Many children are using social media to chase an impossible dream.
Online platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and Facetune allow you to digitally alter a photograph of yourself. It's cute to add puppy ears, a crown or cat whiskers to your face. But you also can, for example, make your skin clearer, teeth whiter, or change the size of your nose, lips and eyes.
That's often where an excessive preoccupation begins.
Kids can develop unrealistic expectations of how they should look after a few swipes on their cellphone. As has been widely reported in news reports, many are seeking cosmetic surgery, often showing a doctor a filtered image of what they'd like to look like.
It's become enough of a trend that it's been dubbed "social media dysmorphia."
"These images are not real, so it's changing the standard of what is beautiful and what bodies should look like," said Dr. Laura Netzley, a pediatrician at Novant Health Pediatrics Blakeney. "That's really affecting our kids' self-esteem, how they're looking at themselves and how they view others. Their body image is based on what they see on social media, and these filters on Snapchat and Instagram. Now the goal is not just to change their body, but to change their body to match those filters they see online."
Sheer volume has helped contribute to the craze. Airbrushed and other doctored photos used to be limited to magazines you might see weekly or monthly. But, today's teenagers average six to seven hours per day on their phones, and are only a few clicks from a barrage of altered images of themselves and friends.
"What kids see when they see other people's pictures online is a perfect curated photo where there's no cellulite, no blemishes, everyone looks at their very best,” Netzley said. “These images are not realistic."
Netzley offered signs to look for in teenagers who may be struggling for an unattainable look:
• Anxiety and depression. Teens may be more withdrawn, spending more time on their cellphone, not interacting with their peers like they used to and not doing the fun things that they usually enjoy.
• Eating disorders. In striving to be thinner, kids may restrict certain foods. They may be using diet pills easily found on the internet.
• Changes in appetite. Kids may eat much more or less than normal.
• Changes in sleep habits. Teens may spend significantly more or less time sleeping.
Tips for parents
• Communicate. Talk to your children, asking them how they feel about their bodies, and how they feel when they see themselves with these different filters. Ask about their feelings when they see other people's altered images on social media.
"It's important to talk about being healthy in a very specific way," Netzley said. "Don't emphasize your appearance, but talk about eating healthy and working out on a daily basis to be strong and healthy, not necessarily to look better."
• Be an example. It's important for parents, adult relatives and anyone who interacts with kids to be good role models for body positivity. "We rarely have kids seeing normal people who love their bodies, and are confident even with those imperfections. We (adults) can be good role models doing that," Netzley said.
• Limit time on social media. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends less than two hours per day of screen time. Teenagers spend large chunks of their waking hours on their cellphones, which can warp their perception of reality.