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Filtering Options Are Unhealthy Outlets for Self-Expression
By Marissa Markowitz

Social media sites offer users the option to filter their photos so that the images are augmented, enhanced, or distorted. The increase in social media usage, and in particular the practice of filtering photos, changes the way teens think about themselves. Filters can portray unrealistic expectations for beauty. There develops an unwritten expectation that one must “keep up with the beautiful Joneses.” Plastic surgeons are seeing an increase in people manipulating selfies and then trying to match the online image through plastic surgery. How devastating it can be to try to isolate and achieve the “ideal look,” especially when the “ideal look” changes constantly.

Is there one ideal body type, especially for women? Certainly not. But it’s possible that society is moving in a direction (and maybe always has been) where technology is taking over what is considered pretty or fashionable. Young girls are exposed to images of beauty in TV ads, magazines, and other print forms. But it is the proliferation of smartphone access and ease of use that provide a steady stream of images deemed desirable and worthy of attention. It’s not possible to have perfect symmetry (a hallmark of beauty), and even if someone presents with a conventionally “pretty” face, why should technology aid in its ability to manipulate impressionable young minds to desire a similar look?

Technology has the capacity to bring communities together, often allowing for the creation of strong bonds. During the pandemic, for instance, AA meetings were held online. It’s fair to say that online communities are places to forge friendships, share ideas, and in the larger sense, to connect. It’s when we place too much emphasis on deeply personal issues such as health and wellness online that things may become dangerous.

That women are taking drastic measures to change their appearances is deeply troubling. And it’s no surprise that young adults are especially vulnerable. Doctors are growing concerned with social media dysmorphia, Snapchat dysmorphia, and other self-image concerns that arise from filtering tools when taking selfies. Having constant access to a digital platform where people post fake images of themselves can create overwhelming feelings, even to those who have a healthy relationship to technology. While having a keen eye for fashion is one thing, focusing on presenting a certain image using social media filtering options to enhance or augment one’s features to fit a certain beauty standard is another.

How Can Therapists Help?
It may be daunting to try to understand how to best help young people navigate social media—a common medium for obtaining information. Research indicates that teens make friends online, text frequently, and face pressure to post flattering images online. When a client walks into a therapist’s office, the therapist may have to determine whether the client is doom scrolling and demonstrating signs of clinical depression. Does the client have a friend base that constantly posts updates and so has a real need to keep up with new and flattering posts?

The first step is to understand the problem. The DSM-5 recently included gaming disorder as a diagnosable mental health condition, but it has yet to quantify social media use or technology addiction. In the case of excessive social media use, therapists must first identify the problem, provide a reasonable set of thoughts that come about from the presenting issue, and then help their clients identify negative emotions and behaviors that follow the thoughts. This is cognitive behavioral therapy in a nutshell: it is the idea that thoughts precede emotions, and if one can catch a thought before the emotion overwhelms one's senses, more positive actions can be used to counteract a negative feedback loop.

Here’s an example. Thought: My friends are posting these really pretty pictures, therefore I have to do the same. If I don’t post, I won’t truly be part of the party. Emotion: I’m feeling a little down and pressured to do the same. I feel confused and frustrated that this is part of my expected behavior. Behavior: I’ll post the image and ensure my friends know I’m part of the conversation.

It takes hard work for teens to identify certain emotions. Often therapists use an emotion wheel to identify specific feelings such as “confident,” “aggressive,” “provoked,” or “betrayed.” In other words, rather than think in terms of sad, happy, mad, or surprised, therapists encourage clients to be more critical of their initial knee-jerk reactions to a thought. This process allows clients to broaden their emotional vocabulary and move away from generalizations. “I’m feeling sad” becomes “I’m feeling powerless, isolated, and frightened.”

The Bottom Line
The move toward increased use of digital communications is not inherently dangerous, but it does pose areas of concern for teens. Body image and self-esteem are issues for all adolescents, and social media sites offer a platform on which they can express themselves honestly or adjusted. What can create a buffer to ensure healthy digital use? Therapists are good at helping those with these sorts of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors and can recommend identifying positive influences, spending less time online, and seeking more face-to-face interactions.

A wise and cunning fox once told a starry-eyed prince, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.” When Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote this line in The Little Prince, social media didn’t yet exist. But still, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had little foxes whispering in our ears: remember friends, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. Beauty is a concept, not a curated image.

— Marisa Markowitz, LMSW, CASAC-T, studies the relationship between technology and its adverse effects on mental health, particularly for vulnerable populations. She can be reached at Marisa@marisamarkowitz.com.