On its face, the measure appears to be a promising move motivated by good intent: to protect the public, especially younger people, from psychological harm. A 2016 study found that exposure to doctored Instagram selfies “directly led to lower body image” among participating adolescent girls. What’s more, the girls who saw the edited photos rated them as more pretty or attractive than the unedited images and believed they were realistic, the researchers wrote.
But experts say the existing research into the effects of image labels and disclaimers on mental health suggests that such laws probably won’t be effective — and may, in some cases, do more harm than good.
“It’s a Band-Aid for a gaping wound, and it seems like a public performative statement that doesn’t address the root systemic problem,” said Sophia Choukas-Bradley, an assistant professor in the psychological and brain sciences department at the University of Delaware who studies the effects of social media on adolescents. Although she believes that the effects of social media on body image are a significant problem in many countries, “making big moves without understanding all the consequences has historically led to unintended side effects,” she said.
The Norwegian regulations were passed as an amendment to the country’s Marketing Control Act and are intended to “raise awareness among people that the perfect bodies in advertisements do not show people as they appear in real life,” according to the Norwegian Ministry of Children and Families. Label requirements are limited to photo and video advertisements that include images of people whose body size, frame or skin have been altered; changing hair or retouching a bruise, for instance, may not require a label.
The regulations, which the ministry said are scheduled to go into effect in July 2022, will also apply to images shared by social media influencers and other public figures who post edited photos of themselves while advertising products or services.
“Our goal is that children and young people grow up without experiencing a pressure to change their bodies,” Reid Ivar Bjorland Dahl, state secretary with the Ministry of Children and Families, said in an emailed statement to The Washington Post.
While Dahl said that Norwegian surveys of children and high school students indicated that labeling could be a useful measure, he noted that the labeling law was just “one part of the Norwegian Government’s efforts to combat beauty and appearance pressures.” He said these issues also would be addressed through “different methods such as legislation, education and collaboration with responsible business.”
In addition to increasing public awareness about how images are modified, Dahl said, the government hopes the legislation will encourage advertisers to “show people as they are” and feature more diverse models.
The news has been met with positive reactions from some Norwegian influencers.
“There are so many people that are insecure about their body or face,” Madeleine Pedersen, an Instagram influencer, told BBC Radio 1’s Newsbeat. Pedersen added that she has struggled with body issues because of Instagram. “The worst part is that I don’t even know if the other girls I looked up to did edit their photos or not. That’s why we all need answers — we need this law.”
Norway isn’t the first country to attempt to address body-image ideals by labeling edited photos. In 2017, France announced a similar law covering commercial images featuring models whose bodies had been edited.
But although these laws can send an important message that people in power care about preserving mental health and reducing outside pressures regarding physical appearances, experts don’t think the mandates will help many individuals or spark significant societal change.
Studies examining the use of warning labels that alert viewers to doctored images, including those focused on young people, have not been encouraging. Researchers in Austria worked with adolescents to develop a disclaimer for photos, then tested the effect of the disclaimer on another small group of similarly aged participants. They concluded that the method is “a rather unsuccessful way of disclosing the lack of realism of media images” for tweens and teens, according to results published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Children and Media.
Generally speaking, disclaimers “don’t buffer any of the detrimental effects of the images on people’s mood, people’s body image in the way that they are intended to,” said Rachel Rodgers, an associate professor in the applied psychology department at Northeastern University who has done her own research on the effect of labeling photos. “In fact, we also know that, for some people, they can increase appearance comparisons.”
One theory, experts said, is that adding a vague label might cause people to engage more with the edited media; they might, for example, try to determine what was manipulated. “It just increases the attention on those photos, and it increases the cognitive capacity that’s being devoted to those photos, which is probably not a good thing, ultimately,” said Jacqueline Nesi, an assistant professor in the psychiatry and human behavior department at Brown University.
Experts noted that adding disclaimers also fails to address the root causes of body-image issues. “There’s an entire system that’s set up to support certain body ideals, and our culture is all sort of part of that,” Nesi said.
The use of filters and editing on digital media, for instance, “build on practices that long predate” technology, such as makeup, said Pablo Boczkowski, a communication studies professor at Northwestern University. “It is important to try to address the causes of what is problematic rather than the symptoms, because sometimes, when you address the symptoms without addressing the causes, the symptoms just move around.”
A potential risk of enforcing labels is that people appearing in the images may find other, maybe more dangerous, ways to achieve their desired look, such as cosmetic surgery, disordered eating or excessive exercise routines, Choukas-Bradley said. “That’s an example of an unintended consequence of a law that has really wonderful intent, but doesn’t seem to be following the recommendations of psychology researchers really investigating this.”
Research into effective ways to protect against the harmful effects of social media is ongoing, and experts emphasized that there are a number of approaches outside of legislation that may be helpful.
Online platforms can limit for-profit advertising of products or services that are directly focused on weight loss or other ways to change appearances, Rodgers said. In 2019, Instagram and Facebook announced that users under age 18 will be blocked from seeing such posts. Recently, Pinterest went a step further and banned weight loss ads.
Parents and schools can prioritize teaching young people social media literacy. Conversations about why unrealistic images are posted go beyond a basic disclaimer label, Choukas-Bradley said. “It educates kids about all the different ways reality may be distorted in social media.”
And as for lawmakers, the experts would rather see them take into account current research and fund more of it before passing legislation. “Often what we just feel in our gut is a good idea is not supported by research when you rigorously put that idea under the microscope,” Choukas-Bradley said. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to move forward with policy changes if research suggests they’re not going to be helpful.”