Majority of Americans Who Know of Social Media Beauty Filters Find Them Troubling, CR Survey Shows

Our survey also reveals that more than half of Americans don't want more government oversight of this industry

Young couple taking a selfie during golden hour in the Giardino degli Aranci in Rome, Italy Photo Illustration: Chris Griggs/Consumer Reports, Gabriella Clare Marino/Unsplash, iStock

Consumer Reports conducted a nationally representative survey of 2,263 adults in the U.S. to better understand Americans’ use of and attitudes toward social media. One of the topics in the survey was the use of beauty filters, photo editing presets that can alter a person’s appearance to make them more conventionally attractive. While the youngest respondents in our survey were 18 years old, the findings underscore—across all age groups—a concern for the mental health and self-image of younger people who use or are exposed to beauty filters.

Even when looking only at American adults who actively use Facebook accounts, 28 percent said that they had felt jealous or bad about themselves after looking at someone else’s posts. This was up from 15 percent in 2019 and 13 percent in 2018—although in those earlier surveys, we asked about Facebook specifically instead of social media in general. Yet the majority of Americans said that the government should not have more oversight over social media. There were age, racial/ethnic, and political differences in the responses. (Read on for more about this and beauty filters.)

CR conducted our survey just a month before The Wall Street Journal published internal documents from Facebook detailing the alarming effects of Instagram on some teens. The documents show that Facebook buried evidence of all kinds of issues, including a system that lets high-profile users break Facebook’s rules about harassment and incitement to violence, a weak response to the ways drug cartels and human traffickers abuse the platform, and internal research demonstrating that photo-centric Instagram (which Facebook owns) has a negative impact on teenage girls’ mental health.

Beauty Filters: Harmless Fun or Troubling Trend?

Around 1 out of 5 Americans (21 percent) who has ever had any social media account has used a beauty filter before posting pictures on social media. Among these, 9 percent said they “always or nearly always” use them and 13 percent said they “often” use them.

Have you ever edited your appearance before posting a picture or video, such as by using an Instagram, TikTok, or Snapchat beauty filter?
Base: Americans who have ever had a social media account and did not say, “I have not heard of these filters.”

We asked whether they found beauty filters to be harmless or troubling; 59 percent of Americans who said they had heard of beauty filters said “troubling,” and 39 percent said “harmless.” The results didn’t differ much across age groups or genders (male or female only).

When we asked them to write in why they selected the response they did, we found that body image is a common theme for both responses—that filters can boost confidence or undermine it—but a common theme in female participants’ responses was “young people” and that the filters could have a detrimental effect on them.

Beauty Filters Are Harmless

People who said that the filters are harmless mostly said the filters are “fun,” a commonly used word in their responses. Many also said filtered photos are obviously fake and not unlike retouching professional headshots or wearing makeup.

“We all want to look our best. If we had professional headshots taken we would expect the photographer to touch them up.”
male, 45-59 age group
“It all depends on the user. If it becomes an obsession and is used as a marker of self-identity, it could be harmful. Otherwise, it can also just be a fun tool or an option for someone to use when wanting to look more presentable.”
female, 30-44 age group
“They’re generally all in good fun.”
male, 30-44 age group
“For the majority of people who do not suffer from body image issues, it will just serve as a way to cover blemishes and not cause any severe mental damage.”
female, 18-29 age group

They made me feel better about myself but do no harm to others.

female, 18-29 age group
“They are obvious when used and should be taken into account when judging someone’s appearance.”
male, 18-29 age group
“These filters aren’t much different than people sharing a preferred photo that puts them in the best light, so I would say they are mostly harmless.”
female, 45-59 age group
“It may hurt the creator, but I don’t think it hurts the watcher.”
male, 60+ age group
“Identity is identity. Altering your photos is the poor man’s plastic surgery.”
female, 18-29 age group

It only is a symptom of their issues. The core problems can’t be addressed by changing social media.

male, 30-44 age group
“Social media filters give you confidence in this digital world. No one really cares about how you look as much as yourself so why not appear in a way that makes you the most confident?”
male 30-44 age group
“People often apply makeup or hair dye, wear wigs or things to enhance their look. These filters are just another way to do the same.”
male, 30-44 age group

Beauty Filters Are Troubling

People who said the filters are troubling were concerned that filters can set unrealistic and unattainable beauty standards for both the users and followers. Many responses also mentioned deception, with the terms “fake,” “dishonest,” “misleading,” and inauthentic” appearing often.

