram filters, take a selfie, edit it with airbrushing apps like Facetune, post it, wait for the first like, and then constantly check your smartphone for feedback. But what do all of these selfies mean for the youth around the world?
Doctors and parents are raising alarms that the majority of teenagers between 13 and 19 feel trapped in the world of loneliness, social comparison, excessive guilt, and dissatisfaction with themselves. On their way to “self-love,” youngsters utilize available trends, such as fun filters that add Halloween leopard masks, flower crowns, kitten ears, huge eyelashes, and freckles on their faces. As Instagram’s newly added “Beautiful Face,” “Perfect Skin,” and “Plastica” filters are seeing enormous popularity, doctors get concerned about the future of the selfie generation as these filters reinforce unrealistic expectations of modern beauty by making users’ eyes wider, lips bigger, jawlines smoother, and nose thinner.
“I take selfies to capture my rare confident moments, even though I still edit them afterward,” said Jacqueline Guzman, a sophomore at Boston University. “Being confident in our modern world of unrealistic expectations is what I try to work hard on all the time.”
Like Guzman, many teenagers believe selfie is an expression of identity, but a 2017 exploratory study on the condition of “selfitis,” a new mental disorder that American Psychiatric Association classified as “the obsessive taking of selfies,” presented top motivation factors behind selfie-taking, which include attention-seeking, self-confidence, and mood gratification.
Mood gratification is “a particular activity that typically makes the person feel better in some way,” according to the study published in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction. “Interaction in social media via mobile digital devices appear to help many individuals overcome negative mood states, and selfie-taking is another behavior via which individuals can enhance their mood.”
As selfie generation got bigger, doctors started to research a condition called “selfie dysmorphia,” in which a person has a need to heavily edit one’s own digital images. Selfie dysmorphia can trigger body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), a serious mental health condition characterized by an obsession with one’s imagined physical flaws. Symptoms of BDD include obsessive thinking, repeated mirror-checking, compulsive flaw measuring, and the majority of BDD cases start by 13 years old when teenagers try to fit in various social groups.
“As our children try to socialize both in real and online worlds, it is extremely important to remind them how beautiful and unique they are,” said Tatyana Arber, a mother of three and a Registered Nurse, BSM at Hebrew SeniorLife, Harvard Medical School Affiliate. “In the intensity of the online world, teenagers compare themselves, feel worthless, and then isolate themselves from others, which may result in low satisfaction with life and serious mental disorders.”
Seeing the perfect images of models, influencers, and peers on platforms like Instagram may 'expose adolescents to idealized self-presentations that negatively influence body image and encourage social comparisons,' according to a 2019 JAMA Psychiatry report. But besides comparing themselves to others, today’s young generation faces another problem – comparison of their real-life selves and social-media-fake selves.
“I took selfies when I was feeling really down and using filters made my mood better as I liked what I saw on the screen,” said Liz Volnova, a 20-year-old body dysmorphic disorder survivor. “The anxiety came when I looked back in the mirror and saw nothing like that filtered version of me.”
To try to minimize the perceived flaw, more and more young people turn to cosmetic procedures, such as lip fillers, Botox, and nose jobs. American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery surveyed its members in 2017 and found that 55% of facial cosmetic surgeons worked with clients whose motivation was to look better in selfies. Unlike the previous generations who usually bring photos of Angelina Jolie to shows doctors how they want their lips done, the selfie generation shows their heavily filtered photos for surgeons to rely on.
Ariana Gorlova, a 20-year-old Instagram user, underwent a non-surgical hyaluronic acid lip filler procedure to enlarge her lips. After playing with Instagram’s “Holly Bucks” filter that puts dollar signs on your face and makes your lips twice as big, Ariana finally felt satisfied with her symmetrical face and fuller lips.
“I always wanted to change something in myself since I was a 14-year-old insecure teenager,” said Ariana. “After seeing fuller plumper lips via the Instagram filter, I decided to start experimenting with my lips, and after a quick procedure I feel more confident at work, at college, and at home.”
After doctors got concerned that some types of filters may create a significant disconnect between users’ brain and body image, Instagram received numerous complaint letters, asking to stop featuring filters that may harm youth’s mental health.
Since August, Instagram users as Ariana not only can apply offered filters but also create their own virtual effects in Instagram stories. Users experimented with filters ranging from “Harry Potter” with forehead scars, retro round glasses, and Gryffindor scarf; “Aloha” that adds red Hawaiian hibiscus behind user’s ear; “Fix Me” that shows surgical markings on user’s face; to “Plastica” that demonstrates the effects of extreme plastic surgeries.
“We want Spark AR effects to be a positive experience and are re-evaluating our existing policies as they relate to well-being,” the company responsible for augmented reality Instagram filters announced in its Facebook post on Oct. 18, 2019. “We’re doing the following: removing all effects associated with plastic surgery…; postponing approval of new effects associated with plastic surgery until further notice; continuing to remove policy-violating effects as they are identified.”
Instagram’s response to the issue accelerates the idea that youth’s obsession with selfie-taking is becoming harmful for their own health. While doctors and parents take steps to protect selfie generation, young people leave comments like “removing filters with deformation is real BODYSHAMING. It’s how we see ourselves. It’s our decision about our digital bodies!” under the Spark AR’s Facebook post. So, what is next for the selfie generation? Will face filters trend continue or will the selfie generation invent digital body filters?