Unfiltered: Teens get real about the fake lives lived on social media

Shrinking stomachs and whitening teeth all have an effect on mental health.

Shrinking stomachs and whitening teeth all have an effect on mental health

Brooke Hawco, left, and Madison O'Dell say a lot of the images they see on social media are edited. (Caroline Hillier/CBC)

Smooth faces. Bright smiles. Couples gazing into each other's eyes. Kylie Jenner. Candid, but obviously not candid photos featuring tilted heads and open-mouth laughs.

Those are some of the images that float by Brooke Hawco's and Madison O'Dell's eyes during their high school lunch break scroll. With each flick of the finger, a fresh Insta-worthy and sometimes envy-provoking photo. 

"Like, that's not a real person. That's not how you actually look as a human," said Madison.

The photos are often edited and altered, made easy with an app like FaceTune. With a couple of swipes and clicks, the app can do things like shrink your waist, blur your blemishes and whiten your teeth.

"Everything is so edited and filtered.… It's not even real. Women are giving themselves more curves, bigger boobs, a bigger ass," said Brooke. 


It can be hard to decipher what's real and what's fake on social media — not only on the profiles of influencers (that is, people who have turned posing and posting into a job) and celebrities — but as Madison explains, on your own profile too. 

When initially talking about her own photo-editing habits, Madison didn't think it went beyond teeth-whitening. But on a second scroll, she came across a photo that didn't look like the original. 

"I remember taking that and being like, 'My stomach is too big' and I remember sizing it down and that is the one I posted to social media."

An effect of the Insta-impact: Madison seemed to have tricked herself into believing the edited photo was reality.  

"I don't even remember doing that and I'll look back and be like, 'Oh that's a nice picture' and I won't even notice that I'm edited. Like, that is not how I look."

Hawco and O'Dell scroll through social media on their phones. (Caroline Hillier/CBC)

The truth is that people lie on social media, and Brooke says it goes beyond photo-editing photos to photo-editing lives. 

"They all look so happy, having fun but you know these people personally and you know, like, they might not get along that well or that's not as fun as it actually looks."

From idolizing unrealistic beauty standards, to the fear of missing out to the focus on followers, the pressures are real and constant. But Madison and Brooke say those pressures are even worse for the younger generation. 

"We actually had a childhood compared to kids these days," said Madison, 17.

"Kids like 12 or 13, they're just competently skipping their preteen phase because they're exposed to the internet.… They're going straight into teenage years," said Brooke, 16.

'Makes you feel completely worthless'

While Brooke admits she went through a "phase" of photo editing, she has made a conscious decision to not use such apps because she sees the damage it causes. 

"It's absolutely terrible. Comparing yourself to others makes you feel completely worthless," said Brooke. 

For many teenagers, these social media feeds are often the first thing they reach for in the morning, what they turn to out of habit or boredom throughout the day and the last thing they see before falling asleep. 

That has a damaging effect on mental health, and according to a report by the Wall Street Journal, based on leaked research from a whistleblower, Facebook knows it

Brooke and Madison are not surprised by the findings. 

"I know so many people that deal with anxiety and depression and the toll it takes on their mental health, it's just completely deteriorating," said Brooke.

Mental health consequences

Janine Hubbard, a clinical psychologist specializing in children and adolescents, says while there are some positive aspects of social media use, it can also come with some significant mental health consequences.

"It can increase things like anxiety, depression, lower self esteem, increased feelings of loneliness, and have an impact on disordered eating and body image," said Hubbard, who is president of the Association of Psychology Newfoundland and Labrador. 

Psychologist Janine Hubbard says parents should be familiar with the apps, and monitor both privacy settings and what their children are watching. (Meghan McCabe/CBC)

Many young people understand those consequences, and know they should stop the scrolling and editing. Yet they find it hard to. 

The reason for that? 

"It actually has an addictive property to it," said Hubbard. 

Every time your picture gets a like or a comment, she said, your brain produces a hit of dopamine, which is the feel-good neurotransmitter that makes you feel happy.

"When you're getting little intermittent ticks with that [dopamine], that almost becomes more addictive than if you're getting a steady stream."

When a post isn't producing many likes and comments — or hits of dopamine — posters overthink the reason and extrapolate meaning from the lack of likes, leading them to question things like their interpersonal relationships. 

Tips for parents

While parents may be tempted to ban apps for their kids until a certain age, Hubbard suggests introducing some apps to kids when kids are young. With heavy supervision at first, then over-the-shoulder supervision, gradually easing up to them having increased independence when they're older. 

Parents should be familiar with the apps themselves, keep an eye on privacy and security settings, and monitor what children are watching. 

Research shows that social media use interferes with sleep, so Hubbard recommends no phone use leading up to bedtime. 

Olivia, Victoria and Roxi Lahey (back). Their mother Crystal Lahey says she takes digital safety and privacy seriously, but isn't worried yet about the impact social media has on the mental health of her daughters Olivia and Victoria, front, and Roxi, back. (Caroline Hillier/CBC)

"Make sure all electronic devices go to a central docking station so they're not in the room at night," she said in an interview. 

A key concern around children and teenagers using social media, Hubbard says, is that many popular videos or images tend to either involve extreme and dangerous activities, particularly for boys, or encourage sexualized content, particularly for young girls. 

Teach your children responsible use by keeping an open dialogue, and asking about how they feel about the photos and video they're seeing, and when Photoshopping, make sure it's only for fun and not because they feel pressured to alter their image. 

TikTok trio 

Social media's youngest users have been born into social media, and will never know a world without it. 

Crystal Lahey, who has a 19-year-old son, a six-year-old daughter and two seven-year-old daughters, says social media has made parenting different — perhaps in part though, because her daughters are "little divas."

"I actually have to tell them to tone it down sometimes because they're talking like some of the YouTube video stars," Lahey said. 

"They are influenced in every way." 

The trio create their own TikTok videos but have their accounts set to private. (Caroline Hillier/CBC)

The girls started showing an interest in taking each other's photos and videos when they were three, and now regularly record, edit and post dancing and singing videos on TikTok. 

If you don't know how TikTok works, here's an explanation from the experts:

"It's like videos.… There's a lot and they're really cool and you can use music and you can make your own TikToks," said seven-year-old Victoria Lahey. 

"You can use filters to make your TikTok look cool and creative… and then you can get a lot of likes," added twin sister Olivia.

While these singing and dancing twins would probably rack up a following, their TikTok videos are set to private — much to their disappointment. 

"When we get older, people can watch our videos," said Olivia. 

Tik Tok a 'creative outlet'

Lahey monitors what the girls are watching, and keeps an eye on their privacy and security settings, but overall, encourages the app and says it teaches the girls dance choreography and even video-editing skills. 

"It's a tool for them to express themselves. I know they're little entertainers."

Lahey takes safety seriously but isn't too worried about the impact social media has on the girls' mental health — not yet, anyway. 

"I find myself thinking more about their safety and security on the internet," she said.

"As for worrying about their mental well being, I'm not too worried about it right now.… [But] I will be."

She compares her kids' social media scrolling to the way she flipped through magazines when she was young. Only now, she says, people know how easy it is to Photoshop an image, and can easily tell what's real and not real.

"It may make them feel more comfortable knowing that half of the people they're looking at that are supposed to be so beautiful are filtered."

The series Unfiltered takes a real look at the fake lives people lead on social media, and how it affects the mental health of young users. You can listen to more from the series here:

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Caroline Hillier is the producer of the St. John's Morning Show.