“We are already fed harmful photoshopped images of models in the form of advertisement and marketing. It is equally as harmful, if not more, to see a picture of yourself that has been distorted or edited to make you look like society’s ‘ideal you.’”
female, 18-29 age group
“Snapchat and Instagram filters have a troubling tendency to lighten skin colors and add a ‘thin’ effect that shrinks the face and makes it look skinnier.”
female, 18-29 age group
“The concept of beauty is defined by the creator of the filter.”
female, 45-59 age group
“I can’t not do it if everyone else is doing it.”
male, 30-44 age group

They seem to recreate the same problem that fashion magazines perpetuated in the ’80s and ’90s—literally unobtainable beauty standards—but on a more insidious microscale.

male, 30-44 age group
“Leads to distorted perceptions of body image and unrealistic expectations for one’s self. I’ve seen documentaries of women going in for plastic surgery based on their edited selfies.”
female, 18-29 age group
“Many of the beauty filters are designed with Eurocentric features. This is problematic for people of color and their personal image.”
female, 18-29 age group
“Other than minor filters to improve lighting or comic filters, like “I’m not a cat’ type filters, those that make you ‘more attractive’ contribute to the narrative that there is something wrong with people who don’t match the narrowest and shallowest definition of beauty. They tend to focus on accenting a sort of sexualized beauty and continue to feed that loop and drive it deeper into the psyche of our society to its detriment.”
male, 60+ age group
“People, especially celebrities and influencers, post touched-up photos and create unrealistic expectations on younger girls and boys. It would be harmless if they admit to Photoshop or filters instead of pretending that is how they really look.”
female, 45-59 age group

It distorts how we actually look. I have gotten so used to having a filter, that without one I think I’m ugly. It’s society’s way of controlling how we think about ourselves.

female, 18-29 age group
“They’re troubling because even though we know most other people are also using filters, we tend to believe everyone’s perfect photos. Constantly editing your appearance to look better eventually makes you unhappy with the real thing.”
female, 30-44 age group
“I think they’re harmless on certain sites, but have overall made any form of online dating untrustworthy as basically everyone seems to misrepresent themselves online. If it’s a picture of an author of an article or something I don’t care.”
male, 30-44 age group

For or Against More Government Oversight? Depends on Whom You Ask.

A majority of Americans who have ever had any social media account (65 percent) said that the government should not have more oversight over social media. However, there were differences in the responses once we broke them down by age, race/ethnicity, and political affiliation. 

About half (48 percent) of Americans 60 and older who have ever had a social media account thought the government should have more oversight over social media, compared with just 22 percent of those ages 18 to 29. White Americans are also less likely than English-speaking Asian, Hispanic, or Black Americans to want more government oversight over social media. And Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to say the government should have more oversight.

Percentage who say the government should have more oversight over social media by group

All Americans

35%

18-29

22%

30-44

33%

45-59

35%

60+

48%

English-Speaking Asian

46%

Hispanic

45%

Black, Non-Hispanic

42%

White, Non-Hispanic

30%

Democrat or Lean Democrat

45%

Independent/Other

29%

Republican or Lean Republican

25%
Base: Americans who have ever had any social media accounts.

This multimode survey was fielded through NORC’s AmeriSpeak Panel, a nationally representative probability-based sample of 2,263 U.S. adults. Interviews were conducted from Aug. 19 to Aug. 30, 2021, in English and Spanish, online and by phone. The survey was directed by Karen Jaffe, associate director of survey research at Consumer Reports, and Tess Yanisch, survey research associate at Consumer Reports. (Download a PDF of the full survey results.)


Headshot of Perry Santanachote, editor with the Home editorial team at Consumer Reports

Perry Santanachote

I cover the intersection of people, products, and sustainability, and try to provide humorous but useful advice for everyday living. I love to dive deep into how things work, and debunking myths might be my favorite pastime. But what I aim to be above all else is a guiding voice while you're shopping, telling you what's a value, what's a ripoff, and what's just right for you and your family.