We have all played around with the plethora of filters found on social media apps like Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and TikTok. Some of them are pretty hilarious (see below) and others will make you say, “Whoa, is that my face?” These two types of reactions help to highlight the diverging perceptions that users of these AR filters are being faced with (pun intended).
Before I get into the nitty gritty, let’s first highlight how these AR filters actually work, and who is creating them. The AR filters are essentially active photo editing tools. They use computer vision and AI to detect facial features that your phone camera sees and changes them to fit the rules set by the creator of the filter. The computer vision creates a topographic map of your face and works to overlay the filter graphics onto that map. This allows the filter to add things like floppy dog ears to your head or give you unnaturally plump lips. The trivial or humorous tweaks the filters provide may seem insignificant, but they are actually quite technologically advanced. The rise of real time filters was made possible by the sophistication of neural networks and AI processing power.
There are quite literally armies of people working to create these filters. The filters available on Facebook are made by third-party creators through Facebook developed software called Spark AR. In the first year the company opened its platform for anyone to create filters, over 400,000 creators released some sort of filter effects. Spark AR is user-friendly and allows even beginner to create simple effects. There is a Spark AR Community group on Facebook where creators can show off their filters, which has helped to enable collaboration while also pushing the software even further. In an interview I read with a popular filter creator, the introduction of filters in Instagram stories has allowed creators to not only debut their filters but also gather feedback from their followers.
So now that we know how the filters work and who is actually making them, let’s talk about how they are affecting users. Many users really enjoy AR filters and lenses. They give users the ability to “try on” different kinds of jewelry or see how they would look with certain kinds of makeup. Users can pick a filter that may reflect how they are feeling in a particular moment and really use the filters to outwardly express themselves to their social media followings. I won’t lie, as I wrote this post, I flipped through the filters on Instagram and some of them are really cool. I totally understand how they could be a positive addition to your social media persona. Like my new Medusa vibe I’m trying to get out there.
Creators of the filters also see many benefits. They are able to really explore artistic boundaries that may have been out of reach without the introduction of the AR technology. Creators of filters that go viral are able to connect with their social media communities in ways they may not have been able to before. In the interview with the popular creator, she talked about how creating filters allowed her to explore her interest in technology and AR applications and it actually shifted her course of study and future professional goals.
However, on the opposite end of the spectrum there are filters that are causing lots of problems. Mostly these filters are characterized as “Beauty” filters or filters that are augmenting a user’s face to match stereotypical beauty standards. In most of the articles I came across, young women are the most negatively affected by these types of filters. The filters are doing things like making your nose thinner, erasing blemishes, lifting your eyebrows, and plumping your lips through the use of distortion effects. These distortion effects are available in many different filters and make up the most popular filters on both Snapchat and Instagram.
Distortion filters are not only contributing to body dysmorphia issues, but also creating a stark difference between a girl’s perception of herself in reality versus her social media perception. This difference creates anxiety and complications around navigating between digital identity and authentic identity. Some girls may be able to properly navigate these choppy identity waters while others may get very caught up in trying to merge these two identities which is where the mental health impacts lie.
There are quite a few researchers currently studying the overall effects of distortion effects in AR filters on teens mental health and self-esteem, but the results of these studies are still being interpreted. With lots of social media companies doubling down on AR, I believe the impacts of these filters will become even greater over the next few years as more filters with unattainable beauty standards are released. Companies like Snapchat and Facebook have publicly stated that they ban effects that clearly promote eating disorders or encourage cosmetic surgery procedures, but is that enough to halt the overall negative impacts to a girl’s self-image? I suppose only time will tell, and in the meantime let’s hope users are getting more laughs out of the filters they chose rather than anxiety.