Instagram’s Filter Ban Isn’t Enough To Stop Rise In Cosmetic Surgery

Instagram has banned cosmetic surgery filters. From today, it won’t be possible to find photo effects on Instagram that depict what you might look like after cosmetic surgery. Given the negative publicity Instagram has attracted following more than one teen suicide linked to the social network, any steps it takes to reduce potential feelings of insecurity and low self-esteem among its users are more than welcome.

“We’re reevaluating our policies–we want our filters to be a positive experience for people,” a spokesperson for the company said. “We will remove all effects from the gallery associated with plastic surgery, stop further approval of new effects like this and remove current effects if they’re reported to us.”

However, while there’s nothing controversial about this move in itself, it’s unlikely to make Instagram a substantially healthier place for users, particularly younger women. Research suggests that social media use in general–and not simply the use of selfie filters–is linked to an increased acceptance of cosmetic surgery, as well as to lower self-esteem. So if Instagram really were serious about protecting its users, it would consider shutting itself down. Of course, Instagram is a highly profitable (Facebook-owned) company, so the chances of this happening are zero.

According to the American Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, the number of facelifts carried out in the United States increased by 21.8% in the five years between 2013 and 2018, and also rose by 21.9% in the 12 months to March 2018. Likewise, breast lifts increased by 13.9% between 2017 and 2018, and by a staggering 57.5% between 2013 and 2018. In other words, cosmetic surgery is on the rise (as also indicated by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons), and it’s very likely that social media has played a significant role in driving such changes.

For example, a research paper published in Current Psychology in April found that women aged between 18 and 29 were more likely to want cosmetic surgery “if they spent a significant amount of time on social media.” Likewise, a June article published in the JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery journal concluded that “the use of certain social media and photo editing applications may be associated with increased acceptance of cosmetic surgery.”

In particular, the authors of the June article noted that users of Instagram filters exhibited increased consideration of cosmetic surgery compared to nonusers. This suggests that it’s not simply “cosmetic surgery” filters that are causing unhappiness, but filters and selfies in general. And frequent Instagram use is indeed related to unhappiness, with a recent article in the Psychology of Popular Media Culture journal affirming that “the frequency of Instagram use is correlated with depressive symptoms, self-esteem, general and physical appearance anxiety, and body dissatisfaction.”

Again, a 2017 survey conducted by the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery reported that 55% of plastic surgeons had worked with at least one patient who wanted surgery in order to look better in their selfies. That this represented an increase of 13 percentage points compared to 2016 indicates that the problem is only getting worse, and that removing filters that are explicitly cosmetic-surgery themed won’t be enough on its own to make a serious dent in this trend.

Despite having ostensibly noble intentions, Instagram’s move to ban surgery filters can therefore be charged with tokenism. This shouldn’t be particularly surprising: given that social media revolves mostly around creating a cherry-picked and embellished advert for ourselves, some people will end up comparing themselves unfavourably with their own (and other people’s) artificial avatars, regardless of the particular photo filters involved.

Unsurprisingly, Facebook takes a different view of this matter, and disagrees that Instagram and social media in general are inherently unhealthy and destructive. A Facebook spokesperson told me, “We strive to make Instagram a place where people can feel empowered, inspired and comfortable to express themselves. We see many people using Instagram to build communities of support, including beauty, where diverse and creative content brings people together. We are committed to making Instagram one of the most kind and safe platforms, and we’re constantly looking at how our tools might impact people’s wellbeing.”

11/24/19: this piece has been updated to incorporate new comment from Facebook.