Pixel Perfect: Effects of Digital Manipulation in Generation Z

In this report, I will examine digital manipulations in visual media in correlation to the development of adolescents. Digital manipulation can be defined as digitally altering or changing an image to reach desired results. In the world of social media, manipulation can better be recognized as smoothing skin, thinning waistlines, and whitening teeth by utilizing the plethora of editing applications and software’s on the market. Pre-teens and teens are altering pictures of themselves with a simple click, projecting themselves as flawless to their social network audience. The trending of image manipulation is drowning media feeds everywhere, churning out doctored images that display an artificial world that is entirely controlled from behind the screen. The modified photographs manifest unrealistic expectations of self-image and slightly reveal the effects it instills in society’s Generation Z.

Generation Z consists of children born in the 2000’s, for this study I am focusing primarily on children from the ages of 8 to 15. In this age frame, children begin to develop their self-identity and explore traits they like or dislike about themselves. They begin to detach from their parents and rely more on peer validation to construct the concept of their own image. This image is built from experiences and unfortunately, the opinions of others (Witt). According to CTIA, an advocacy organization for wireless communications, 56 % of children from the ages of 8 to 12 have daily access to social media sites (CTIA). Therefore, the Gen Z children are developing their own self-character in unison with digital interferences unlike any other generation before them. Visual communications through technology has manifested into a strong driving influencer of identity development for adolescents.

In the past, magazine designers or news reporters were the few utilizing digital image manipulation. Today, the manipulation has extended from a novelty to a necessity. Generation Z can control their image on social media, however such control is often a mask to reality. Lets explore the platforms that Gen Z has access to for digital manipulation. Perfect 365, Modiface, Visage Lab, Pixtr, Facetune, Photowonder, and countless other free modification apps allow users to create a perfected photograph. Such

applications give users the options to airbrush skin, pinch their waist thinner, enhance the size of their eyes, plump their lips, and even blur out content they do not want visible. The digital facelifts generally make older generations feel naturally dishonest, however gen Z children are exposed early with little recognition that such alterations are unnatural or unnecessary.

Adolescents that utilize image-altering applications end up developing a gap between who they truly are and whom they depict themselves as with their online presence. The gap will widen as the child continues to doubt the strength of their self-identity. Even so more, the gap will widen again when children compare themselves to perfect pictures of peers that are manipulated (Simmons). Regardless of how consistent a parent is in warning their children of unrealistic portrayal, perception is up to the child’s own determinations.

Stanford University conducted a study revealing that 82 % of middle-schoolers could not differentiate between fake and real news (Shallenbarger). Therefore we can assume that the same group must also have difficulty differentiating between modified images and non-modified images. Visual media sticks to a person’s mind more efficiently than other communication outlets. A pre-teen may see an image and consider it to be manipulated, however their thought of it being manipulated will fade while the picture imprinted in their visual memory will stay, often becoming altered and rearranged as time passes.

The rise of digital manipulation took off due to adolescents’ instant access to large audiences and the

desire to attract. An individual does not need to be a celebrity to be social media famous; all you need

today is an editing app to create a visually aesthetic feed of images. It seems that everyone is now visually pleasing, and the bar continues to rise for young generations to display an unrealistic version to the world.

I conducted an interview with an 11-year-old girl. I began with asking her if her friends digitally manipulated or edited their images prior to uploading them. Her blank stare gave way that she did not understand the terminology. I tried again but this time asking her if her friends use make-up apps or apps that put filters over photos. “Oh yeah, yeah!” she exclaimed as she realized what I was trying to ask her. “ All the time, like add a little lip color, blur out our backgrounds.. instagram filters make you look pretty.” The moral of this conversation is to reveal that adolescents aren’t aware of what exactly digital manipulation is however they use it in their daily life without second thought.

According to the Center of Generational Kinetics, 42 % of Generation Z says that your presence on social media affects how others perceive you. This number is 15 % higher than the prior generation of millennials so no wonder Gen Z children find it a necessity to only post the best portrayal of themselves.

Some argue the influx of manipulated photographs on social media sites is an act of self-expression and social connectedness for Generation Z. The irony is that Gen Z is self-expressing in a format that manipulates the reality of their true and physical being and character.

When it all boils down, acceptance in photo manipulation is a new platform of media with uncharted territory and undetermined results. It is difficult to make the prediction on how an adolescents mind will manifest under such circumstances. In conclusion, it is undoubtedly unnatural for a child’s physical mind to maneuver through development with contributing factors such as the outer party of visual fabricated imagery. Continuing forward, such digital manipulations in relation to mental development in Generation Z will create a new obstacle for psychiatric professionals, educators, parents, and our society as a whole.

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Copyright © 2020  Rachel M. Cathell 
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Wilmington, Delaware