Photo-editing software has advanced dramatically in recent years, allowing people to share images of themselves that do not reflect how they truly look. As a result, rates of body dysmorphia and eating disorders, especially amongst the younger generation, have risen, leading engineers to analyze the ethicality of photo-editing software, as well as the social media platforms that host these heavily edited images.
In the digital age, visual media spreads like wildfire. Open Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, or any similar social media platform, and you are instantly flooded with seemingly perfect selfies. These platforms depict the most positive aspects of our lives. Most notable, however, is the ability to display only the most positive aspects of your appearance.
As photo-retouching software becomes more accessible and produces increasingly realistic results, users can digitally alter their appearance on social media without their viewers noticing. Facetune, a free application, is a very popular photo-retouching software. It is an incredibly powerful tool that can be found on the mobile devices of most millennials and members of Gen Z. Similarly, Snapchat filters that are free with the application can make one’s face look almost unrecognizable. These tools are right at our fingertips, and they completely disguise our insecurities, making us look perfect.
Photo-retouching software has serious effects on the mental health of both the poster and the viewer. As the poster airbrushes away every flaw, they internalize their insecurities and diminish their confidence offline. Likewise, as they scroll through seas of retouched photographs, viewers feel insecure about their own appearance, interpreting the realistic-looking pictures as genuine and developing anxiety about their perceived flaws. This can lead to depression, anxiety, and body dysmorphic disorder, which can manifest in the form of an eating disorder. Body dysmorphic disorder can also result in the desire for intense body modification procedures. This is a phenomenon that medical professionals have witnessed through a steep increase in cosmetic surgeries for patients under the age of 30 .
The ethics of photo-retouching software development and distribution must be investigated, especially considering the increase of mental health issues in today’s youth due to the use of these tools on social media. Should technologies that produce overly altered images be regulated to promote a healthier body image? Should individuals and companies that utilize photo-editing software be required to disclose if their images have been altered? Furthermore, should social media companies themselves control the posts on their platform through strict content regulation filters to benefit the mental health of their users? The common good approach offers a framework to determine which solution to this ethical dilemma is greatest for the overarching community of internet consumers. Then, a rights-based approach weighs how each solution interferes with one’s right to freedom of expression. Based on these ethical frameworks, requiring content creators to disclose if their images have been altered is the most ethical approach.
Impact of Social Media on Body Dysmorphia
To evaluate the ethics of social media regulation, we need to first analyze how social media impacts its users. Face-altering filters, pioneered by Snapchat in 2016, use artificial intelligence algorithms to scan a user’s face and reshape it to the ideal proportions of the Western beauty standard. The goal of this is to make the user look like the supermodels they view in magazines . The use of this feature has led to the rise of social media dysmorphia, a term used to describe the body image issues that stem from the continued use of digital filters. Teenagers who use photo-altering software find themselves feeling detached or dissociated from the image reflecting what they are “supposed” to look like . This disconnect between reality and one’s perception of their body in relation to the ideal beauty standard is defined in the medical community as body dysmorphia.
Body dysmorphia can lead to eating disorders like Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa, neurological disorders in which a person adopts unhealthy food intake mannerisms to lose weight. Another serious effect that arises from body dysmorphia includes increased cosmetic surgery procedures. One surgeon reported an instance of a client seeking plastic surgery to look identical to one of the filters she used on a photograph of herself . The effects are so serious that many companies, including the beauty product company L’Oréal, have added “no photoshop” clauses to certain campaigns, vowing to avoid retouching the images they are producing to promote body positivity and increased confidence in audiences . However, while larger companies are making efforts to decrease rates of body dysmorphia in teenagers, social media remains an open marketplace for the exchange of personally altered images.
A consequentialist approach to ethics requires us to consider the outcomes of an action and opt for those that produce more pleasure than pain . After looking purely at the consequences of social media, one may question the ethicality of its existence. A study by the Global Medical Journal cited a 151% increase in suicide rates among girls ages 10 to 14 since the introduction of social media in 2009 . While it is not the only factor in this steep increase, low self-esteem stemming from body dysmorphia provides a significant contribution. Based on this deadly consequence alone, it seems unethical for social media platforms to exist. However, in a survey conducted by Pew Research, 31% of teens felt that social media had a positive impact on their lives, while 25% felt it had a negative one. Positive effects included its ability to connect users with their friends and family, as well as the opportunity for self-expression . In weighing the positive and negative outcomes, as well as the reactions of users to the software, a balance must be found between eliminating social media and allowing it to exist uninhibited. A series of limitations on software capability and content could serve as a solution that lessens the negative outcomes of social media while preserving the positive ones.
Common Good Approach
The ethicality of specific restrictions can be analyzed through a common good approach, which focuses on finding solutions that provide the greatest good for the affected community. Typically, an action is deemed “good” if it aids the safety, well-being, or rights of a community. For example, an action that aids one person, but causes damage to the rest of the community is not “good” as it negatively affects the common good, and only benefits the individual .
