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Using Photo Filters on Social Media: Watch for the Red Flags

Sep 23, 2021
child swearing sunglasses and taking a selfie.

No matter your age, you cannot deny that social media and its accompanying array of photo filters have fully integrated into modern popular culture. Filters can be fun, creative, and can make us laugh! However, there are a few “red flags” to be aware of when engaging with photo filters.

A red flag is an opportunity to stop, assess the situation, and decide if you want to move forward and continue engaging in a behavior or relationship. You may have wondered, “Is it ok for my kid to be using these filters on their photos?” Read on for a few things to consider when navigating photo filter use for your kids and for yourself:

Red Flag #1: Exposure to images that have used beauty filters may lead to increased social comparison and body image concerns. We know from research that increased exposure to altered images of others may lead to negative mental health outcomes like low self-esteem and body dissatisfaction. Children and teens may see filtered images of others and feel as though they cannot compare to these (quite unrealistic) standards. Filtering and retouching can be so harmful that some companies and public figures have taken pledges, committing not to use filters or retouching in their photos or advertisements.

A few ways to address this at home might include: doing a quick Google search together to see which companies and/or public figures have chosen to ditch the filters, spending time admiring and discussing the natural beauty and uniqueness of your child, yourself, and others, discussing how beauty standards are made-up and only exist to sell products and/or services, and setting the example that not all photos need a filter to be “beautiful.”  

Green Flag #1: Filters can be fun! It’s fun to be creative and change your hair color, turn into a horse before your very eyes, or try on a mustache! It is important for kids to have access to creative outlets and ways to express themselves. Photo filters can be a way to practice creativity and experiment with our looks – just be sure to pair this with a conversation about how these filters can be harmful so that children and teens are aware of how awesome their un-filtered and perfectly un-perfect self is.

Red Flag #2: Many photo filters idealize white, heteronormative beauty standards. This looks like a filter that slims your face, shrinks your nose, makes your eyes cartoon character-wide (and often light-colored), whitens teeth and plumps lips, lengthens lashes, and lightens your skin-tone. Additionally, filters may have strict binary ideals for what is considered “beautiful” for males and females, which doesn’t leave much room for the diversity and complexity of our actual beauty and identity. It is important for families to inform children that while beauty filters may be fun or creative, they also reinforce problematic ideologies like colorism, ageism, and anti-fat bias:

  • Colorism: a practice or prejudice that disadvantages people with dark skin and privileges people with lighter skin. This looks like a photo filter that automatically lightens someone’s skin tone.
  • Ageism: stereotyping or discriminating against someone due to their age. For example, photo filters that reinforce beauty as someone without wrinkles, discoloration, or any signs of visible aging.
  • Anti-fat bias: a negative belief, attitude, or behavior against people with larger body size. This looks like filters that slim faces and bodies and editing software that alters figures to an hourglass shape or smooths cellulite.

Green Flag #2: Filters can be affirming! This can be especially true for gender non-conforming and/or trans people, who might experience gender euphoria when being able to “try on” and experiment in a non-invasive way with characteristics that feel more aligned with their gender identity. Gender euphoria describes a pleasurable and validating experience of seeing your gender identity reflected in how you look on the outside. For example, trying on a mustache or a beard can feel really empowering for someone who desires to express more stereotypically masculine characteristics.

A word of caution: many filters express stereotypically binary masculine and feminine characteristics. This means that while filters may give you a full, thick, beard or long, thick eyelashes, it’s important to remember that this is not the only way to have a beard or eyelashes! All beards and eyelashes are actually just fine. You don’t have to have a full beard in order to rock one.  

Remember: there is no wrong way to have a body! Photo filters can be a fun way to be creative, but they may also make us feel like our natural and unique selves don’t quite measure up. While you decide what’s right for you and your family, consider the red flags listed here as starting points for further discussion on why you don’t need a photo filter to be beautiful, loved, or worthy of “likes.”

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Tabi Evans, PsyD
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700 Children’s® features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.