Protecting a generation of young people’s mental health by addressing image-editing and filters

*Trigger warning this story mentions eating disorders and suicide

Danny talks about how striving for perfection by editing photos of himself negatively affected his mental health. 

The impact of Covid-19 has meant that our lives have changed, forcing us to learn new ways of working with our colleagues and socialising with our friends. The way we communicate with each other has also changed, leading us to move from our offline lives to sharing our lives online.

Increasing use of online apps

The technological advancements we have seen over the last 10 years have allowed us to keep contact with the people we care for and love at this incredibly difficult time. This difficult period has accelerated our usage of social media platforms and with that comes increasing use of online apps. 

Concerns for our online world

Although we have much to celebrate about the innovations of the online world during this time, we also have much to be concerned about. As with most of us in our offline lives, we like to show the best of ourselves, covering up our flaws and shortcomings to the world, replicating an over-used version of perfection. This ritual is replicated, but also amplified in our online lives by the use of online apps that allow us to perfect the perceived mundane edges of our everyday appearance and activities.

The filtered version of reality

To many this allows a filtered version of their reality, one that is hard to find flaws in and one that enables them to hide their own insecurities and imagined flaws. For others like myself, this meant hours spent in the mirror, taking hundreds of selfies and an editing process that would make those working on the front cover of a national fashion magazine proud. 

My strive for perfection

The more I scrolled through other edited photos (unaware they were edited), the more I wanted to deliver the same perfected imagery of myself. As my ambitions to achieve this perfected portrayal of my life became more acute, so did my negative feelings towards my own body image. The intensity of the scrolling increased, making me compare my body and my life to others even more and search for new ways to achieve the perfect image. 

My body image crisis

This led me to using image-editing and filter apps that enabled me to perfect my appearance in a way that would meet the standards of others online. I could now airbrush my skin, reduce the visibility of my perceived big nose, and make my body look smaller than it is. As someone who was now in the midst of a body image crisis, this was the perfect antidote to my dilemma, allowing me to create a profile of deceit. 

Becoming unwell offline

The reality was very different. I would wake up early most mornings to scrutinise my face and body in the mirror, purge any food from last night’s dinner, take another 200 selfies of myself and spend the afternoon editing them on an app ready for the next post on social media. The wasted hours trying to edit out my imperfections turned into days, weeks and eventually months. 
After six months, my online profile would make you think that everything was fine, even perfect, but offline there was nothing left of the happy go lucky boy that once was. In my attempt to achieve perfection online, I had made myself unwell offline and unfortunately the strain of my fixation on achieving this perfection led to me reaching rock bottom. This led to me making one of the hardest decisions of my life, to attempt to take it, but luckily, I was unsuccessful. 

Getting support

I now recognised the need for me to get the support I needed, and I was lucky enough to receive an intervention from the Maudsley Hospital in London. Since treatment, I have stopped using editing apps and filters on all my photos. I have stopped trying to cover up my imperfections in my appearance and in my life, which has allowed me to accept myself and achieve so much more. I recently graduated from the University of York and I am about to start my master’s degree – this wasn’t achieved by filtering out some of the barriers I faced in my life or editing the so-called imperfections in my appearance, it was achieved by accepting them.

The impact on young people

My negative experience with social media and filtering apps was back in 2011, when these apps were less sophisticated, and the power of social media was less invasive on our everyday lives. Now we see a new generation of young people using these same apps, editing out their flaws and portraying an unrealistic form of themselves to the world. This new generation’s experience is amplified by the pressures of others, such as certain influencers who continue to clutter their social media pages with perfected images of themselves and their edited lives.

There are also a wide range of factors that can affect how we think and feel about our bodies as well as the potential negative impact from image-editing-apps. Our thoughts and feelings about our bodies can impact us throughout our lives, affecting, more generally, the way we feel about ourselves and our mental health and wellbeing.

We need action now

We cannot continue to ignore the overwhelming pressures these editing apps are placing on our young people. They are creating a resource that encourages and enables people to project an image of themselves that is not real, an image that encourages others to do the same. At its worse it could be leading to increased anxiety, depression and body image insecurities. This does not have to be the case and we can intervene now to protect this generation online and from the negative side-effects of these apps. The release of the Mental Health Foundation’s recommendations allows that conversation to start. I hope that their proposals are taken on board - such as encouraging Google Play and the App Store to update their guidelines to developers, explicitly including mental health as one of the harms that is unacceptable. 

The time to act on this is now, and I welcome the work of the Mental Health Foundation in turning the page on this issue.

Need help?

  • Samaritans: If you need someone to talk to then Samaritans are available on 116 123 (UK) for free, 24/7. They are there to talk to, listen and they won't judge or tell you what to do. 
  • Mind: If you are looking for professional support then Mind can help you with their Infoline. They can find information for you on what support is available in your local area. You can call them on 0300 123 3393 (UK).
  • Beat: If you want to speak to a trained eating disorder helpline support worker then you can call Beat's helpline on 0808 801 0711 (UK).

Body image campaign

Body image issues can affect all of us at any age and directly affect our mental health. However, there is still a lack of much-needed research and understanding around this. In 2019, we ran a UK-wide campaign on body image during Mental Health Awareness Week, the largest annual conversation on mental health. We have continued our work in this area since then…

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