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  • Emma Benjamin

Warping Reality: The Effects of Social Media and Video Manipulation on Self-Perception

Social media has become a pervasive influence over the years, drawing in over fifty percent of the world's population. Existing as a discrete realm of creative expression and widespread communication, social media has therefore become more than a platform for new trends; it has become a prevalent force in how humans perceive the world around them. With such bearing over its users lives, however, comes its faults. One looming concern is the suspected link between increased social media usage and body dissatisfaction.

This concern has grown with the emergence and normalization of increasingly accessible video editing software that can manipulate facial and body features in real-time. Deception from photoshop alone has long been attributed to body dissatisfaction. One study evaluated 144 girls randomly exposed to Instagram selfies, some of which were retouched, and found that photomanipulation on this platform directly led to a negative body image. The study also reported that a majority of the girls found the manipulated photos to be realistic and had difficulty detecting body reshaping. With even less awareness of the capabilities of video-editing, this software may be further blurring the line between reality and unattainable beauty standards.

One example of this artificial intelligence (AI) technology can be seen with apps like PrettyUp, which allows reshaping of the body, namely slimming waists and elongating legs, in videos. Such apps perpetuate an ongoing issue of influencer deception and idealization of European beauty standards. In the graphic below, influencers Spencer Barbosa and Ariella Nyssa depict how convincing this technology is in videos where each of the influencers show their digitally-modified bodies directly before revealing the unedited versions of their bodies. Hundreds of commenters expressed their surprise at how deceptive this technology was, and yet many still asked for the name of the app.

Despite the recent increase in accessibility of the technology, influencers had already been speculated to be using this technology to covertly edit their bodies. For example, in her 2021 Skim ad campaign, Kim Kardashian’s finger can be seen glitching as it brushes over her waist momentarily. While her spokesperson claims that this glitch was due to a video quality error–and this could very well be true–this debate has revealed the increasing inability to discern what is real in videos due to media manipulation.

Like the use of photoshop, this deceptive video-editing feeds into the “envy spiral” plaguing social media. Coined by Research Fellow Dr. Jasmine Fardouly, this term describes the way in which digital manipulation of the body has led to competition among peers to curate increasingly unrealistic versions of themselves online. Body dissatisfaction, which develops through comparing one’s appearance to other individuals, may intensify as comparisons are now being made towards increasingly deceptive and unattainable media. Considering the extensive longitudinal research that has linked body dissatisfaction to preceding eating disorders, low self-esteem, and the desire for cosmetic surgery, the relationship between envy spiral and the advancement of appearance-editing technologies that fuel it becomes increasingly relevant.

While deceptive use of such technology is a major concern, the normalization of beautifying filters poses another issue. Unlike photoshop, which carries a stigma for being deceitful, augmented reality (AR) beauty filters on a number of social media platforms (e.g. Instagram), which similarly use AI to reshape the face in one click, have become normalized to the point where use of it is transparent and unquestioned. With such casual use of filters, an issue surfaces when real-time refining of flaws distorts reality to the point where these flaws become irregular. Professor of psychology Renee Engeln posits that this normalization is distorting the person’s self perception to the point where they lose a grasp of their actual appearance. One influencer under the pseudonym of Mia similarly reported to The Guardian that continuous use of these filters led her to see her real face as “ugly” and unrecognizable compared to the refined version of herself she’d become accustomed to seeing. The graphic below depicts these two versions of her; the refined version on the left shrinks her nose and face, smoothes her skin, and plumps her lips.

Neurological research suspects that the brain processes real and synthetic (e.g. virtual) faces in similar manners, which might explain why Mia and people in other testimonials have cited struggling with distorted body image after repetitive use of AR beauty filters. However, the long-term effects of these filters on an individual's self-perception have not been researched. Considering the link between photoshop and body dissatisfaction, and the even more deceptive nature of AI technology on both others and oneself, the effects of AR beauty filters may prove to be more dangerous. This increasingly advanced technology, therefore, solicits the need to dedicate more attention and resources towards researching the psychological effects that these appearance-editing technologies are inflicting on current and future generations.


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