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In our opinion: 'Snapchat dysmorphia' and a troubling trend of body negativity

This Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2017, photo shows the Snapchat app on a mobile device in New York.
This Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2017, photo shows the Snapchat app on a mobile device in New York.
Richard Drew, AP

Social media users are requesting plastic surgery with more frequency, new research finds. This so-called “Snapchat dysmorphia” and its outcomes present serious public health risks, something corporations as well as social media influencers must address if they want youths to embrace a healthier understanding of their body image.

Researchers at Boston University published a new study revealing the effects of social media on choices to alter one’s body. It’s a critical addition to a much-needed field of research on how new digital platforms are dramatically affecting the well-being of individuals and societies.

The study reveals plastic surgeons have seen a dramatic increase in the number of patients coming to them requesting unattainable plastic surgery to appear more like their filtered, edited selves online. Specifically, 55 percent of plastic surgeons said they saw patients who wanted to look better in their photos, a 13 percent increase since 2016.

The surgeons warn that social media filters, available for use before posting a photo publicly on apps like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, are increasing rates of body dysmorphia disorder among users who view filters as a magic mirror — an intimate, accessible way of envisioning how they might look with altered features and smoothed blemishes. The stark contrast between their actual appearance and the “fantasy” image they see renders them disappointed with their looks, wishing they could materialize their filtered features.

It is intuitively clear why having a whole generation of youths — and users of all ages — looking at altered versions of themselves daily would be detrimental to mental health. For too long, however, the effects have gone misunderstood.

In this case, corporations, as well as social media users, are responsible for this troubling trend. Platform companies like Facebook and Snap — the owner of Snapchat — are profit-driven entities, interested in driving up daily and monthly metrics of usage to increase advertising revenue. As such, they have cleverly discovered that offering users fun and appealing ways of altering their appearance will more likely push patrons to post photos of themselves.

Though these features are often humorous and lighthearted, app developers have implemented them without consideration of their public health effects, something the public must scrutinize alongside other unnerving outcomes of widespread social media use.

Change can and should happen, and it will likely start at a grass-roots level. For unidentified reasons, Snapchat has fallen out of favor with some youths today, losing 3 million active users over the course of several months. This reveals something promising: Digital fads can be adopted and discarded with alarming immediacy. As such, social media influencers, particularly those with a high proportion of young followers, should recognize the power they hold in turning realistic images into a positive trend.

Additionally, it’s the responsibility of parents, educators and community influencers to reach out in love and compassion to those suffering from any form of body negativity and who experience its harmful mental and physical impacts. Together, communities and online users can end a cycle of unattainability and create healthier, more sustainable norms in a digital world.