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Are selfie face filters hurting teenage girls?

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Jiya Saini
Jiya Saini is a Journalist and Writer at Revyuh.com. She has been working with us since January 2018. After studying at Jamia Millia University, she is fascinated by smart lifestyle and smart living. She covers technology, games, sports and smart living, as well as good experience in press relations. She is also a freelance trainer for macOS and iOS, and In the past, she has worked with various online news magazines in India and Singapore. Email: jiya (at) revyuh (dot) com

Millions of people use Snapchat, Instagram, and TikTok face filters. They are automated photo editing tools that detect facial features and modify them: using them they can have a cat’s face or a mustache, but also look like a model. What risks do beauty filters hide?

Face filters, which have become commonplace on social media, are perhaps the most widespread use of augmented reality (AR). In the beginning, they were a game. They allowed users to “disguise” themselves virtually: they could have an animal face, or a mustache, for example. 

Today, however, more and more young people – especially adolescent women – use filters to “beautify” their appearance and have a “model look”, shrinking, enlarging, enhancing, and recolouring their faces and bodies.

It seems almost logical then to ask if this technology can change the way we form our identities, represent ourselves, and interact with others, mainly young women, who are the ones who use them the most.

Experts still don’t understand the impact sustained use of beauty filters can have on your life, but they do know that there are “real risks,” and that adolescent girls are the most exposed, according to research in Technology Review, the magazine from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Claire Pescott, from the University of South Wales, was one of the experts consulted by Technology Review. She studies tweens’ behavior on social media, noting that in discussion groups she has observed a gender difference when it comes to filters.

“All the boys said, ‘These are really fun. I like to put on these funny ears, I like to share them with my friends and we have a laugh,'” but “young girls, however, see filters primarily as a beautification tool: “They said things like, ‘I wear this filter because I have flawless skin. It removes scars and blemishes.” And they were 10 and 11 year old girls.”

“I don’t think it’s just filtering your actual image,” Pescott warned. 

“It’s filtering your whole life.”

How do beauty filters work?

Filters use Artificial Intelligence to “interpret” the things the camera sees and modify them according to the rules established by whoever created the filters, generally the rules follow beauty stereotypes. As explained in Technology Review, the facial template that is superimposed on the face of whoever uses the filter, is made up of dozens of points that create a kind of topographic mesh with which thousands of results can be achieved, from changing the color of the eyes until they have devil horns.

Instagram includes beauty filters with other augmented reality face filters, such as those that add a dog’s ears and tongue to a person’s face. Snapchat offers a gallery of filters in which users can slide the beauty-enhancing effects on their selfie camera. TikTok’s beauty filter, meanwhile, is part of a set called “Enhance”, where users can activate a standard beautification on any subject.

And they are incredibly popular. Facebook and Instagram alone claim that more than 600 million people have used at least one of the AR effects associated with the company’s products. Currently, according to Bloomberg, almost a fifth of Facebook employees -some 10,000 people- products work in RA, and Mark Zuckerberg said recently to The Information, “I think it makes sense to invest deeply to help shape to what I think is going to be the next great computing platform, this combination of augmented and virtual reality.”

However, in October 2019, Technology Review points out that Facebook banned “distortion effects”, the effects that enlarged, shortened the mouth, eyes, nose, because a “public debate about the potential negative impact” of their use was generated.

The body dysmorphia was increasing, and a filter called FixMe, which allowed users to make their faces as you would a cosmetic surgeon, had unleashed a wave of criticism for promoting plastic surgery. But less than a year later the effects were relaunched with a new policy banning filters that explicitly promoted surgery. However, filters that change the size of facial features are still allowed.

Snapchat boasts its own staggering numbers. A spokesperson said that “200 million daily active users play or view the Glasses every day to transform their appearance, enlarge the world around them, play games and learn about the world,” adding that more than 90% of young people in the United States, France, and the United Kingdom use the company’s AR products.

Both Facebook and Snapchat “hesitated” to make public the data that differentiated the filters that only improve the appearance of the rest. The creators of Facebook classify their own filters into 17 categories. “Appearance” is one of them, and is in the top 10 most popular, the Facebook spokesperson told Technology Review, but declined to elaborate. The truth is that it is a technology that advances by giant steps. Even Zoom has a “touch up my look” feature that gives the appearance of smoother skin in video calls.

“Online identity is almost like an artifact,” Pescott said. 

“It’s kind of a projected image of yourself.”

For young women, who are still figuring out who they are, navigating between a “digital self” and a real self can be “especially tricky,” and it is unclear what the long-term consequences will be.

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