Filtered photos fill our social media feeds regularly. A wrinkle erased, a red eye fixed, an arm slimmed down.
People are doing more than tweaks to photos – twisting and contorting their faces and bodies so that they look practically unrecognizable. All to fit an ever-changing “ideal” body shape that jumps from favoring skinny to curvy and back again.
Celebrities like Kim and Khloe Kardashian get accused of such fixes all the time – and many people are guilty of this – but mental health professionals say parents, in particular, need to be aware of what they post on social media because children observe much more than we think.
“Children model their caregivers’ behaviors,” says Elizabet Altunkara, director of education at the National Eating Disorders Association. “They explore the world through this lens. Parents’ behaviors influence children’s basic values, including their relationship with their own bodies. Dieting, drive for thinness and body dissatisfaction are often communicated to us and internalized from a young age.”
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Kids pay attention to body image comments: ‘They’re internalizing it’
As the musical “Into the Woods” says over and over again: “Children will listen.”
You may sit at the kitchen table and innocently talk aloud while you filter a photo for Facebook or Instagram. But your 9, 10 or 16-year-old might be within earshot.
“They’re internalizing it, and they’re taking that as information as to what they then must do, to make themselves look acceptable to the society around them,” says Anna Marcolin, a psychotherapist and personal development life coach.
Mitch Prinstein, chief science officer of the American Psychological Association, has researched the link between adolescents, social media use and depressive systems. He says that while we can’t say definitively social media causes depression, the way teens use technology may be risky. “What we’re seeing is that kids who are most frequently using social media for social comparison and feedback-seeking, they’re also most likely to be experiencing depression a year later,” he says.
There is a movement today toward more authenticity online and less filtering. Just look to authentic social media app “BeReal,” which is growing in popularity, or at the teens on TikTok posting less filtered content.
“I’ve even had to move in the direction of not putting filters up of myself, because what’s trending right now is being more real, vulnerable and authentic,” Marcolin says.
But that doesn’t mean influencers and celebrities have curtailed their curated posts; they still inspire others to filter away. Marcolin has treated influencers who struggle with depression because people are shocked to see what they look like in the real world.
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To filter or not to filter
Nips and tucks on photos – zapping away wrinkles, toying with brightness and contrast – could be harmless. But parents who use apps to excessively finagle their face, hips or waist send the wrong message to children.
“You’re shaving parts of your body off and discarding the parts of your body that you don’t want, almost as if you and your body are some sort of project that needs to be altered,” says Crystal Burwell, a psychotherapist.
The takeaway: If your body is imperfect, theirs may be too. That said, it’s understandable why we pick apart and polish photos. We want likes! Attention! Did we mention likes?
“It’s easy to attach your sense of worth and confidence to how many people respond to what you posted, when, in fact, that obviously isn’t the case,” Burwell says. “We like that instant gratification just as humans. But it can be dangerous to attach your identity through how people respond to you.”
Talking about filtering and not filtering can also be a great conversation-starter for parents and kids. “Social media can be used to create awareness about the effects of filtered and altered images on body image,” Altunkara says. “It can also be used to promote body positivity and acceptance, celebrate body diversity and educate on the harmful effects of the body and appearance ideals and how filtered and altered images are contributing to it.”
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What parents should think about before posting on social media
What type of change are you making and why? Are you tweaking lighting or contouring your body to an unrealistic level?
Educate yourself. Consider watching documentaries like “The Social Dilemma” and reading articles to learn about the way social media affects kids and informs our world.
“We are all exposed to this appearance ideal and diet culture,” Altunkara
says. “For this reason, education and raising awareness on these issues are important so that parents are knowledgeable about the effects these filtered images may have on children.”
Post authentically. Upload that family photo from your vacation instead of that thirst trap in your swimsuit.
Talk to your kids. Level with your children, Marcolin says. “We’re all dealing to some degree with the same thing. It’s ‘normal’ to want to filter yourself a little bit.”
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This goes beyond filters, though. “We don’t have enough conversations happening right now, between parents and kids about what they consume, why they consume and how they make meaning of what’s consumed on social media,” Prinstein says. “We really need parents to be very actively engaged, and helping kids process the information on social media and helping them to understand the difference between what people do and what people actually meant.”
Encourage kids to search for happiness beyond “likes.” Prinstein suggests telling kids to have a FaceTime or in-person interaction with a friend to ignite that feel-good dopamine response as opposed to posting something online and demanding positive feedback.
“There’s no better example of just how powerful that craving for that dopamine response is than just seeing the amount of time that adults or teens will spend posing for a selfie, getting it exactly right, editing it, making sure they’re posting it with just the right caption at just the right time of day that will maximize its views,” Prinstein says. “It’s a remarkable amount of energy.
If you or someone you know is struggling with body image or eating concerns, the National Eating Disorders Association’s toll-free and confidential helpline is available by phone or text at 1-800-931-2237 or by click-to-chat message at nationaleatingdisorders.org/helpline. For 24/7 crisis situations, text “NEDA” to 741-741.