How Do Filters Change the Way We Look at Ourselves?

Social media has been a transformative addition to modern life, and has shaped the way we communicate with each other for the last two decades. But the rise of social media, especially visual media like TikTok and Instagram, has seen a shift in the way the average user creates content. Incentivised to edit photos for the ‘Instragrammability’ effect, filters have become a fact of visual media – and recently, filters have been getting smarter.

The Popularity of Filters, and How They Work

In a recent report on filters and social media, private cosmetic procedure providers Transform Hospital Group found that the average UK citizen spends 11 days of the year on social media – and, further to that, that 9 in 10 young women edited or added filters to visual media before posting. Transform pinpointed the most popular filters used on social media – in particular Instagram Reels, the video shorts tool analogue to TikTok – and found several beauty filters that were particularly popular on the platform. The beauty filters often alter the facial features of their users, with varying degrees of subtlety; Transform detailed the effects of these popular filters, and their similarity to the effects of certain elective procedures offered by the hospital. For example, one such filter has the effect of ‘plumping’ the user’s lips, something which is achieved medically with a semi-permanent lip filler treatment.

The Controversial Impact of Filters

The prevalence of, and ease-of-access to, beauty filters on social media platforms has led to concerns about the effects they may be having on younger generations – especially in terms of personal image and self-esteem. Recent research from the Education Policy Institute revealed that as many as a third of all girls were unhappy with their personal appearance by the age of 14, with social media use pegged as a major factor in the findings. Social media platforms are often held up by the existence of influencers, individual online personalities who may be popular with young demographics and conform to, and to some extent create, specific beauty standards. The way in which these influencers reinforce their image is often in the use of filters, while filters to mimic the features of particular influencers might surge in popularity, used by young people unsatisfied with their own features.

Social Media and Truth

The rise of filters and more sophisticated video editing tools has also given rise to discussion regarding the role they might play in misleading social media users and product consumers. The Advertising Standards Authority weighed in on the increased usage of filters in sponsored social media influencer content and digital advertising, stating that filters should not be applied to adverts where they may exaggerate the effect of a product. The discussion comes as part of larger concern surrounding truth online; the emergence of deepfake technology, as well as the detrimental effect fake news and misinformation has had on public discourse, has combined with the popularity of transformative filters to create a sense of unease regarding the way we conduct ourselves online.