Can “selfie” editing apps worsen negative body image issues in children?

What do you think of the “selfie surgery” trend?
What do you think of the “selfie surgery” trend? Photo: Getty Images

While most people might think “selfies” are a recent invention, self portraits have been around for over a century. One of the first “selfies” was taken by Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia, age 14 using a mirror and Kodak Brownie camera in 1914.

If she had wanted to alter certain aspects of herself in that photograph before sending it to her friend(s), it would have been considered impossible. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology almost a century later, an app named Facetune now allows the user to perform “selfie surgery” on their photos. Selfie surgery allows the person to alter their facial shape, remove marks or piercings and smooth out their skin similar to the way magazines airbrush images.

For the current generation of children, already obsessed with the idea of the perfect face and body, will this app make it harder for parents and other professionals to fight negative body image perceptions when dissatisfaction arises between how kids look online and the real world? Or is “selfie surgery” just harmless fun?

Examples from FaceTune App
Examples from FaceTune App 

Retouching selfies

Chloe* a Year 8 student says “I retouch my selfies so that I appear prettier; it’s also a great way to get rid of blemishes or just make the photo look better, everyone does it”. Dr. Vivienne Lewis, psychologist, expert researcher in body image and appearance issues and author of Positive Bodies: Loving the Skin You’re In says “For most kids taking selfies and retouching them is a fun way of sharing their photos with their friends. However it can prove harmful for those who already suffer from negative body image problems and might trigger an obsession to spend hours over changes to get the photo just right before uploading”. Body image issues are first reported in 13 to 15 year olds especially during puberty she explains.

Body image challenges during puberty

Negative body image concerns are not unique to girls with pre-pubescent boys also presenting worries over their muscle tone and weight. According to Lewis, once boys hit puberty, they develop a more positive body image as their bodies become aligned with what they consider ideal (images of athletic men shown on TV and in magazines).

In girls, body image issues escalate after they hit puberty – unlike their male peers, they tend to put on weight and develop at different rates. Their bodies often develop contrary to the images they see (their hips widen and body fat increases) affecting their self-esteem and leading girls paying extra attention to their looks and diets.

Lewis says there are some warning signs that your child might be suffering from negative body image issues; being depressed, stopping sports or any activity that leads to showing their bodies in public, counting calories and paying obsessive attention to their looks. Help can be sought from school counsellors, GPs and other qualified mental health professionals to help children overcome these challenges.

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Retouching school portraits

But what if parents are the ones sending negative messages to their children regarding imperfections? In the US, some parents are demanding school portraits be retouched to remove birth marks, stray hair, nicks and cuts according to an article in The New York Times. School photography companies in America now offer retouching services on photo order forms – removing a stubborn cowlick, removing scabs, whitening teeth to more complicated alterations – adding a tie or shortening shirt sleeves.

Code of practice in Australia and New Zealand

Closer to home, the Professional School Photographers Association of Australia and New Zealand code of practice has strict rules and guidelines regarding altering school photos. The Association says it does not endorse “airbrushing” as an image enhancing technique (airbrushing is defined as changing the photo into a glamour image as in magazines). An exception to this code is removing any temporary marks (cold sores, bruises, scabs only with the parent’s permission and after careful consideration by the photographer) that do not reflect the child’s appearance on a daily basis.

Children are quite perceptive and will quickly form opinions about whether they measure up to their parents’ expectations. Parents need to be careful with the type of comments they make in front of their children especially around the ages of 14 and be positive role models at all times emphasises Lewis. They need to teach their children to value intelligence, disposition and talent over appearance and avoid making disparaging comments about people who are overweight or obese.

Parents also need to monitor their children’s use of apps like Facetune and prevent access using parental controls without resorting to searching their child’s phone. Lewis recommends keeping a lookout for any drastic change in your child’s behaviour, for example depression and extreme anxiety and seek professional help.

Would you retouch your child’s photos? What do you think of the “selfie surgery” trend?

Rashida Tayabali is a freelance writer and can be followed @RashidaWriter