How Social Media Filters are Impacting Our Mental Health

August 3, 2023   •  Posted in: 

Have you ever looked at a photo on social media and thought, “That person is so beautiful, they look almost inhuman”? That’s because many photos on social media aren’t real – they’re filtered or edited to wipe out signs of imperfections. Teeth are whiter, fine lines are erased, and noses are slimmer.

Beauty filters (called Augmented Reality filters) have advanced greatly in recent years, and they’re getting more and more difficult to detect. While some filters can be fun and harmless, we’re now starting to understand that, in general, the use of these beauty filters is harming our collective mental health – especially teens’.

 

Filters and mental health: What the research says

We still need a lot more research to definitively be able to say how photo filters affect people’s mental health, especially for adults. But there have been some preliminary studies with worrisome results.

One 2021 study found that over 90% of participants (women and non-binary people aged 18 to 30) used beauty filters or edited their photos. A vast majority (over 90%) also said they feel pressured to post “perfect” photos and look attractive, and that they compare themselves to others on social media. Over 75% reported they feel they will never live up to the images they post of themselves online, and 60% felt depressed because of this[1].

Authors of another report write that filtered images can increase mental health issues such as depression, social anxiety, appearance anxiety, and body image concerns[2].

Unfortunately, people can get caught in a Catch-22 when it comes to filters. Research has also shown that people who are dissatisfied with their body image are more likely to use filters – which can bring down their self-esteem and body image even further, and so on.

 

How using filters can affect your mental health

Experts say that using filters on every photo of yourself can impact your mental health. This may especially be true if you’re a teen or a woman, because you’re already bombarded with unrealistic beauty standards.

Here are some ways that using filters can negatively impact your mental health.

Comparing yourself to others

First of all, being exposed to so many perfectly filtered images of others on social media can negatively affect your self-esteem. You might not even realize the other person’s photo is edited, and compare your unedited face to their edited one.

In fact, research shows that only around 60% of filtered images are recognized as such[3]. To combat this problem, some countries (like Norway) are enacting laws that require posters to share when they’ve used a beauty filter on their photos.

Comparing your true face to your filtered face

Additionally, you could also start comparing your filtered photos with what you actually look like in real life. Even if you were happy with your appearance before, you could now feel your true face falls short of the filtered perfection that you’re used to seeing in your selfies.

Essentially, every time you post a filtered selfie, you are telling yourself you don’t look good enough as you are. This can, understandably, bring down your self-esteem.

Objectifying yourself

Using filters on all of your selfies or editing your pictures can also lead to a form of self-objectification. In other words, you may start seeing yourself as an object to “perfect” and “fix” rather than a real person with real experiences. This can make you feel disconnected from your thoughts, emotions, and body sensations.

Body dysmorphia and eating disorders

Body dysmorphia, poor body image, and eating disorders have all been linked to social media use. This link may partially be explained by the filtering and editing of others’ and your own photos. There’s even a name for this: Snapchat dysmorphia. People with Snapchat dysmorphia often get plastic surgery in an attempt to look more like their filtered selves[4].

If you use a filter to make your body look thinner or more curvaceous in photos, then you may feel more and more dissatisfied with the way your body really looks. And having a negative body image is closely related to eating disorders.

Depression and anxiety

Social media, especially photo-based social media like Instagram, has been linked in the research to higher rates of depression and anxiety[5]. The relationship isn’t necessarily causal – in other words, people who already have depression and anxiety may be more likely to use social media maladaptively to begin with.

The poor self-esteem and body dysmorphia that can arise from the overuse of beauty filters could also make you more susceptible to depression and anxiety.

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How to use social media and protect your self-esteem

This doesn’t mean that no one should ever use filters when taking photos of themselves or others. Some filters can be fun, especially ones that are not intended to make you look flawless. It’s also impossible to blind yourself to others’ filtered images – so it’s important to find ways to be resilient against the negative effects of filtered and edited photos whenever you come across them.

Research has shown that people who practice self-compassion are less likely to experience the negative effects of social media in general[6]. There are ways to continue to use social media while practicing self-compassion and protecting your self-esteem.

Here are some tips.

Pause and reflect

When you find yourself planning to post an edited or filtered selfie, take a pause for some self-reflection. Ask yourself questions like,

  • “What am I hoping to gain from posting this photo?”
  • “Why am I posting this photo?”
  • “How do I look right now?”
  • “How will I feel after, when I look at my real self?”

You can also self-reflect in the time after posting a selfie – it’s never too late. Catch yourself when you’re tempted to check and recheck the photos for likes and engagement. Notice how you feel about yourself now that your filtered selfie has been posted. Do you feel better about yourself or worse?

Reconnect with your true self

One of the problems with using a filter on every photo is that you can start to objectify yourself and disconnect from who you really are. One way to combat this is by reconnecting to your authentic self.

Who are you outside of the life and “self” that you portray on social media? What are your strengths? What do you want to improve on (other than your physical appearance)? What are your goals, hopes, and dreams?

Ask yourself these questions every time you begin to forget that you’re a complex human being.

Curate your feed

You can also curate your social media feed to protect yourself from being exposed to so many filtered images of others. This might give you a more realistic view of what others’ appearance looks like.

Go through the accounts you follow. Which ones make you feel good about yourself? Which ones make you feel bad about yourself or your appearance? Consider unfollowing accounts that bring down your self-esteem, especially if they use filtered images. That way, you can use social media while minimizing the risk you will come across images that affect your mental health in a negative way.

Live in the real world

One important way to build resilience against the negative effects of social media is to live your real life, outside of social media posts, to the fullest. Research shows that people tend to feel immense pressure to portray a “perfect” and happy life on social media. But if you’re truly working on building a happy life for yourself, then you may not be so concerned with your external image.

See your real-life friends. Engage in real-life hobbies. Spend time pursuing interests outside of social media. Get outside in nature.

Practice self-compassion

Again, people who practice self-compassion are more resilient to the negative effects of social media. When you are kinder and more compassionate with yourself while viewing filtered images (or even when filtering your own images), you may be less likely to internalize the subliminal messages these filters send (like “I’m not attractive enough as I am.”)

There are 3 recognized elements of self-compassion, according to Dr. Kristin Neff:

  1. Self-kindness, or talking to yourself as you would a dear friend
  2. Mindfulness, or noticing your painful emotions rather than over-identifying with them
  3. Common humanity, or realizing the emotional pain and problems you face are things that are shared by many others

Like any skill, self-compassion needs to be practiced regularly to master. Take some time every day to practice being more compassionate with yourself both before and after social media use.

Take a break

Sometimes, the best thing to do is to take a break altogether. If you’re regularly noticing that your mental health is negatively impacted after using social media or filters – if you’re more depressed, or feel less confident about yourself and your appearance – then step away.

Some people close their social media accounts, but you don’t have to go to this extreme to benefit from a social media detox. You can hide the apps on your phone or even put time limits around how long you can spend scrolling.

Get support

Lastly, don’t hesitate to seek professional mental health support if you need it. Psychotherapy and other holistic healing methods can help you reconnect to your authentic self and rebuild the confidence you’ve lost. You may also need treatment for more serious mental health concerns like depression, anxiety, or eating disorders.

At The Center • A Place of HOPE, we offer holistic and proven treatment for a range of mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and more. Here, you will find a safe and respectful environment where you can focus on emerging as your true and best self.

Our unique Whole Person Care approach ensures that your treatment will address the physical, emotional, intellectual, relational, and spiritual elements of your life.

We can help you find ways to manage your social media use, feel more confident in your true self, and build a healthier relationship with your body. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help you and your family.


[1] https://www.city.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/597209/Parliament-Report-web.pdf
[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9577667/
[3] https://cognitiveresearchjournal.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s41235-017-0067-2
[4] https://www.cureus.com/articles/11237-is-snapchat#!/
[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7364393/
[6] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2451958821000762

Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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