Even as social media addiction accelerated under Covid lockdowns, Meta jettisoned internal alarms about mental health dangers. Following Frances Haugen’s 2021 whistleblower testimony, attorneys general from 42 states filed consumer protection lawsuits against Meta.
The “Facebook Files,” a Wall Street Journal investigation based on Meta’s internal documents, showed that the social media company “ignored their own studies revealing Instagram’s photo-sharing and editing app harms girls.” Capitalizing on the need to connect during lockdown, Meta helped propel young women into gender facilities.
When you set up a social media profile, you begin a process of virtualized identity that makes you a target for ad campaigns. Bots track people exploring “gender issues.” As Michelle Santiago Cortés’ observed, “Our algorithmically orchestrated encounters with people … on social media start to feel preordained, as if the fact that the algorithm put something on our path Means Something™.” Meta hid the many adverse effects — including anxiety and body-image dysmorphia — tied to compulsive online behavior such as infinite scrolling.
The “Facebook Files” disclosed built-in Instagram features that made it more harmful than similar youth-targeting apps. In particular, according to internal documents, “Social comparison is worse on Instagram.” Social comparisons on visual platforms, such as Instagram, resemble past research on body image. That research showed that young girls’ body image worsened when they compared themselves to images of cover girls.
The Self as an Object to Edit
What’s worse now is that, according to JAMA Plastic Facial Surgery, selfies and photo editing detach users from their own bodies, “making us lose touch with reality.” A dangerous object orientation toward the body occurs.
Creativity and intelligence cannot withstand making comparisons and spiraling into envy. Even a sophisticated awareness of the objectifying effect of social media will not protect young people from it. A study of youth reactions to their own untouched versus filtered photos showed that their resulting critical awareness is insufficient to avoid social comparisons: “Although the majority of the teens said they actually preferred their original, unretouched photos, every single one chose to digitally alter their image for social media.”
Cell phone users occasionally walk into traffic. Why wouldn’t preoccupation with an unfolding digital presentation lend to disembodied living in your head and ensuing self-estrangement?
The face app visually re-aligns the facial contour, such as the jawline, to achieve a more masculine appearance. While the initial experience is euphoric, the emotional high is not lasting. One Reddit thread makes this clear: “So I just got face app to see what the hype was all about. And let me just say its [sic] pretty awesome, but as soon as I finished one picture I was washed over with so much dysphoria and just felt sad that that wasn’t me.”
Depersonalization Through Photo Editing
Meta relies on AI to filter content. This includes machine learning and rule-based character pattern-matching algorithms, including liking and contextual cues to identify and capitalize on curiosity about gender issues. The best AI in the world cannot filter out image comparisons that undermine an individual’s mood and self-esteem. This is especially true with face apps, which invite the user to dwell in a detached way on her own physical appearance. Moreover, these apps allow users to swap in a dramatically altered appearance of themselves as the opposite sex.
It’s easy to recognize the excessive focus on body image in those who begin to experience appearance incongruence — the feeling that one’s actual appearance does not match one’s true appearance. If it overshadows real life, the “trans alter,” as Eliza Mondegreen calls the virtual performance of self, becomes discordant with embodied existence. In this context, photo editing can take on outsized significance. Psychologists note that “photo-editing may exacerbate disordered body image in vulnerable individuals.” According to its own science, Meta knew its Instagram photo-sharing app “was addictive and worsened body image issues for some teen girls.”
The use of social media, especially Instagram, is as addictive as drug use. Instagram incorporates short, exciting videos to trigger infinite scrolling. “Meta did not disclose that its algorithms were designed to capitalize on young users’ dopamine responses and create an addictive cycle of engagement,” according to a report. The more preoccupied a person becomes, the more likely she is to experience mental health issues such as dissociation.
Transgenderism, the New Aspiration
Even a brief amount of time spent filtering photos leads to an increase in girls’ anxiety, according to researchers. This is because Instagram and other platforms introduce an emotional feedback loop, in which waves of dysphoria are punctuated by spikes of euphoria. In the online world, where bots are ubiquitous, every female who doesn’t accept her sex has access to a virtual trans surgeon. Social media feeds a dynamic of nonstop clicking for more hits of dopamine.
Although they are aware of digital distortion online, teens looking at face apps see plastic surgery results and aspire to physically embody their own retouched images. Dr. Helen Egger, a child psychiatrist, notes that “it’s a dopamine hit, it’s like ‘woah I’m popular, I like this feeling, I want to do it again,’ it can feed on itself.” Social affirmation of face swaps, within a cycle of addictive feedback loops, validates the urgent demand for medical intervention.
The trouble for social media users involves its capacity not only to reflect reality but to project a desired or imagined reality. Sociologist Charles Cooley coined a theory of the looking-glass self to explain how we develop our self-concept through interaction, especially when noticing how we’re perceived by others. In this way, social media is particularly addictive in promising to show us to ourselves in more complete ways than even a mirror can.
At the same time, social media is not a mirror held up to reality at all. It’s an unreal screen for public consumption that spreads acceptance of transgender surgeries. Social media in this sense is not the playful leisure activity it appears to be. Staring into the mirror-like cell phone screen can deepen an out-of-body experience and a preoccupation with one’s sex.
A Trans ‘Rite of Passage’
For girls who deny their sex, Instagram’s face-swapping filters have been attributed to “finally ‘cracking their egg’ — a rite of passage” when a trans identity is apparently firmly established in the mind as a visually concrete identity: “The Snapchat girl filter was the final straw in dropping a decade’s worth of repression,” said Josie, an early-30s man from Cincinnati who claims to be a woman. “[I] saw something that looked more ‘me’ than anything in a mirror, and I couldn’t go back.”
In the past, the young were tricked into altering their aspirational goals by mimicking airbrushed models. Today, teens fixate on their own filtered image and dream about cosmetic surgery.
In May, an advisory from the U.S. surgeon general warned of social media’s negative effect on anxiety and body-image disorders. In this Meta face-changing ecology, every confused girl on Instagram can instantly see a tougher image of herself, able to withstand the worries that assail her. Something, she feels, has suddenly jelled.