With social media, actions that are “good” provide users with the safest and healthiest experience while allowing people the most freedom to express themself on their own platforms. Given the correlation between social media and body dysmorphia, actions that aim to reduce the number of unrealistic images that a user consumes would be “good,” because they would lessen the impact on a user’s self-esteem and body image. One way to accomplish this is some form of limitation on the level of editing a user can perform or post. Social media platforms can enforce this by regulating the amount of alteration a photo can have and filtering out unrealistic or over-edited images. Likewise, photo-editing platforms can curb the power of their technology, limiting the strength of their image-altering tools, including features that drastically change the shape of one’s body or make one’s skin unnaturally smooth. In a study from the JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery Medical Journal, Photoshop was reported to have the most severe impact on the self-esteem of the subjects, out of all the apps surveyed . Limiting the strength of Photoshop, Facetune, and other photo-editing software would lessen its impact on users. This solution mitigates the harm caused by social media by providing a healthier media interaction for consumers and thus performs the greatest “good.”
We can also redefine “good” by analyzing who is regularly affected by social media. According to ethicist John Rawls, “good” can be described as “certain general conditions that are […] equally to everyone’s advantage” . The concept of “good” must equally benefit all parties. To apply this definition, we must determine the parties involved, and then analyze if they are all equally benefitting from the solution. According to one source, 82% of the population of the United States over the age of 12 has at least one active social media account . This means that a vast majority of the population is regularly consuming heavily altered images promoted by content creators. While regulation that limits the kind of content a creator can display is beneficial to consumers of social media, it restricts the freedom of creators, who themselves are a part of the common good. To find a solution that equally benefits all parties, we need to provide for the welfare of the public while also allowing content creators to express themselves through their media.
Rights Based Approach
A rights-based ethical approach centers on finding solutions to ethical dilemmas that do not interfere with the moral rights humans innately possess. By weighing the rights of a consumer and a creator, a solution that benefits both, and thus the common good, can be found. When signing up for a social media account, a user agrees to terms and conditions that outline the rights they are entitled to. For example, the social media platform Instagram outlines in its community guidelines that a creator may not post sexually explicit, violent, or graphic content on their page. Additionally, consumers have the right to report pages that violate these guidelines. However, apart from these content restrictions, as well as ones preventing illegal acts from occurring, creators are free to post what they want. Instagram does specify that consumers can block or unfollow creators, but that they should refrain from reporting content that does not directly violate the previously established content restrictions . Snapchat follows similar regulations, but with added restrictions on “attempting to deceive people about who you are” and “manipulating content for misleading purposes” . Under these regulations, the consumer should also be extended the right to know whether content has been manipulated.
Additionally, all social media users possess the fundamental, human right to physical wellbeing. Body dysmorphia is a form of injury that can result in eating disorders, which affects at least 9% of the population worldwide and directly leads to over 10,000 deaths each year. Thus, we must approach the question of regulating photo-altering on social media from a public health standpoint . While we are aware that viewing hyper-edited media can severely affect one’s body image, we must also acknowledge the impact it can have on the creator of the media itself. One study reported that 55% of plastic surgeons found their clients were seeking surgery to change their appearance to resemble the photographs they posted to social media . Thus, both media consumers and media creators risk their health while using social media platforms. As a result, a solution should prevent people from viewing heavily altered images as well as from harming themselves by creating them. This can be accomplished with regulation that requires content creators to disclose whether a photograph has been filtered or edited, such as the French law passed in 2017 that requires any commercial image that has been retouched to provide a warning on the image . This transparency would soothe the harm social media causes, as many adolescents find it difficult to identify if an image has been altered. In one study, subjects were only able to identify whether an image was edited 60 to 65% of the time . By requiring warnings on edited photographs, content creators are free to post what they want on their respective platforms, but the public will be aware of any alteration. This prevents the media from promoting an unrealistic standard of beauty while upholding the rights of the creator.
In these proposed solutions, we must ask ourselves who has the power to control and restrict social media. Does the duty fall on the creators of photo retouching software, or do we look to the creators of the social media platforms themselves to regulate and filter images that may promote unhealthy standards of beauty? To answer this question, we can look to two key standards outlined in the Code of Ethics by the National Society for Professional Engineers: the first, to promote the “safety, health, and welfare” of the public, and the second, to avoid acts that “deceive the public” .
Given that heavily edited images can have drastic consequences on the safety of social media consumers, social media platforms must require content creators to disclose when images have been heavily altered, to prevent hyper-realistic edited images from infringing on the safety and welfare of the public. This also preserves a consumer’s right to the truth and avoids the deception of the public. We have already begun to see progress in this area, with Snapchat disclosing exactly which filter is used when a photograph is posted on their platform, and with other countries, like France, requiring advertising companies to place a warning on edited images. With this increased level of transparency in the social media world, as well as limitations on the level to which content can be edited, hopefully there will be a positive effect on the body image of social media consumers and a healthier online environment overall.
By Abhaya Krishnan-Jha, Viterbi School of Engineering, University of Southern California
About the Author
At the time of writing this paper, Abhaya Krishnan-Jha was a fourth-year computer science student studying at the University of Southern California with a minor in Musical Studies. She has devoted her time to studying the overlap between engineering and mental health issues, and how technology can both positively and negatively affect the mind.
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