How social media distorts reality and affects mental health

How social media distorts reality and affects mental health

With 53.6% of the world using social media, it’s something that’s become integral to our daily lives. However, this shift into virtual reality has proven itself to be detrimental, especially for the younger generation.

 In the latest news, Facebook has come under fire for withholding critical teen research that points to Instagram being a factor in rising anxiety and depression. In 2020, research found that 32% of teenage girls said when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse. Having these comparisons is altering how young women view and describe themselves.  

Unrealistic body depictions and expectations, once merely the established practice of traditional media, has been reworked as a social currency in the feed-flicking, like-thumping past decade. Now, further internalising this trend, are apps turning us into our own virtual plastic surgeons– with startlingly real consequences.

 I’ve got you under my skin…

The popularity of ‘face filters’ could be attributed to platforms like Instagram sculpting the aesthetic paradigm, and the advent of ‘beautifying’ applications of facial recognition technology. Perhaps not unpredictably, this has prompted a recent surge in cosmetic surgeries, escalating decades long trends yet still reaching outlandish extremes: think cat eyes, the Frankenstein feature combinations of ‘Instagram Face’, overzealous anti-aging fillers and every other ‘lift’ imaginable. Sound familiar?

Reports of surgeons turning away clients who are not in a fit state of mind to undergo these procedures show there is a level of industry acknowledgement, let alone consciousness, of the ‘filter effect’[i]. So too are the reams of articles that promote these procedures, even for 20 year olds (yikes!) while, jarringly, still offering a word of caution[ii]. This is unsettling, but is only at the tail-end of a widespread cultural acceptance of these trends.  

The long game

So ingrained is our appetite and acceptance of this culture that it can be difficult to gain perspective, and ask that all too avoidable question of what this is doing for my mental health? Research propels any suspicions of the effect of social media images: an in-depth review by UK MPs revealed that many teenagers feel influenced and pressurised by the barrage of idealised imagery they are presented with:

If you are following celebrities, models or people that society aspires to, then even if it is not a conscious effort that you want to look like them, it is just something that gradually, over time, is ingrained into you and you think the tall, slim model is something that you want to be’ noted Sienna, a young person involved in the study[iii].

These concerns also pushed Norway to address the issue in new legislation by making social media influencers disclose post-snap touch ups[iv]. It’s great that the discourse around these issues has become more normalised, but what of face filters and their ability to warp the self-image in a distorted, but irresistibly appealing mirror? Do they show a continuation of the above problems or are they detrimental in their own way?

Mirror, mirror

Though superficially harmless and very accessible, apps such as FaceTune– with their real-time airbrushing tools– prey on body dysmorphic tendencies and draw users into a compulsive negative feedback loop. Think of how scrolling through idealised images might evoke feelings of envy, self-dissatisfaction, anxiety and self-consciousness, while enticing you in equal measure. After all, they present a version of what you could be– that maiden, as the magic mirror in Snow White declares, ‘who is more fair than thee.’ Face filters– now discontinued on Instagram and Facebook for apparent reasons– amplify this effect by making it far easier to access this refined version of yourself, yet the result ultimately creates a dissonance with the real you.

What’s not to Like?

Of course, it may not be entirely useful to simply decry the horrors of face filters without evaluating their social function– and perceived benefits. After all, as a Forbes journalist realised in a self- conducted selfie experiment involving, you guessed it, Instagram, two photos (treated and untreated) and several grams worth of sundered dreams, the world appears to favour the edited self in a much greater capacity[v]. Well, the virtual world does at least.

It’s worth making that distinction as I think our brains, at some unconscious level, do operate on a different track when diving into the virtual realm. The rules are different: Instagram and Facebook, I would hope, do not have their mitts on every aspect of real life, aesthetics and social interaction. For all its fakery, it may well distract from the plethora of mental health crises the world gifts us (which it does endlessly, like some sadistic iteration of secret Santa).

Facing adversity

Still, it is important to know when to switch off. While work, friends, and the indelible lure of memes increasingly demand our attention and gradually morph us into one very large neural network, the sense of self can too easily be eroded. Body dysmorphia has been the clear fallout of ‘filter culture’ but, perhaps what is not being as widely discussed, is the larger identity crisis this harbours– particularly to those growing up without a proper reference point. In this sense you may as well bung it together with a slew of other dystopian technologies (hello deepfakes and face surveillance!) that threaten to further commodify our bodies.

In their formative years, ‘creative’ social media platforms such as Instagram were shaped by the inputs and in interests of their userbase. Now these platforms are shaping people’s aesthetic interests– to impossible, unattainable and ultimately unhealthy extremes. I don’t know if we can change what’s fashionable, but we can change our habits.

Here’s a new one for you: the next time you look in the mirror tell yourself you’ve got a face. A face that does things that are useful, occasionally wonderful. That’s all you need in this life. A regular face. And that’s a beautiful thing.


[i] Rodulfo, K. (2020). It’s Easier Than Ever To Make A New Face On Social Media. But Is It Killing Your Confidence? [online] Women’s Health. Available at:
[ii] Lauren, A. (2017). Secrets Your Plastic Surgeon Wishes You Would Know. [online] Available at:
[iii] House of Commons (2019). Impact of social media and screen-use on young people’s health Fourteenth Report of Session 2017-19 Report, together with formal minutes relating to the report. [online] . Available at:
[iv] BBC News (2021) Influencers react to Norway photo edit law: “Welcome honesty” or a “shortcut”?. [online] 6 Jul. Available at:
[v] London, L. (n.d.). How Beauty Filters Are Making Us “Look Better” But Feel Worse. [online] Forbes. Available at: