Artificial and Unreal: The Ethics of Beautification Technology for Images and Social Media


In today’s digital age, social media plays a major role in the development of adolescent minds. Young people begin posting content in their early years and are exposed to a feed of others’ pictures and videos. However, while this system may ostensibly help people stay in contact with those they do not see in person, it also creates an environment of comparison that can lead to self-esteem and body image issues. Beautification technology like augmented reality filters and photoshop have only exacerbated the issue, making it so that young people are not only comparing themselves to a curated version of others, but an entirely manufactured one. Engineers have a responsibility to examine the possible negative effects of the products they create, and beautification technology leads to far more harm than good.

Today’s youth are obsessed with self-image. Selfies and social media have combined to create a culture of heightened self-awareness with great importance placed on physical features. Ostensibly, social media platforms provide an outlet for individuals to express themselves and garner public attention. However, a short trip to a local youth hangout will tell a very different story of unhealthy comparisons as young people scroll and swipe on smartphones. Augmented reality (AR) technologies promote social media use and beautify images. By promoting a culture of unhealthy comparisons and presenting unattainable notions of beauty, these AR technologies establish unrealistic expectations for appearance, leading to decreased confidence and increased body-image disorders among young people. While these AR technologies are profitable, their excessive application to images leaves youth vulnerable to mental damage. By placing this population in a dangerous position and contributing to a society in which people are largely valued for their appearance, this technology raises significant ethical concerns when viewed from both the common good and fairness approaches.

Perception of others is highly determined by notions of physical attractiveness. Research indicates that more attention is typically given to physically attractive individuals and that people are often more engaged during interactions with physically attractive individuals than with those considered unattractive [1]. Several studies have shown that those considered attractive benefit from numerous additional social rewards including higher average income and more romantic dates [2]. Attractive individuals are also more likely to receive better treatment than those considered physically unattractive, including more help offered, more honest treatment, greater trust, and more lenient punishment. Those who are physically attractive are often believed to exhibit positive characteristics including intelligence, physical and mental health, assertiveness, social ability, competence, happiness, and occupational fulfillment. While it remains unclear whether these preferences are biologically innate and evolutionary in nature or whether they are socially learned behaviors, attractive individuals are highly favored by society [3].

This phenomenon is magnified by online social networking sites. Images and videos are extremely important in shaping initial impressions and function as visual biographies, allowing individuals to project a curated personality in a public setting. These visual presentations of oneself can have a significant impact on the others’ willingness to build relationships [2]. One study that examined Facebook friend patterns found that individuals were more likely to express interest in befriending attractive profile owners than unattractive. Additionally, greater attention was given to profiles of attractive individuals, and individuals expressed a greater desire to learn more about them based on their profile pictures. Specifically, individuals pay more attention to the profile picture of women than men, highlighting significant gender divides in the social importance placed on attractiveness [1]. 

The rising prevalence of social media contributes to the importance placed on physical attractiveness. As of January 2021, an estimated 4.2 billion individuals actively used social media. Social media use increased by 13.2% between January 2020 and January 2021, and individuals ages 16 to 64 spent an average of two hours and twenty-five minutes daily on social media. Women spend greater amounts of time using social media than men, and younger demographics spend more time using social media than older demographics [4]. Over 95% of college students regularly manage and maintain social media profiles, and studies have shown that women upload more images to these social media sites and spend more time managing their profiles than men [5].

Facial beautification technology has emerged recently to accommodate the rising presence of social media and the importance placed on attractiveness. Facial beautification augmented reality (AR) uses mathematical algorithms to detect facial geometry and remove darkness while smoothing facial skin appearance. One popular method of facial beautification involves the reconstruction of three-dimensional facial images from a two-dimensional image through a three-dimensional rectification model. Traits such as pimples, expression, hair decoration, and makeup are removed, edited, or enhanced in the two-dimensional image and then mapped to a three-dimensional rendering using the individual’s specific face geometry. Some models take this approach further by optimizing the shape of the three-dimensional face image and deforming it toward features that are generally considered attractive [6].

These beautification technologies are both popular and profitable, contributing to the continued manufacturing and design of such products to meet consumer demand. According to Facebook and Instagram, over 600 million people have used at least one of the AR photo-altering effects, and one-fifth of Facebook’s employees are working on AR or virtual reality (VR) products. Snapchat and TikTok also possess beautification effects and filters on their selfie cameras [7]. One popular facial beautification app called Facetune was launched in 2013 and was ranked first in the photo and video app category in over 120 countries within a year of its release. In 2016, it was Apple’s fourth best-selling paid app, and in 2017 it was Apple’s most downloaded app. As of June 2019, Facetune was the top-selling paid app in over 150 countries. Its growing popularity among social media influencers and celebrities ensures that Facetune will continue to be used by countless individuals who wish to present attractive representations of themselves to their social community. Facetune allows users to whiten teeth, contour features, add makeup, smooth skin, remove blemishes, and reshape facial features to desired levels. The recently released Facetune 2 allows users to apply these beautification features to videos in addition to photographs [8].

