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Snapchat Dysmorphia – The Photo Filter Phenomenon

There was a time when the word "filter" used to be associated with innocuous things like coffee, water and as a synonymous term for "sorting through."

But now, when one uses the word "filter", there is usually a photo, a smartphone application and myriad choices from Sepia to Black and White to High Contrast, Nashville, Juno, Clarendon, Ludwig and other such photo filter buzzwords being referred to. Not to mention the "Dog With Tongue Hanging", "Pink Glow Flower Crown", "Dancing Hotdog" and other add-ons that give Snapchat the edge over other, less complex photo applications like Instagram, for example.

While I drew the line after Facebook and Instagram, my sister and many other "millennial teens" and twenty to thirty-somethings started to live their lives on SnapChat faster than the messages that disappear on the app at the blink of an eye. The social media giant that recently changed its name to that of its parent company – 'Snap' and has surpassed other competing platforms by much more than a mile at a 191 million odd daily user base is on the fast track to crossing the $1 Billion revenue mark according to investment banks, although it has suffered a user growth blow this quarter with a dipping growth rate of 2% against last year owing to sustained competition from Facebook and a redesign that has not found favor with many core users.

Nonetheless, the app still remains on the other side of the success line as it has had an overwhelming impact on the lives of a global and wide-ranging demographic of users. However, one must also talk about the dark side of these applications and the increasingly maniacal impact on many young impressionable minds in some parts of the world. In some parts, it's not just the young ones.

An article from 2017 in the UK online publication, The Mirror talks about the alarming number of users that wake up in the middle of the night to check their Snap stories before they disappear. A survey poll among 2000 UK users found that 68% of Snap users had sleep deprivation. As if these statistics are not mind-boggling enough, the latest monstrosity emerging as a consequence of Snapchat addiction is what British Cosmetic Dr. Tijon Esho christened "Snapchat Dysmorphia". An alarming number of women are undergoing cosmetic and plastic surgeries to look exactly like their Snapchat 'filtered' selves. Upon reading this news piece in one publication, I was both horrified and intrigued enough to dig deeper.

Crystal is a 26-year-old single mum in San Diego, California, who is passionate about sending selfies to friends. She began to notice just before she sent out filtered pictures of herself that the filters were fixing all the things that she felt were wrong with her face. She decided to try emulating the look with makeup but was unsuccessful until she finally decided to inject her face with fillers that made her face look leaner and almost exactly like the filtered ones.

Kacie, another addicted 29-year-old has been frequently undergoing plastic surgeries to fit the fifty odd Snap pictures that she would send her boyfriend daily, soaked in fear over what he may think of her real self. "With Snap filters, I felt I was beautiful." And so she went ahead with the surgeries and spent a hefty sum too.

Even men are jumping on this bandwagon – in many cases to rekindle a dampened love life and equally dampened ego.

Says Dr. Shirin Lakhani, an aesthetic physician from Kent, "Social media and celebrities bring these procedures into the limelight," she says. "More and more people are aware of these procedures who may not necessarily be able to afford them – and they’re finding practitioners who will do it for the lowest cost."

Being the mother of a child below the age of one is as nerve-wracking as it is hugely gratifying. When a new parent reads news pieces like these, the future suddenly seems like a frightening and dark place for the children that are yet to grow up and be introduced to the world of technology.

Doctors are stressing on the psychological implications masked behind these requests for plastic surgeries. A survey conducted by the Annual American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery in 2017 found that 55% of plastic surgeons had been approached for surgery requests to refine appearances in selfies. The sad reality is that the perfection these people are seeking in their body parts is all subject to the latest app and the newest filters available. Tomorrow there may be something new in the market that would render their latest surgeries redundant and set them off in pursuit of more surgeries that could ruin their bodies and even become fatal.

Psychologists around the world are weighing in on the psyche behind this phenomenon and why there is an incessant need to change one's real self to look like their filtered selves. It all seems to stem from deep-rooted insecurities and a lack of confidence in one's natural, physical self.  Dr. Renee Engeln, Professor of Psychology at Northwestern University and author of "Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women" explains that this phenomenon seems to have its roots before the time of Instagram and Snapchat when altered photos were typically reserved for celebrities and models and it was, of course, known to all that these were hugely edited pictures. As girls and women would increasingly be faced with these seemingly perfect images of models and actors, the flaws in their own bodies that they began to compare with that of these models began to magnify.

Social media began to make this worse. An already wavering self-confidence induced by perfectly edited images of models and celebrities took a further nosedive when these applications introduced filters that would allow pictures to be enhanced, tweaked and "perfected" to make these 'flawed' women look like models too.

The concern among these medical professionals and also family members of these victims of body dysmorphia is also now hugely palpable. Old age is a reality that every person will have to face irrespective of what they allow their bodies to undergo. By setting themselves up to conform to societal and beauty pressures of this magnitude, the ability to age gracefully and accept the idea of old age will become that much harder.

Perhaps the biggest worry is that of parents. Television, computers, social media are all necessary evils today that we as parents have to come to terms with. Our children are going to be exposed to and adopt technology in their lives at some stage or the other along with all its social media applications and texting, tweeting, swiping culture. The only way we can soften the blow is perhaps by educating them on the evils of addiction and bringing to light such cases of Snapchat dysmorphia.

Body shaming is a huge global problem today with even runways sporting only skinny models which send the message that skinny is the perceived perfection one must strive for. Anything less is not appealing. This very idea needs to be addressed as parents and children should be taught instead about accepting and loving their bodies the way they are.

I see this trend exacerbated on apps like Instagram too where teenagers begin to "follow" celebrities like Kylie Jenner, Kim Kardashian and the like and share photos online posing as their favourite celebrities with tucked, pinched, botoxed or cellulite-induced body parts thrust forward in a selfie. Harmless following and imitating is not the problem but when this turns into an obsession, many bloggers and doctors on the subject are stressing on the need for therapists and psychologists for your child who can get through to them before the obsession takes a turn for the worse. Some signs to watch out for are an obsession with the mirror and specific parts of their bodies, purchasing too many products and treatments to try and fix a perceived flaw, talking too much about it, having friends that talk about the same issues, finding excuses to frequently skip school, distress over these flaws and also constant grooming and avoiding photographs.

Before the need for professional help arises, nipping the issue in the bud at home is important. Having honest, open conversations with your child about this very serious global issue is key. Starting this education early is the only way. Criticize less, appreciate more,  and even periodic education on television and print advertising is a good way to dispel any myths about perfect bodies and products and procedures that may be perceived to make their own bodies perfect. Perhaps it is time for schools to start paying attention to these very serious phenomena gripping the world today and introduce a module that educates students on the ill effects of social media addiction. This education needs to also be imparted at home. The use of devices and social media have become a double-edged sword today and parents are increasingly grappling with the decision of their exposure among young children. The need of the hour is to limit and curb its overuse or misuse and monitor their online activity.

Snapchat addiction and body Dysmorphia will soon become Snapchat's albatross. By the time our young children grow up, the world would have moved on to more advanced technology and perhaps other addictive applications. By making them aware of the dark side of technology too, we as parents can perhaps play a part in curbing such addictions and raising sensible, balanced individuals.

For now, while my five-month-old reaches out his hand for my iPhone, I revel in the ability to hide it from him and guide his hand towards his toys instead.