Norway just passed a law that will require influencers to admit when their photos are edited
Photo by James Scott on Unsplash

The age of Instagram and the ubiquitousness of photo editing tools that can completely change the way you look—on a screen, at least—have made body image issues even trickier to navigate than they already were. While "perfect" model bodies used to be the Photoshopped domain of magazines and print ads, now anyone with a smartphone can manipulate their image to be more or less curvy, lean, muscular—whatever the "in" body type is at any given moment.

The problem is that young people see such images and then look in the mirror. Faced with the reality of a human body in all of its normal imperfections, it's easy to feel down on what you look like, especially when it doesn't match the (highly edited) ideal version of a human body your favorite influencer shares in her Insta feed.

At least one country is taking action on the issue in an attempt to assuage some of the damage such comparisons can cause. Norway has passed legislation that requires content creators to disclose when they've edited a photo. The addition to its existing Marketing Act states that any photo in which "a body's shape, size or skin has been changed by retouching or other manipulation" must be marked as edited. The reasoning behind the law is that undisclosed photo editing "plays on social insecurity, bad conscience, low self-esteem or contributes to body pressure."



According to The Hill, the law applies to advertisers as well as social media influencers and content creators.

The issue is definitely real. BBC reports that the majority of kids under 18 said in a UK survey that social media images were "extremely influential" on their body image. Only 5% of them said they wouldn't consider dieting or getting surgery to change their appearance. Other research has found that social media can be a positive influence on body image when people post body-positivity-oriented content, but most social media influence has a negative effect on body image.

All of this isn't surprising. But as much as Norway's requirement to disclose photo edits seems like a move in the right direction, it's not going to do much to solve the real problem.

I think most people, even young people, know that social media photos have been edited. It's not like it's a big secret anymore. If you are on Instagram, you know that people have put automatic filters on their photos or adjusted the exposure, brightness, contrast, etc. to create the most pleasing image. That's literally the way the app is used by almost everyone.

Filters and lighting adjustments aren't new, and they're not the real problem. Professional portrait photographers manipulate lighting and use filters all the time to make people look their best. We've all taken photos in bad lighting and wondered, "Yeesh, is that really what I look like?" No, it's not. Cameras don't capture exactly what our eyes perceive and the wrong lighting can make us look unnaturally bad. Adjusting lighting before and/or after taking a photo can actually give us a more true-to-life image, as long as it's not overdone.

Photoshopping bodies, though? That's a whole other story. Literally adding or taking away skin or fat to change a body shape should be noted. Making someone's eyes bigger or nose smaller or lips fuller—not to make the image look more like how they really look, but to create an unrealistic ideal—is worth disclosing. But even not all Photoshopping is bad. I'm not bothered if someone uses Photoshop to remove a big ol' zit from their face, for example, but I do care if they erase part of their cheek to make their face look slimmer. Blemishes happen, but they are temporary. They're not part of how you really look. But changing the shape of your face or body? That's what creates unrealistic expectations and body image issues when someone looks in the mirror.

Some might argue that makeup can do many of the same things photo editing can do and can also lead people to unrealistic beauty standards, though. So should makeup be disclosed too? Do we really expect people to only show raw, bare-skinned, no-make-up photos of themselves to be considered authentic? I don't think so, but the line for what needs to be disclosed is definitely a bit fuzzy.

Still, I don't think the issue is that people don't know that images are manipulated on social media. I think the real issue is the normalization of following influencers who constantly share photos of themselves all the time in the first place. For instance, the Kardashians have nearly a billion Instagram followers between them, and almost all they post are selfies in various states of undress. I don't think disclosing that their photos are edited would do anything to change the impact accounts like that have on their followers.

What we really need to do is teach young people that their value and worth aren't to be found in what they look like, either in real life or on social media. And neither is anyone else's, even if they've made millions off of their image as their "brand." Find your worth in what you're contributing that's making the world a better place, not in how many compliments your social media images get.

We also need to teach kids to analyze their own habits when it comes to who they choose to follow: If you're following people who share selfies to get attention or likes or beauty praise, why? What purpose does that serve? Is it actually serving you in any way other than to make you wish you looked different? Are there actually inspiring influencers who are making a real difference in the world that you could follow instead?

Norway's law might make a powerful statement, but I don't think it will solve the problem it's attempting to address. Appreciate the attempt to tackle body image issues, but the real problem goes deeper than any law or photo editing disclosure can go.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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