While this technology is profitable and popular, it can have dramatic ramifications on individuals’ self-perception and body image. The nature of altering and enhancing images undermines individual personality and character by emphasizing appearance. Additionally, since appearance is largely tied to individual identity, these beautification technologies may cause individuals to feel insecure about themselves. Social media use has become so pervasive that individuals’ identities are significantly shaped by the narratives they create and the perceptions they promote via social media [9]. Specifically, selfies act as the primary medium of self-presentation on social media [10]. By extending self-image to an ideal digitized form, the selfie serves as an extension of one’s body and represents a digitized version of one’s identity. Images present one’s mood and experiences, and individuals often take selfies with the specific intention of sharing them with others. This places significant pressure on selfie quality to represent one’s mood and experience in order to build a social representation of oneself. Selfies are often designed to present one’s best self since this representation is likely to receive the highest acceptance. However, this can lead to a lack of genuine presentation and contributes to negative stigmas surrounding mental and emotional health [11].

Social media use also promotes unhealthy comparisons to others. Social comparison theory posits that individuals are driven to judge their personal standing on various facets of their lives and will often compare themselves to others in order to gauge where they stand. This problem is particularly apparent regarding social media given the abundance of opportunities to make comparisons, especially with respect to appearance. Approximately 10 million new photographs are uploaded to Facebook every hour, and excessive social media use can promote these unhealthy social comparisons [12]. Studies show that for both men and women, Facebook use corresponds to greater self-objectification and social comparison, both of which are tied to poorer mental health, lower self-esteem, and body-image concerns. Body dissatisfaction arises from frequent social media use, especially among women, and these body-image concerns often manifest themselves in eating disorders, depression, and other mental and emotional damage. In particular, research suggests that modifying images of oneself in an effort to appear more attractive is associated with greater dietary restrictions and symptoms of eating disorders. This is likely attributed to the objective self-awareness theory in which one compares oneself to a certain standard and differences between oneself and the standard create a negative mental response. In modifying one’s image, individuals exchange their image for an idealized version, highlighting differences between one’s actual image and one’s standard for ideal appearance. Excessive preoccupation with altering one’s image and the negative mindset that this creates can lead to obsession over how one is perceived, creating an unhealthy spiral of low self-esteem and dissatisfaction [9]. While these unhealthy comparisons and their consequences are more common in women than in men, men also experienced depression and body dissatisfaction when presented with advertisements featuring physically attractive men [13].

These unhealthy consequences of social media are exacerbated by image beautification technology. These technologies increase the standard to which individuals compare themselves, leading to even greater body dissatisfaction. They also heighten awareness of physical attractiveness, leading to an increased emphasis placed on appearance above personality. When viewed through a fairness approach for ethical decision-making, this presents significant ethical concerns since it treats human beings unequally based on factors largely outside of their control. By placing such importance and emphasis on appearance over controllable factors such as moral behavior, character, and responsibility, the technology inherently promotes unequal treatment of individuals based on unfair standards. The design and implementation of such technology contributes to society’s systemic inequality that unfairly elevates attractive individuals. By implicitly heightening these inequalities, engineers fail to promote an equitable society based on morally defensible standards and undermine the value of those who are less attractive or who lack access to beautification technology.

In addition, the target audience of young women often lack the necessary life perspective to make healthy choices that will enhance their body image and self-appreciation. These beautification products prey on young women and their desire to appear attractive, contributing to unhealthy cultural ideals surrounding the perceived need to appear beautiful. Particularly when considered using the common good approach for ethical decision-making, which states that individuals should behave with compassion and respect for the vulnerable of society, this presents a significant ethical dilemma. While consumers should remain free to make their own decisions, the specific demographic being targeted to use this technology may lack the wisdom necessary to make healthy choices. By designing and manufacturing technology that takes advantage of insecurities surrounding appearance, engineers fail to behave in their consumers’ best interest. In designing technology that actively promotes physical, mental, and emotional disorders, engineers fail to “hold paramount the health, safety, and welfare of the public” and violate the first canon of the Code of Ethics of Engineers presented by the National Society of Professional Engineers [14].

While self-expression and freedom of choice are valuable, engineers must make responsible products on behalf of their consumers’ health and well-being. The ethical considerations and health consequences associated with the use of beautification technology must be addressed in order to promote a culture of positivity, acceptance, love, appreciation, genuineness, and self-care. Engineers should work to provide goods that individuals will enjoy responsibly while spreading positivity and fairness throughout society. Especially since the target consumers of these products are often young women, these ethical issues deserve significant consideration. These individuals may lack the wisdom and life-perspective to recognize the importance of character, the superficiality of physical appearances, or the dangers of unhealthy comparisons. These technological products target individuals’ insecurities and fail to protect the consumers’ best interests. By failing to promote an equitable society based on morally defensible standards and by contributing to damaging trends among vulnerable populations, engineers behave unethically and irresponsibly regarding beautification technologies. It is important to uplift young men and women by promoting the importance of character above appearance, but this is realistically possible only if technology reflects these values. Heretofore, unfortunately, the image-based and superficial nature of society’s prevalent technology has failed to uphold these values. By placing profits and popularity above responsibility and ethical considerations, beautification technology has promoted unhealthy comparisons, leading to body-image issues and mental health difficulties while contributing to society’s emphasis on attractiveness.

By Daniel Chaderjian, Viterbi School of Engineering, University of Southern California

About the Author

At the time of writing this paper, Daniel was a senior studying Applied and Computational Mathematics. After graduating, he hoped to work either as a data scientist, a baseball analyst, a professional mascot, or a Mr. Bean impersonator. Or perhaps some combination of the above.


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Links for Further Reading