Social media filters mess with our perceptions so much, there’s now a name for it

Published 4:36 AM EDT, Fri August 10, 2018
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Story highlights

When you alter a photo, you may start to think that that's what you should look like

Social media and even dating apps mean that often, the first version of ourselves other people meet is a digital image

A perception gap can cause serious psychological problems

(CNN) —  

Social media filters are fun! You can look like a puppy dog or a nerdy cat or a fairy princess, or just hot! Like, slightly hotter than you actually are. Like you, but spackled and sandblasted and shaved down until you have a chin sharper than the Matterhorn and the complexion of a cotton ball.

The problem is, when you alter a photo and the result is a you-but-better-version staring back, you may start to get it in your head that that’s what you should look like. Cosmetic doctors are noticing an uptick in people who are bringing Facetuned, filtered and otherwise altered photos into their offices, or pulling up unaltered selfies to point out what they want fixed. They’re calling it “Snapchat dysmorphia,” and although the term has been around for a while, a recent article in the JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery brings the topic into focus.

“Overall, social media apps, such as Snapchat and Facetune, are providing a new reality of beauty for today’s society,” the article reads. “These apps allow one to alter his or her appearance in an instant and conform to an unrealistic and often unattainable standard of beauty.”

The article claims that the phenomenon can mess with our heads, fostering some unhealthy ideas about what we really see in the mirror – and on our phones.

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We’re constantly in contact with our own image …

Dr. Patrick Byrne, director of the Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Department at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, says the root of the problem is fairly simple: In the selfie age, people just see their faces (and bodies) more.

“The experience of younger humans in particular in this regard, how they relate to their own appearance, is so profoundly different than at any other point in time,” he said. “We used to have photographs, of course, but we gazed upon them and thought about them infrequently. Now, we’re in this world where people are exposed to their own facial image thousands of times per year.”

Not to mention, it’s not just you who sees your face every day. Social media platforms, online forums and even dating apps mean that often, the first – and sometimes only – version of ourselves other people meet is a digital image. In a recent set of statistics from the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, 55% of facial plastic surgeons reported seeing patients who wanted to improve how they looked in selfies in 2017, a 13% increase over the previous year.

In the report, academy President Dr. William H. Truswell partly attributes this rise to the importance of our digital image to our social opportunities. “Consumers are only a swipe away from finding love and a new look, and this movement is only going to get stronger,” he said.

… and that starts to alter our perception

When you see your face dozens of times a day, there are plenty of opportunities to obsess over little imperfections that other people may not even notice, and that can lead to feelings of dissatisfaction and even dysmorphia.

Byrne says he sees the disconnect between reality, mirror images and photos frequently in his practice.

“I’ve always handed patients a mirror, and they’ve picked it up and pointed, and we’ve discussed what they wanted,” he said. “Now, what happens is at least once a week, I’ll hand someone a mirror, and they’ll look at it for a moment, get frustrated and say, ‘You can’t really see it here’ and show me a picture. And that’s amazing, because we’re looking at the same face through different media. They’re bothered by their pictures but not by their reflections.”

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Another sign that selfies and photos are affecting how people see their faces is the type of procedures requested.

“Prior to the popularity of selfies, the most common complaint from those seeking rhinoplasty was the hump of the dorsum on the nose,” the JAMA article says. “Today, nasal and facial asymmetry is the more common presenting concern.”

Byrne called a pronounced hump on the nose (dorsum) one of the most understandable reasons to seek cosmetic rhinoplasty, as it is often a noticeable facial difference that may affect someone’s confidence or social interactions.

“You can find imperfections on any face,” he says. “The question is how pronounced they are and how much they actually matter to your overall appearance.”

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That altered perception can cause problems …

This perception gap, combined with the natural tendency to intimately critique one’s own oft-viewed face, can cause serious psychological problems that can’t be addressed in a plastic surgeon’s office, the article says.

The JAMA article describes body dysmorphic disorder as “an excessive preoccupation with a perceived flaw in appearance, classified on the obsessive-compulsive spectrum.”