The media has always been implicated in how young people perceive themselves, with magazines and movies blamed for teens developing both anorexia and bulimia, but in recent years teens have been exposed to a whole new world of images via social media.
In particular, the growing popularity of apps like Snapchat and Instagram that come equipped with face and body altering filters may be fostering negative body image among teens. And even worse, plastic surgeons have begun to see unrealistic requests for body modifications based on these filtered selfies.
A New Take On Body Dysmorphic Disorder
Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) is a mental health condition in which the sufferer experiences obsessive thoughts about their body, including excessive focus on skin imperfections and wrinkles, body size and shape, and facial features, and in many cases, the condition is associated with eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia. With the rise of appearance modifying social media, though, young people are developing obsessions centered not on their own body, but on how these filters can make the body look.
In the past, images of supposed perfection were restricted to magazines and movies; editing and airbrushing transformed stars appearances into works of fiction. But while editing in magazines may have created unrealistic expectations about what the perfect body looks like, the impact of social media is more serious because perfection isn’t limited to celebrities anymore. Young people see filtered images of themselves and their peers and expect that they can achieve that image. Doctors have dubbed this Snapchat dysmorphia.
Understanding Snapchat Dysmorphia
As with traditional BDD, Snapchat dysmorphia is premised on the pursuit of perfection, but in these cases patients typically seek changes that reflect changes made by Snapchat filters, rather than more traditional body modifications. This may include the desire for larger lips and eyes, greater facial symmetry, and even a total change in facial proportions. Unfortunately, achieving these changes often isn’t possible, and even if it was, patients would still obsess over their features and other perceived flaws. Plastic surgery can’t correct the underlying psychological issues found in Snapchat dysmorphia.
When patients come into the office with Snapchat dysmorphia, doctors find themselves put on the spot by extreme requests. As plastic surgeon Vincent P. Marin explains, these requests are “a lot easier to do on pixels than it is to do on real DNA.” If a surgeon were to operate on these patients, the outcomes would necessarily not meet the expectations. And the procedures could do more harm than good.
Identifying Psychological Issues
To get teens and young adults the help they need in the face of Snapchat dysmorphia, plastic surgeons need to use their training in BDD to detect psychological issues during consultations; often, there’s a fine line between someone who is a good candidate for a simple procedure and someone with unrealistic expectations. In an interview with WBUR, plastic surgeon Matthew Schulman highlighted how he and his peers negotiate this conflict. Some filters demonstrate a disconnect between what’s possible and what the picture shows, while other patients simply use filters to demonstrate a minor change they’d like to make. It’s the difference between someone who is a candidate for rhinoplasty and someone who needs psychological help.
Parents also play an important role in addressing Snapchat dysphoria, and one simple step that can help is limiting social media use. Young people with Snapchat dysmorphia may also show signs of social media addiction, spending an excessive amount of time on social accounts, thriving on the approval from others on the platforms, and experiencing anxiety when separated from their device or a given platform. Though social media addiction isn’t a clinically recognized condition, a growing number of programs treat the condition and managing social media addiction may also mitigate the impact of Snapchat dysmorphia.
The cultivated lives people present on social media can easily create feelings of self-doubt, and young people are more vulnerable to these feelings than older adults who have the cognitive capacity to understand that these images aren’t realistic. Young people lack the skills to differentiate between realistic and unrealistic social representations, and this is a major factor in Snapchat dysmorphia. Though the filters may be here to stay, we can offer our youth greater support in navigating this technology and understanding what’s real life and what’s just fantasy.