“Do you know this person?” I asked my husband as I passed my phone. “Hmmm..” he squinted and looked closer at the picture. The photo was of a beautiful young woman. Her blond hair framed a perfect pixie face; large eyes, high cheekbones, perfectly shaped nose. “I don’t think so. Should I know her?” Of course, he should know her. Less than two years ago we were her youth pastors. We spent countless hours with her in church, at camps, and meeting for ice cream. She was a great kid. Kind, witty, talented, and intelligent. But her cheekbones were definitely not that high and her eyes had never been that abnormally large. It was clear this shot had been highly edited with filters.
The picture received dozens of adoring comments – “Girl, you are SO pretty!”, “Gorgeous photo!”, “Love it!”. My heart sank with each comment and “like” that rolled in. Not because I am against encouraging our girls or telling them they are beautiful. But because this girl in the picture looked absolutely nothing like the actual girl behind the screen. The praise she was receiving was for a fantasy, an ideal that none of us could ever attain. My heart broke because, in order to feel worthy, she felt the need to edit herself to the point of being unrecognizable.
Filters started harmlessly enough. I remember when I discovered them on my first laptop. Most were humorous, distorting my face like those crazy mirrors you find at carnivals. One put you in a UFO background and another gave a grainy old-school black and white vibe. Those innocent filters paved the way to the far more dangerous ones we use today. Today’s filters don’t just create silly backgrounds. They alter our facial structure, skin tones, and features. They aim to remove any imperfection in the constant pursuit of fitting the beauty standards of society. It may seem harmless, but the results are devastating to our kids’ mental health and self-esteem.
Teenagers have always struggled with body image and the pressure to look a certain way. The longing to fit in, to be attractive enough, or to feel confident in their own skin is a timeless and universal desire. However, today’s social media generation has skyrocketed this pressure and the filter obsession has created an impossible standard. The result? Anxiety. Depression. Bullying. Eating disorders. Self-harm.
“Body Dysmorphic Disorder,” is a condition that causes someone to obsess over a perceived imperfection in their appearance and makes them go to extreme lengths to “fix” it. “Snapchat Dysphoria” a newly surfaced issue where people go to plastic surgeons with filtered selfies and ask to be recreated to match the fantasy image their phone fabricated. A recent set of statistics from the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery reported that 55% of facial plastic surgeons saw patients who wanted to improve how they looked in selfies in 2019, a whopping 13% increase from the year before.
When our kids are constantly seeing filtered images of themselves, their friends, celebrities, and even us, it distorts their perception of reality. During a period of life that is already confusing, we are heaping even more confusion on our kids with our filtered fantasy worlds. The effects are heartbreaking. Our kids shouldn’t feel that they are only worthy, beautiful, or valuable if they make themselves look like someone else entirely. So, is there anything as parents we can do to combat the negative focus of our screen-saturated world? Yes!
Be aware of yourself
As in everything with parenting, it has to start with us. We need to come to terms with our own body image and embrace our natural appearance. Our kids see the edited photos we post too. They hear us lamenting about our graying hair, wrinkling skin, or expanding waistline. The way we talk about our bodies sets the tone for how they will view theirs. When we feel the need to edit and filter every picture we post, we communicate to our kids that it is necessary to redesign who we are in order to be seen.
Be mindful of your kids
As cringe-worthy, as it can be to weed through the pointless memes and endless selfies our kids post, it is so important to be tuned in to their online activity. Keeping an eye on just how edited your kids’ photos are and the type of comments they are receiving will be a huge clue in recognizing when their mental health or self-image may be at risk. It is also beneficial to reduce their screen time. The more time kids spend online scrolling through picture after picture of “perfect” people the more they will get sucked into thinking that they too must look perfect. No parent wants our child to develop their identity and self-worth based on the likes and following of their social media account. Getting them offline and into activities like sports, the arts, clubs, or volunteer opportunities will provide chances for them to identify themselves with passions, interests, and talents, instead of on a manufactured physical appearance.
Be intentional with discussions
We can’t hide our kids from the glaring falsehoods of the online world. Unfortunately, it is a significant part of the culture they are growing up in and it looks like it is here to stay. This is why we have to be open, honest, and intentional with addressing it with our teens. We need to talk about the difference between reality and the fictional filter facade. They have to hear from us regularly that their worth and beauty are not found in their online presence but in who they truly are as people. Openly discuss how the standard set in the highly edited photos that surround us are impossible for anyone to achieve. We see our kids without the filters. We know their dreams, their personalities, their talents, and their hearts. We know these are the traits that truly define them, not a computer’s automated programming to make them appear as “perfect” as possible. We have to make sure they know that too.