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How the Old Age Filter on TikTok Affects Our Brains

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How the Old Age Filter on TikTok Affects Our Brains

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Leave it to social media to give us fun, new ways to explore our existential dread. Case in point: TikTok’s latest Frankenfilter ages you in real-time, using your facial features to predict what you could look like in the future. The now-viral ‘Aged’ filter has already been used in 13.2 million videos, horrifying the app’s user base and raising questions about the realities of visible aging.

After seeing the likes of Kylie Jenner and Courtney Cox share their results, I decided to try the ‘Aged’ filter out for myself. And oh boy, do I wish I hadn’t. Looking back at me was a total stranger. I saw wrinkles. Lines. Under-eye bags. Jowls. In the words of Jamie Lee Curtis in Freaky Friday: I looked like the crypt keeper.  On any other subject, these features are inconspicuous to me (beautiful, even), but seeing them on myself—decades before I ever expected to—was especially jarring.

Naturally, I took to Instagram to find out if my peers had willingly scarred themselves with the ‘Aged’ filter just as I had. Fellow women quickly flooded my inbox. These women–like me—were freaking the ever-living f*ck out over the simulated lines and wrinkles. “Literally made me spiral; getting Botox on Tuesday for the first time,” my dear friend said. “I legit bought $200 worth of skincare products after,” replied another.

It’s clear to me now how widely-shared these feelings of shock and insecurity are amongst those who were ballsy enough to try the filter out for themselves. I wondered: Why is it *so* damn unsettling to see ourselves this way?

How the Aged filter works, and what it can tell us about how we’ll age

Filters have come a long way since we were first introduced to the Snapchat “Puppy” in 2011. Instead of simply overlaying an image over your face, the new class of filters uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) to distort your features. The Aged filter takes things one step further, and applies common signs of visible aging to your unique facial structure to create a predictive image of what you *could* look like as you age. If you’re wondering why the older version of you seems a bit more… geriatric than your friend’s (or Kylie Jenners), it’s because IRL features like high cheekbones, deep-set eyes, strong jawlines, and beauty marks can all impact your results.

@drmonicakieu Aging is a privilege! It will happen to all of us, but there are definitely ways to embrace it on your own terms. Let’s commit to aging with kindness and self-confidence ❤️ ✨ #aginggracefully #agingwell #agingfilter #agedfilter #drkieutips ♬ original sound – Dr Monica Kieu

With that in mind, plastic surgeons and estheticians are currently heralding the ‘Aged’ filter for its hyper-realistic portrayal of visible aging. In her now-viral TikTok, board-certified facial plastic surgeon Monica Kieu, D.O., explains what makes the filter so accurate. “Our bodies produce more melanin [as we age], which causes these hyperpigmented spots; we produce more collagen as we age, which causes thinning of the skin and wrinkles,” says Kieu. “What a lot of people realize is we also lose more bone as we age,” she continues, “and this loss of skeletal support makes the eyes look more hollow.”

Despite this, New York-based neuropsychologist Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, points out the smart filter’s limitations. It doesn’t know that you wear SPF like it’s your job, or that you’ve cut out alcohol from your diet: It just knows what your face looks like at the exact moment you turn on the filter.

“First of all, as far as aging is concerned, the most potent predictor of how you’re going to age is if you look at your parents,” says Hafeez. “You’re going to age most likely better than that because your parents weren’t drinking 15 concoctions in the morning, or taking supplements, or using sunscreen.” Thanks, #wellness.

Of course, taking your results in stride can be easier said than done, especially if you’re already weary of going gray.

“It’s called confirmation bias: We seek out confirmation of what we already suspect,” adds Hafeez. “The reality is that most of us are going to age the way our parents age–that photo actually shows nothing. That filter is only going to capture what you put in front of the camera at that moment.”

The psychological impact of AI filters

Our obsession with enhancing our appearances isn’t exactly new or novel, but social media has taken things to another level. According to the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, 72 percent of facial plastic surgeons say there’s been an increase in requests for cosmetic procedures due to patients being more self-aware of their appearance on social media. Over the last few years, there’s been an upswing of “treatments that make people look better in selfies.” What’s more, 2020’s COVID-19 pandemic opened the floodgates of the Zoom fatigue that comes along with staring at your face all day in remote work meetings. Research has since emerged highlighting the negative mental health impacts of seeing yourself on-screen so frequently, and plastic surgeons have named this phenomenon a “major contributing factor in patients’ desire to seek [cosmetic] treatment.”

“It taps into our insecurities about society rejecting us, or our spouses or partners rejecting us. We’re an age-obsessed society.” – Sanam Hafeez, PsyD

Unsurprisingly, the introduction of smart filters that can bend, twist, lift, and drag our faces into dizzyingly real versions of ourselves has exacerbated things even further. According to Hafeez, these face-distorting filters aren’t exactly benign, especially when they highlight our deepest-held insecurities and fears.

“The aging filter even hit me a little hard,” said Hafeez. “Not only is it highlighting all the things you already don’t like about yourself, but it’s also a skewed image of what you will look like.”

AI filters that beautify, rather than worsen, the user’s appearance aren’t much better for our psyche, says Hafeez. Like the ‘Aged’ filter, TikTok’s ‘Bold Glamour’ filter made waves for using AI to enhance the user’s appearance through meticulously-placed beauty tweaks. The result left many users wishing they actually looked like their Bold Glamour version. This desire to look “perfect,” says Hafeez, is especially evident amongst young women.

“These filters skew their idea of what is attractive, what is normal, what is natural, to the point where they don’t like their natural faces,” says Hafeez. “Without a filter, they just don’t like themselves.”

While most of us understand that we’re viewing an altered version of ourselves through a screen and not IRL, the psychological toll of wishing we looked a certain way still impacts us all the same. Labeling social media filters as harmless, says Hafeez, dismisses the internal conflicts of the people they negatively affect.

“I think filters have been incredibly damaging to our society in general, as nice and fun as they are,” adds Hafeez. “If you’re prone to depression, if you’re prone to low self-esteem, if you’re prone to body dysmorphia, or if you have fears about aging as it is, then no, it’s not harmless. It can actually do a lot of damage.”

In patriarchal societies like ours, youth and beauty are held in the highest regard. The ‘Aged’ filter, then, goes beyond skin deep, says Hafeez. We aren’t just worried about gray hair or crow’s feet; we’re worried about losing our societal value.

“I think it taps into our insecurities about society rejecting us, or our spouses or partners rejecting us,” says Hafeez. “We’re an age-obsessed society.”

We’re all going to age. So what?

If you find yourself particularly perturbed by TikTok’s old-age filter, Safeez recommends taking a step back from social media. Trends come and go, and in a few weeks, a new filter will overtake your FYP. Setting self-boundaries on how much time you spend on social media can help, too.

“People think that they have to go on a detox,” says Hafeez, “but you don’t have to put it away forever. Limit it, just like everything else in your life.”

While we may dread the day that jowls find a permanent home on our faces, it’s important to remember that aging is a gift (Amy Poehler gets it). Wrinkles, bags, and lines are evidence of a life well-lived: A life spent laughing, crying, and smiling—all of which hold far more value IRL than on-screen.

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