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Jessica Wakeman Your favorite selfie filter could be contributing to a mental health crisis

The filters made available to users and invisible to viewers are creating an unrealistic portrait of what people look like.
Image: woman holding up mobile for selfie
Manipulating our own images has become such a part of our lives that there’s no going back now.Tara Moore / Getty Images
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If you’ve ever aggravated someone — even a stranger — by asking them to take and re-take photos until you have one that’s "just right" to post on social media, the proliferation of filters and editing apps for your phone was probably an exciting development for you. The real problem, however, is that taking, looking at and sharing edited images of ourselves is fostering a fixation on how we look to others, to the point where it’s a mental health crisis unfolding before us.

Earlier this year, the Royal Society for Public Health in the UK released #StatusOfMind, a report on the impact of social media usage on mental health. They surveyed 1,500 youngsters aged 14 to 24, and asked 14 questions about their mental wellbeing and usage of YouTube, Snapchat, Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter.

The filters made available to users and invisible to viewers are creating an even less realistic portrait of what other people and their lives looks like, to the detriment of some.

Every single platform, other than YouTube, was associated with users' anxiety and depression. In fact, use of the two most image-centric platforms, Snapchat and Instagram, were ranked lowest for users’ well-being, particularly pertaining to bullying and “fear of missing out” (or FOMO) And in news that will not surprise anyone who has looked at the #thinstagram hashtag, Instagram scored poorly related to body image and anxiety.

The UK survey is hardly the first to document the link between social media usage and poor mental health. A 2014 survey from University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health asked 1,787 young adults ages 19 to 32 about their mental health and how often they used 11 different social media platforms: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google Plus, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine and LinkedIn.

They found that using seven or more platforms was correlated with triple the risk of having anxiety or depression, compared with those who used only one or two. (If seven platforms sounds like a lot, look at that list and ask yourself how many accounts you have; I have nine.)

Of course these findings do not mean that constantly scrolling through Instagram or Snapchat is the cause of anxiety or depression. But researchers suggest that people who are already anxious or depressed may be drawn to social media platforms because it gives them something on which fixate and to which they can compare themselves.

Social media platforms are updated with millions of new images every single day. And, with the rise of filters, the selfies to which people are comparing themselves are increasingly not a reflection of anyone's lived reality. The fact that there’s so little transparency about the manipulation that has gone into what they are fixating on is enormously troubling.

Not only do a small army of “selfie-help” apps exist to airbrush away acne and whiten teeth before photos are uploaded to social media, the two most prevalent image-centric apps developed and continue to refine their own capabilities.

Taking, looking at and sharing edited images of ourselves is fostering a fixation on how we look to others, to the point where it’s a mental health crisis unfolding before us.

Snapchat, which has over 166 million daily users, was used by 41 percent of all teens ages 13 to 17 in 2015, according to Pew Research Center. Creating Stories and Memories on Snapchat can be playful and silly; some filters give you flower crowns, rabbit ears or surround you in hearts.

Other filters, however, simultaneously reflect and perpetuate beauty standards in the digital space: Snapchat been accused of white-washing people of color with filters that automatically lighten skin, thin noses and make eyes rounder, and other filters can add eye makeup and lip coloring and smooth skin to a Real Housewife-tautness.

Purchased by Facebook in 2012, Instagram sees 500 million users on a daily basis and was used by 52 percent of teens ages 13 to 17 in 2015, according to Pew. The app has over 20 filters which can be used on images: Some simply change your color photo to black-and-white, but others adjust lightness and darkness like a photo editor, allowing (or encouraging) people to artificially lighten or darken their skin and eliminate perceived flaws. You can pose for a photo taken anywhere in the world and look as if you were photographed in the “golden” hour light with a few clicks of a button — or as if you just returned from vacation with the most miraculous tan.

Manipulating our own images has become such a part of our lives that there’s no going back now; even if Snapchat or Instagram removed its filters, other apps would simply take their place.

While, arguably, the point for some posters and viewers is a kind of competition for who has access to luxury goods, trips, clothes or meals, the filters made available to users and invisible to viewers are creating an even less realistic portrait of what other people and their lives looks like, to the detriment of some.

After its most recent study, the Royal Society suggested a way to preempt the negative feelings spurred by social media: Ask apps to create a way to signify when an image has been manipulated in some way. (You always suspected your friend airbrushed out her large pores, but now you’ll know!) Think of it as a built-in form of media literacy education, evocative of a French law that went into effect in October 2017 in which all retouched images used in commercial advertising must come with a warning — “edited photograph” — or else fines are imposed.

"We're not asking these platforms to ban Photoshop or filters but rather to let people know when images have been altered so that users don't take the images on face value as real," Matt Keracher, the report’s author told CNN. It’s a suggestion that the Royal Society says 68 percent of young people support.

Manipulating our own images has become such a part of our lives that there’s no going back now; even if Snapchat or Instagram removed its filters, other apps would simply take their place. The best we can hope for is for apps to be more transparent about the manipulation of the images they're helping to disseminate, for the health (and, perhaps ultimately the safety) of their own users.

Jessica Wakeman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She has written for Glamour, Bust, Rolling Stone, Nymag.com The Cut and numerous other publications.

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