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What happens when lines blur between real and virtual beauty through filters?
ABC

(NEW YORK) -- Camera filters, powered by augmented reality, or AR, are at nearly everyone's fingertips. Opening a smartphone and downloading any one of an array of free apps can give anyone the instant power to create unreal images that have never looked more real.

While there are plenty of filters to turn a person into something cute, goofy or even scary, there are some that make a person look thinner, have larger eyes or lips or whiten their teeth.

The unavoidable question is whether for some people this is creating a warped sense of beauty, especially among the youngest and most impressionable.

With nearly half a million followers, TikTok sensation Tefi Pessoa is known for her unvarnished opinions.

"I am someone who grew up on the internet, and it totally skewed with my sense of confidence," she told ABC News. "I do feel like we're losing touch with what reality looks like, and it hurts me because I feel like reality is beautiful."

The effects from even some of the simplest filters are astonishing, with some completely altering a user's likeness to conform to conventionally beautiful features, such as smoothed skin.

Lenses and filters like these are available on all the most popular social media platforms from Snapchat to Instagram. Users can enhance their appearance with a simple swipe.

Manuel Borrero, a top AR artist, saw his Grinch filter on Instagram go viral. He described his work as an art form, where the human face is his virtual canvas.

"I don't try to go over the top because I don't want to change so much," he told ABC News. "When you start loving something that you're not, then it goes wrong. It's so easy to grab color and makeup and put on your face, you know, and you can correct [it]."

Even with his more quirky creations, like one called "Patricia" that gives users an adorable bob with retro shades and hoop earrings, his line of work also comes with pressure to meet a certain demand for more conventionally natural enhancements.

"I love to do characters, but sometimes I follow, I will say, 'the trend,'" Borrero added.

Social psychologist Erin Vogel said beauty filters can be alienating for some and create a sense of unattainable perfection.

"People are changing how they look with these filters and getting used to seeing themselves that way because filters are so commonplace," Vogel told ABC News.

Experts say what starts out making you feel good can end up damaging your self-esteem.

"It's not just the self-esteem boost that we get from looking at our own positively presented selves, we also get a self-esteem boost from other people's reactions," Vogel continued. "So we really do fall into this cycle of posting and waiting for that reaction in order to know that people approve."

According to the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, 62% of plastic surgeons reported their patients wanted to go under the knife because of dissatisfaction with their social media profile, while 57% said patients wanted to look better in selfies. The association warns that if results don't match that of a beauty filter, it could trigger dysmorphia.

"The rise in social media has coincided with the rise in depression and anxiety among teenagers in the U.S.," Vogel said. "I think that this image and the pressure to present a certain filtered image on social media can certainly play into those concerns for younger people who are just developing their identities."

Pessoa said she receives messages from girls aged 13 to 15 confiding in her "they couldn't post a photo of themselves or a video to their Instagram stories or grid or anywhere on social media without a filter on."

Snapchat, a leader in AR filters, told ABC News in a statement that it "rejects any lenses that mimic cosmetic surgery."

Facebook, which owns Instagram, said in a similar statement that the company knows "people may feel pressure to look a certain way on social media, so we ban effects that clearly promote eating disorders or that encourage potentially dangerous cosmetic surgery procedures."

Even without filters, Nyome Nicholas-Williams, a model and social media influencer, is no stranger to fighting back against conventional standards of beauty.

"A lot of the standard is someone that doesn't look like me," Nicholas-Williams told ABC News. "So if people see these filters on their phones, they're going to want to look like the standard that we see even on TV."

Last year, Instagram apologized for mistakenly flagging her semi-nude image because automatic censoring algorithms recognized her curvy body differently.

In an industry known for airbrushing and touch-ups, she said putting these powerful tools in the hands of users as young as 13 can be a slippery slope.

"If someone's got their phone, they can just change whatever they want," Nicolas-Williams said. "I mean, just continue to change things. Yeah. So that's dangerous in that sense."

Experts say there's a fine line between playfulness and unhealthy obsession. For Borerro, growing his platform also means harnessing the opportunity to educate.

"I'm able now to set that trend. And instead of having a beauty filter now we're going to have these learning field trips, we're going to have this game or we're going to have this character," he said.

He said there are people in his own family who struggle with the unrealistic expectation of real life looking like it does through filters.

"They start feeling that they have to be like these Instagram model and that thing," he said. "They don't realize that there [are] more things behind that and they start feeling depressed."

Pessoa urged parents to open a line of communication on the subject.

"Talk to your children," she said. "You cannot disregard that it is affecting other people and how it might affect the people that you love around you, but you just haven't talked to them about it. We can close a magazine, and we can drive past a billboard. But we are on our phones all the time."

 

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