Google has announced a set of human-centred guidelines for the use of filtered effects and automated retouching in selfie cameras, after research that it commissioned found that “default filters can quietly set a beauty standard that some people compare themselves against [which] can negatively impact mental wellbeing”.

In a statement, released in partnership with Snapchat, it laid out a series of recommendations for designing better selfie experiences.

First, that digital retouching should be off by default. Retouching can be especially harmful when the user is unaware that it’s happening; when, as tech writer and photographer Mix explains, “the original pic is erased and quietly replaced by a ‘beautified’ alternative, which now effectively poses as the original itself… the alternative is the original.”

Second, that the language used should be value-neutral, avoiding labels like “enhancement” and “beautification”. Third, to be transparent about when retouching is being applied. And fourth, to educate about what is being altered in the photo, such as “this adjusts skin texture and under-eye tone”.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting selfies to look better—using makeup and soft lighting are analogue techniques to improve portraits, and retouching is often used by professional photographers (and has been since shortly after the invention of photography). But as the democratisation of access to smartphones has put the power to retouch into everybody’s hands, not everyone will use it responsibly.

Camera apps like FaceTune and FaceApp, with hundreds of millions of downloads, go beyond retouching and into facial modification, including making eyes bigger, and faces slimmer. There’s a line between improving a photo of you, and making a photo of a different you. Google’s guidelines assume that people know where the line is, how they look online and feel about themselves in the real world. But young people, especially teens, may not always be able to do that.

A 2015 survey found that 16–25 year olds spend on average 16 minutes, and seven attempts, trying to capture a satisfactory selfie. Dr Tijion Esho, founder of Esho clinics, coined the term selfie dysmorphia to describe the unrealistic comparison of filtered selfies with actual appearance, and there’s concern that selfie dysmorphia might lead to body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), a mental health condition whereby a person fixates on one or more perceived defects or flaws in how they look.

Digital retouching has real world effects, driving people to plastic surgery for a permanently Instagram-acceptable face. The American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery notes that 72% of their members in 2019 saw patients seeking cosmetic surgery to improve their selfies—a 15% increase from the previous year.

Last year Facebook took the step of banning from its Spark AR platform any effects explicitly associated with plastic surgery. This is increasingly important as recent breakthroughs in AR make it possible to apply live filters to not just your face, but your whole body. Is there an acceptable line when you can remake your entire body?

Developments in technology have provoked a broad cultural shift in how people present themselves. CGI influencers may not be real people, but they’re made in the reflection of what ‘beauty’ looks like in 2020. They’re almost always impossibly slim, attractive and have the coolest ‘fake’ life impossible. Is social media heading towards never having to reveal your true self? And what does that do to your sense of identity IRL?

The statements from Google and Snapchat are a valuable first step, but we need all platforms, beauty and app companies to step up and take a stand against the irresponsible use of ‘beautification’ in both the real and digital worlds. 

This article is co-authored by Peter Gasston, Innovation Lead, VCCP, and Nicky Palamarczuk, Head of Social and Content, VCCP.