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Is There Really Such a Thing as Snapchat Dysmorphia?

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Yet another unexpected effect of social media is coming to light: Young people are seeking plastic surgery so they can look more like the idealized images they create using selfie filters. Because platforms like Snapchat and Instagram provide filters that let users smooth out their skin tone and change the shape of their features, this phenomenon has become known as Snapchat dysmorphia. Dysmorphia refers to an obsession with the perceived flaws in one’s face or body.

The term was reportedly coined by plastic surgeon Dr. Tijion Esho, after repeatedly fielding (and refusing) patients’ requests for alterations to make them look like their filtered selfies. “With the introduction of social platforms and filters over the last five years, more and more patients come into clinics with filtered versions of themselves as the goal they want to achieve,” Dr. Esho said in an Independent article in 2018. “Treating someone like this will start them on a journey where they will never be happy and psychological support is needed.”

Dr. Esho is not alone in recognizing this trend. According to statistics from American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, surgeons are seeing an increasing number of patients under age 30 asking for cosmetic and injectable procedures. Meanwhile, 90 percent of Snapchat users are between the ages of 13 and 24, and 60 percent of users are female.

“It can be argued that these apps are making us lose touch with reality because we expect to look perfectly primped and filtered in real life as well,” stated the authors of a study titled “Selfies—Living in the Era of Filtered Photographs.” “Filtered selfies especially can have harmful effects on adolescents or those with Body Dysmorphic Disorder because these groups may more severely internalize this beauty standard.”

How Social Media Affects Body Image

Teens and young adults who use social media constantly compare their faces and bodies to snaps of both peers and celebrities—and now they’re comparing themselves to their own filtered images, with bigger eyes, fuller lips, or smoother skin. Researchers say that this ongoing focus on unrealistic beauty standards is one reason why social media has been linked to depression, narcissism, and self-esteem issues—and now to Snapchat dysmorphia. Essentially, young people with Snapchat dysmorphia experience a sense of disconnection between how they really look—and who they really are—and the images they share with the world.

Studies show a clear link between negative body image and social media use. According to a survey by Common Sense Media, 35 percent of teenagers who are active on social media report worrying about people tagging them in unattractive photos, 27 percent report being stressed out about how their selfies look, and 22 percent report feeling bad about themselves when nobody “likes” their photos. A study of one hundred seventh-grade girls found that those who regularly shared selfies had more dissatisfaction with their bodies. Moreover, those who manipulated the photos using filters had higher levels of body- and eating-related concerns.

Many teens experience feelings of self-judgment and insecurity about their appearance, particularly during a time when their bodies are changing rapidly. However, for some adolescents, these negative feelings can progress into body dysmorphia or Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), a diagnosable mental health issue.

“BDD is a very serious mental health condition in which a person’s misperception of how they appear becomes obsessive to the point that it severely affects their everyday functioning,” says Newport Academy’s Heather Senior Monroe, LCSW. “While social media use does not directly cause BDD, it can definitely act as a trigger for teens with genetic or psychological predispositions toward the condition, and it may worsen BDD symptoms in those who are already suffering from the disorder.”

“Not only have I observed this in my work with teens, research also shows a clear link between social media use and depression, narcissism, and body-image issues.”

—Heather Senior Monroe, Senior Clinician at Newport Academy

What Is Body Dysmorphic Disorder?

Classified as an obsessive-compulsive disorder, Body Dysmorphic Disorder, also referred to as body dysmorphia, can start as early as age 12 or 13. Without treatment, BDD may progressively worsen over time. Currently, one in 50 Americans suffers from BDD, according to the International OCD Foundation.

BDD is characterized by a distorted body image and a preoccupation with an imagined or slight defect in one’s appearance. People with Body Dysmorphic Disorder often think of and describe themselves in extreme negative terms, using words such as “hideous,” “ugly,” and “deformed”—even when the perceived defect is a slight imperfection or even nonexistent. Skin (usually facial skin), hair, and noses are the most common body parts that people with BDD and Snapchat dysmorphia focus on. In the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma,” the teen daughter of a fictional family becomes fixated on her ears after someone comments about them on her selfie post.

Furthermore, experts believe that there are a number of underlying causes of Body Dysmorphic Disorder. Genetics, neurobiology (specifically processing of the neurotransmitter serotonin), and environmental factors, including childhood trauma, all increase the risk that a teen will develop BDD.

Symptoms of Dysmorphia and Snapchat Dysmorphia

Teens and young adults with BDD symptoms often experience co-occurring depression and anxiety, causing feelings of shame, self-esteem issues, self-loathing, grief, and fear of being unlovable or unacceptable. Consequently, people with BDD often develop social anxiety and avoid social situations due to their fear of being rejected or ridiculed for their appearance. Hence, the emotional distress associated with Body Dysmorphic Disorder affects daily functioning at school and with family and friends.

In addition, there are a number of behaviors associated with BDD. These often serve as warning signs of the disorder, and may indicate that a teen needs an assessment to determine whether they are exhibiting average levels of concern around self-image, or whether treatment is warranted.

  • Attempting to cover up or hide features they perceive as ugly, by using clothing, makeup, sunglasses, and/or gestures or movements, such as repeatedly adjusting clothes or applying makeup
  • Constant comparison of the aspects they dislike with those of other people
  • Obsessively looking at their reflection in mirrors, windows, cell phone screens, etc.
  • Obsessive grooming, such as brushing, plucking or styling hair; applying makeup; shaving; tanning; and frequently changing outfits; as well as obsessively shopping for clothes, makeup, and other products
  • Constantly asking for others’ opinions on how they look, or repeatedly talking about how “ugly” or “abnormal” they look
  • Compulsively picking at their skin
  • Over-exercising
  • Seeking plastic surgery or dermatology in order to change their appearance, as with Snapchat dysmorphia.

Body Dysmorphic Disorder Treatment

 Several types of therapeutic modalities have been proven to be effective treatment methods for body dysmorphia and Snapchat dysmorphia.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) helps people with BDD learn to how to confront and challenge their negative thoughts about body image. Furthermore, they gain skills for handling their obsessive-compulsive behaviors related to body dysmorphia, and learn healthy coping skills. CBT for body dysmorphia can include a technique known as Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP). With ERP, a therapist guides teens with BDD to expose themselves to triggers so they can practice resisting obsessive thoughts and behaviors. In addition, CBT helps teens address the depression and anxiety that often go hand in hand with dysmorphia and body-image issues, while trauma-focused CBT addresses the childhood trauma that may contribute to these conditions.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) focuses on helping people with BDD to better tolerate painful thoughts and symptoms. ACT therapy involves three core concepts: mindfulness, acceptance, and value-based living. Clients learn to observe and detach from self-critical thoughts around body image, and develop more flexible ways to respond to these thoughts. Furthermore, they identify things that matter to them beyond their appearance.

Group therapy for BDD or Snapchat dysmorphia helps teens realize that they are not alone. Hearing others’ experiences and being seen as their authentic selves by their peers help counteract the feelings of isolation and judgment catalyzed by social media.

Family therapy improves outcomes for teens with dysmorphia, as well as any type of mental heath issue. When the family is involved in the healing process, teens have a much higher likelihood of making a full recovery from BDD. Hence, they can proudly show the world their true face.

Contact us today to find out more about teen treatment for Snapchat dysmorphia, social media addiction, and co-occurring mental health disorders.


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Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels