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The metaverse of social anxiety

The development of technologies has given us the power to alter the perception of our body. Back in the days only professional photographers used editing software to polish photographs, nowadays everyone with a smartphone can download one of the many free apps existing on the market that allows to smooth out skin, optimize body proportions and highlight parts of the body. Research has been conducted on the detrimental effect such practices have on body image perception.[1] However, nowadays this issue is entangled with the shift in the advertising industry from the use of professional agencies to individuals with a large following audience. Applications like Facetune enable anyone to participate in a widespread mass manipulation and create a distorted perception of every aspect of our lives on social media platforms. A similar spike can be recently observed in the plastic surgery industry with almost two hundred fifty thousand more surgeries performed in 2018 over the preceding year.[2] 

Instagram photos that usually get the most likes feature the so-called “Instagram face” characterized by plump lips, high cheekbones, foxy eyes, and seamless skin. Consequently, girls alter their appearance to possess traits treasured by their follower base triggering the process of influencers becoming more idiosyncratic than ever before.[3] The results of such behaviour can be detrimental to young people trying to mirror the image of their idols on Instagram. Developing minds of teenagers nowadays have little chance against recommendation algorithms in creating their sense of beauty and self-image. Recent rebranding of Facebook’s parent company to Meta, combined with whistle-blower complaints, hints towards their knowledge on harmful effects such as intense dieting and increased suicidal rates of children. Society realized it after Frances Haugen came forward with accusations and leaked internal research done by Facebook’s employees.[4] Young people’s body image problems caused by distorted representation of reality on social media need concrete actions no matter if that is the fault of the platform or the prevailing culture. 

Recently, Norway passed an amendment to the 2009 Marketing Act requiring social media influencers and advertisers to clearly label the Instagram posts that have been altered. Fines will be imposed when violations of the disclaimer rule occur. It targets the photos where “a body’s shape, size or skin has been changed by retouching or other manipulation”.[5] However, it only applies to influencers benefiting from posting the picture. The Norwegian government aspires to raise awareness among young people about the differences in advertised bodies and the reality they face. The long-term goal is to encourage individuals and advertisers to show real body images and promote diversification of models. Similar law already exists in France since 2017 imposing an obligation to use the label ‘retouched photo’ when it is used for commercial purposes and has been modified.

The research community raised concerns about the efficacy rate of such solutions, although there’s another argument to be made which is the strong signal sent to social media companies clearly stating that these harmful practices won’t be tolerated by the governing bodies. The study published in Journal of Children and Media found that disclaimers are unsuccessful in minimising the perceived authenticity of the photos posted.[6] For young people enhanced images are already strongly embedded in their consciousness and retouching social media practices are seen as something natural.[7] Enhancement of images is currently an inherent part of social media leading to negative consequences for adolescents mainly the rise of eating disorders.[8] It is crucial that regulators find a way that constructively solves the issue at the root of the problem, rather than adhering to the inadequate method of disclaimers. 

[1] Shelly Grabe, L. Monique Ward and Janet Shibley Hyde, ‘The Role of The Media In Body Image Concerns Among Women: A Meta-Analysis Of Experimental And Correlational Studies.’ (2008) 134 Psychological Bulletin.

[2] ‘Cosmetic Surgery Is on The Rise, New Data Reveal’ (Medicalnewstoday.com, 2019) <https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/324693#Motivating-factors> accessed 13 November 2021.

[3] Rebecca Jennings, ‘Facetune And The Internet’S Endless Pursuit Of Physical Perfection’ (Vox, 2021) <https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/7/16/20689832/instagram-photo-editing-app-facetune> accessed 22 November 2021.

[4] CNN Business Donie O&#39;Sullivan, ‘Instagram Promoted Pages Glorifying Eating Disorders To Teen Accounts’ (CNN, 2021) <https://www.cnn.com/2021/10/04/tech/instagram-facebook-eating-disorders/index.html> accessed 13 November 2021.

[5] Sarah Polus, ‘New Norway Law Mandates Social Media Influencers Disclose Photo Editing’ (TheHill, 2021) <https://thehill.com/homenews/news/561228-new-norway-law-mandates-social-media-influencers-disclose-photo-editing?rl=1> accessed 22 November 2021.

[6] Brigitte Naderer, Christina Peter and Kathrin Karsay, ‘This Picture Does Not Portray Reality: Developing and Testing a Disclaimer for Digitally Enhanced Pictures on Social Media Appropriate for Austrian Tweens and Teens’ [2021] Journal of Children and Media.

[7] Tara M. Dumas and others, ‘Lying or Longing for Likes? Narcissism, Peer Belonging, Loneliness and Normative Versus Deceptive Like-Seeking on Instagram In Emerging Adulthood’ (2017) 71 Computers in Human Behavior.

[8] Eric Graber, ‘Eating Disorders Are on The Rise’ (American Society for Nutrition, 2021) <https://nutrition.org/eating-disorders-are-on-the-rise/> accessed 22 November 2021.

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