Certain surgeons can thank social media for the rapid increase in spending on cosmetic plastic surgery, according to a new study from a British think-tank, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, which echoes similar studies in the U.S.
While the increased attention to appearance isn’t necessarily grounds for criticism in itself, the report warns of an adverse impact on pre-teens, which should probably set alarm bells ringing.
In the U.S., overall spending on purely cosmetic plastic surgeries and minimally invasive procedures came to $16 billion in 2016, up from $13.5 billion in 2015 and $12 billion in 2014, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. (Minimally invasive is distinguished from other types of plastic surgery, such as reconstructive surgery for breast-cancer survivors.)
The UK has seen a similar proportional increase, per the Nuffield report, which also pointed to the same trend, the rise of social media, as a major factor driving this growth.
Nuffield noted the “increased use of the rating of images of the self and the body, for example through social media ‘likes’ and through self-monitoring apps and games.”
It noted: “These judgments contribute to a sense of a competitive environment, based on the evaluation of one’s appearance by others; and because they are communicated through mobile phones, they are ever-present, encouraging constant self-checking. Moreover, the scope for digitally altering and enhancing photographs exacerbates the perceived need always to ‘look one’s best’ and makes it harder to accept realistic images…”
Of course, social media doesn’t operate in a vacuum. These functions work with broader cultural trends. For example, “the popularity of celebrity culture, 'airbrushed' images and makeover shows” exacerbate the individual’s personal insecurity over perceived flaws and position cosmetic surgery as the logical response.
The report acknowledges: “Having a cosmetic procedure, like other means of changing or managing appearance, can be experienced by individuals as positive and enabling.” But it warned against “communal harms,” which may result from the rise of a cosmetic-surgery culture, including heightened anxiety about personal appearance among adolescents, who are especially vulnerable to peer pressure.
Social-media norms, and the correlated increase in demand for cosmetic surgery, are of most concern when they impact children. Their bodies aren’t finished maturing. Plus, they lack the judgment and perspective to assess, for example, whether a particular physical ideal is realistic or attainable, let alone actually desirable.
Parents may also be swayed by the same factors, prompting the researchers to warn: “The fact that a parent consents to a cosmetic procedure on behalf of their child, or even initiates consideration of that procedure, does not necessarily mean that it is ethically acceptable for a professional to provide it.”
Some of the online content identified in the Nuffield report is truly disturbing, including “marketing apps designed for children as young as nine that encourage them to ‘play’ at having cosmetic-surgery makeovers.”
According to Nuffield, these apps “encourage users to explore how their bodies could be changed and ‘improved,’ in some cases with the additional feature of linking directly to a cosmetic surgeon for a ‘real life consultation.’ Some of these apps are presented as games…” Examples include “Plastic Surgery Princess,” “Little Skin Doctor” and “Pimp My Face.”
The report noted that one group, Endangered Bodies, is already circulating a petition to Apple, Google and Amazon to remove these apps from their stores. Its argument: Just as tech companies are taking responsibility for the potential spread of extremist content online, they also have a responsibility to address content designed to encourage insecurity.
“In the light of the increasing concerns emerging with respect to correlations between social-media use and such body-image issues, we suggest that collaborative work across the sector to tackle these issues falls squarely within the remit of their corporate social responsibilities.”
However, it also notes: “A campaign seeking to persuade companies to create policies that would prohibit the downloading of cosmetic surgery apps and games by children, on the other hand, has so far proved unsuccessful.”