Students use filters on Instagram that can alter the lighting and ambiance of pictures. Credit: Amal Saeed | Assistant Photo Editor

Filtering photos comes in handy for those who wish to enhance their appearance through social media posts, but a study done by an Ohio State doctoral candidate in communication suggests there is more to filters than the user’s motive behind the photo.

Megan Vendemia, lead author of the study, found that female social media users experience less negative impacts on their mental health when they believe photos posted by other women appearing thinner or more physically fit are filtered.

Previous studies have shown that viewing images of thinner women places more value on appearance for the viewer, contributing to the concept of thin ideal internalization, Vendemia said, which could lead to distorted body image and mental health issues, such as eating disorders.

“Thin ideal internalization is usually about yourself because it’s how much you endorse these things about your own life,” Vendemia said. “Viewers can have less negative consequences if they do believe photos are edited.”

The study involved 360 female students who each evaluated 45 photos taken from public Instagram accounts. Some photos had icons placed in the corner of the image to indicate that a filter was used.

“From a lot of things I’ve already seen, I’m just wondering how people kind of react to this content that I witness myself,” Vendemia said. “And it’s interesting when you show people these things for a short period of time, how they’re affected, when in real life people see these things continuously on their mobile devices.”

Half the participants were told the photos were collected from other female students at Ohio State, while the other half were told the images were of models in New York City.

Results from the study showed that the more women believed the photos were edited, the less they internalized the thin ideal. However, most participants believed even the unedited photos still had an element of filtering to them.

“It’s particularly relevant to young women because a lot of the work that looks at kind of negative media effects for women has found these things are really problematic long term,” Vendemia said. “All my work has kind of looked at social media context because it’s interesting when individuals are the producers versus a news organization or more corporate-generated content.”

Vendemia said participants associated filtered photos with self-interest or promotion, and the subjects of the photos were judged more negatively in terms of intelligence, legitimacy and trustworthiness.

“I think it’s pretty interesting that people have different attributions for the exact same behavior, whether it comes from your peer or you think it’s someone who’s a model,” Vendemia said.

The study appears online in the journal Body Image and was conducted with help from David DeAndrea, associate professor of communication at Ohio State.

Vendemia said the study found that filters not only decreased the users’ willingness to endorse the thin ideal, but it made users more harsh on people who opted to filter the photos, and that was “if they thought it was their peers also.”