Digital body dysmorphia: How social media is contributing to the rise in teen mental health disorders

Social media has exacerbated many of the problems that plague women in our society. Picture: Karolina Grabowska/Pexels

Social media has exacerbated many of the problems that plague women in our society. Picture: Karolina Grabowska/Pexels

Published Jan 28, 2023


Most of us have something we don’t like about our bodies, whether it’s the colour of our skin or our size, there’s something we would like to change.

Nowadays, it is almost impossible to take a picture of yourself without using some sort of editing software. Although this may seem like harmless online fun, studies have shown that filters and editing apps can adversely affect our mental health.

The Anxiety & Depression Association of America defines body dysmorphia as a mental condition characterised by an obsession with a perceived physical imperfection. The fault might be insignificant or exaggerated.

However, the person may spend hours a day trying to fix it, working out excessively or undergoing numerous aesthetic procedures to feel perfect.

People who have this condition might frequently look in the mirror to check how they look, continually compare their appearance to that of others, and avoid social situations and being photographed.

Social media has exacerbated many of the problems that plague women in our society. Picture: Karolina Grabowska/Pexels

Beauty standards are an inherent part of women’s history, and women have always been put under pressure to look a certain way. Beauty is almost impossible to achieve because what is considered “beautiful” is constantly changing – particularly when it comes to women’s body shapes and sizes.

Social media has exacerbated the problem.

While taking a selfie is as simple as clicking a button, it can become more challenging for teens in particular because of the way they regard their bodies.

Media content spreads quickly in the digital age, and you are immediately bombarded with selfies that seem flawless.

A headline from the “New York Times” captioned “Bye Bye Booty: Heroin chic is back” sparked social outrage, with users commenting that women’s bodies are not trends.

— New York Post (@nypost) November 2, 2022

Around 84% of teenagers worldwide use social media, and its importance in our lives as a self-expression tool and as a means of connecting with others and fostering creativity is only growing.

However, given the emphasis on appearance and the monitoring of social engagement there can be a drawback to the highly visual nature of most social media apps in that a person's appearance is exposed to constant criticism.

As a result, many people will feel under pressure to alter their bodies in pictures before posting them to social media. They use digital editing to fix their perceived defects.

According to a 2017 study published in the journal “Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications”, respondents could only successfully identify altered images 60% to 65% of the time.

The prevalence of digitally manipulated photos is having a significant effect on girls' expectations, comprehension of conventional beauty standards, and how they view themselves.

Another study has shown that editing a selfie can actually make a person feel worse about concealing their flaws and lead to further problematic social comparisons.

These negative experiences can create a gap between a person’s perceived appearance and their ideal appearance, leading to harmful behaviours such as excessive exercise.

A 2016 study “Digitised Dysmorphia of the female body”, calls attention to the fact that digitised dysmorphia is a socially conditioned disorder that is influenced by societal pressures, constructs of beauty, and the current technology available to achieve these standards in image form.

Digitised dysmorphia exists on a spectrum with body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). This socially dysmorphic perception of female bodies has been further enhanced by the way digitally altered images have permeated fashion and advertising imagery so that perceptions of women's bodies are no longer based on natural (digitally unmodified) bodies anymore.

According to a 2013 American Psychiatric Association study, BDD typically manifests in adolescence and research has shown that it affects men and women almost equally. BDD affects 2.5% of males and 2.2% of females in the US. BDD typically starts from the age of 12 or 13.

Although the exact causes of BDD remain unknown, some biological and environmental factors, including genetic susceptibility, neurobiological issues such as serotonin dysfunction in the brain, personality traits, and life experiences, may play a role in its emergence.

BDD treatment may include counselling and antidepressant medication.