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Young people are suffering from unrealistic ideals such as smoother skin, slimmer faces and plumper lips.

Popping a beautifying filter on the TikTok video she was filming seemed harmless to Mia. It gave the impression that she had done her makeup. She removed any hint of her double chin, which has always bothered Mia, and altered her bone structure to make it just a little bit more perfect.

After some time, filters became second nature. Then, one day, she saw herself in the mirror and realized that she had lost all recognition of her face.

She says, “I felt so ugly… It’s very frightening moment.”

person holding white smartphone taking photo of woman wearing blue jeans

“When you have that filter on all the time, you can almost disconnect from the image in the mirror. You are conditioned to expect that you will look exactly like it. When you don’t have that filter, self-destructive thoughts begin. It is quite disgusting how you perceive yourself.”

Live, augmented reality filters on photo- and video-based social media platforms including TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat aren’t new but they have evolved from silly hats, puppy dog ears and comically enlarged features to more subtle beautifying effects that may not be immediately obvious to other users.

Many of the most popular makeup filters have also been incorporated into the app library. They alter the proportions of the face to make it look more feminine and European.

Mia, who requested that her real name not be used, said she began using filters after one of her TikTok videos suddenly went viral and her popularity skyrocketed.

She says, “I’m bigger than you. At that time, I was about 100kg. It was scary for me to see people looking at me.”

After her video had been viewed more than 1m times, abuse started to pour in. She said that she was receiving a lot of hatred. “It was so much easier to use them to make me feel better… but it doesn’t even look like I.”

“I cried a lot about how disgusting and ugly I felt some nights, and was unable to sleep at night. I’m almost thirty! It shouldn’t be that way. Imagine a 10-year old using these filters. It’s frightening to me.”

Although there is not yet much research into the psychological effects of these filters, Dr Jasmine Fardouly from the University of New South Wales says that a study she did last year shows that the unattainable beauty standards young people are exposed online can make them more dangerous.

She says, “It’s promoting beauty ideals that are not achievable for you.” It’s impossible for anyone to achieve because no one looks like that. Everyone’s faces are made to look exactly the same.

“The fact it is harder to tell if it’s a filter could be detrimental for the promotion of these ideals.”

A small label with the filter name is displayed on videos when filters are applied through TikTok’s or Instagram’s in-app software. Fardouly states that while the introduction of disclaimers in social media and traditional media has been a major focus for policymakers, the research so far does not support their effectiveness.

The research shows that people don’t notice a difference if they see the real person in their eyes.

Fardouly believes that there is a strong correlation between the use of photo editing and negative body images. However, it’s not clear in which direction this correlation flows. It is unclear if people with low body images have lower self-esteem or if they are more likely to use photo editing features.

“Body dissatisfaction can be a sign of eating disorders and it is also a predictor of depression and low self-esteem…. There is also a correlation to increased interest and demand for cosmetic surgery.”

Amy Hall-Hanson knows firsthand. Although she has suffered from body dysmorphia since childhood, the 29-year old says she didn’t focus on her lips until she began using beauty filters in every Instagram and Snapchat photo.

She says, “There are some filters that make my lips look really beautiful… and it actually made I want to get them done.”

women taking photo near beach at daytime

“I’ve tried overdrawing my lips and I stopped and asked myself why I was doing it. As if my lips have never been in trouble before, even in photos.”

“I would look in the mirror, and my lips would appear thinner than they actually were in real life…. I had to take a bit of a break from taking pictures of myself to put that buffer in.”

Fardouly believes there are no easy solutions, but that there are some things social media platforms can do in order to minimize potential harm.

She believes that algorithms could be improved to allow for more diversity to be recommended to users. “The ease with which people can use filters [is] a problem. It would be a good idea to delete filters from platforms that alter the structure of the face or promote unattainable beauty goals.”

Instagram and Meta, the parent company of Facebook, have taken steps to restrict the use “face-altering” effects. Spark AR, their open-source filter creator, allows effects to alter the face shape. However, these effects will not be displayed in the “Effects Gallery”, where the most popular effects are at the moment. There are filters that can add makeup to smoothen skin, and users can still use the search function for face-altering effects.

A Facebook spokesperson stated that Instagram does not allow “effects that promote cosmetic surgery directly.”

We want AR effects to be positive and safe experiences for our community. Spark AR has guidelines for publishing and creating effects. We recognize that most creators use feature augmentation and face alteration to share imaginative, playful, and fantasy effects. These effects allow our community to express their creativity.

Snapchat doesn’t have any restrictions on users uploading beautifying or face-altering filters through its “Lens Lab”, but a spokesperson said that Snapchat’s focus on private communication is what sets it apart from other social networks.

“[Snapchat] was born in a time when everyone was trying to create the perfect image online. Snapchat is private by default, to allow people to be authentically themselves.”

Snapchat spokesperson stated that they have “invested” in a sociologist in-house who will be responsible for thinking about the impact of our product and its features on our community.

“Whenever someone sends a snap to another Snapchat user with a lens, the recipient is shown which lens it is.”

TikTok does not allow users to create their own augmented realities effects. They are made by the company. Users have had a heated debate about the ethics of some of their beautifying filters (e.g. “faux freckles” and “glow”)

Fardouly believes that social media companies shouldn’t be solely responsible for harm caused by unrealistic beauty standards.

“It’s part of our human nature… Many of the problems with these platforms stem from people’s motivations and desires offline. It’s not a new idea that people want to be positive in front of others.”

“It’s simply that social media gives us the tools we need to control our appearance and to invest a lot in ourselves – that’s where the harm could come.”

Mia was in the car with her friend when it came to an abrupt halt. She mentioned that she was looking into fat-dissolving injectables to remove her double chin, which was almost invisible.

She says, “He looked at me like I was crazy,” He was like, “What are you talking? “You don’t have two chins.”

Mia was staring at her strange, unnatural, and imperfect face in the mirror when she realized that she wasn’t living up to the message TikTok was trying to convey.

She says that part of her content was about how people should embrace who they are and what they look like. “But I realized that all of my content was a lie, and would continue to be a lie as long I used filters,” she said.

“I just woke up one morning and decided, ‘No, I’m no longer posting content, I’m not using filters.’