TikTok’s teen filter makes us face our own mortality

by Ana Lopez

People on TikTok are getting emotional over an AR filter that makes you look like a teenager. Placed side by side, the filter shows you as you are, then a version of you with perfectly smooth skin and a strange youthful innocence.

The filter has triggered a surprisingly wide range of emotions.

“Hadn’t seen her in a long time,” one TikToker wrote in a after with over 500,000 views. “Yes…I cried.” In a video with 1 million views another one user wrote“This filter gave me the opportunity to finally talk to my younger self,” as she reflects on how much she’d grown since leaving an abusive living situation.

At the same time, others have filmed TikToks ridiculing dramatic responses to see a ‘younger self’, while some people joked about how being a teen doesn’t mean you have flawless skin — it probably means you can’t keep your skin acne under control.

We know that social media can make us feel bad about our appearance. Only in this case, instead of comparing ourselves to others, does this filter push us to compare ourselves to who we were in the past. Still, it’s a twisted sense of reality — you probably didn’t look like a baby cherub as a teen, and you may have wrinkles now… but you’re probably a lot better adjusted with a lot less chemistry homework.

But for many users, it’s not the baby-soft skin that gets them emotional. Rather, the filter evokes a sense of sadness about the regrets they have for not enjoying life when they were younger, or the difficult decisions they had to make as adults. Many of these videos are set to the song “The freshmen‘ by The Verve Pipe (which shockingly isn’t the same band that wrote ‘Bittersweet Symphony’). The brooding ’90s alt-rock song has a fitting refrain for the emotions bubbling up for Gen Xers: “For the life of me I can’t remember / What made us think we were wise and we’d never compromise Close.”

While these TikToks are sentimental, this is far from the first time an AR filter or app has gone viral to show us what we looked like in our youth, or what we might look like when we’re old.

Just a few months ago, fantastic AI-generated avatars were all the rage, although that trend has slowed considerably. And every so often a filter that makes you look like an animated Disney character will predictably go viral on Snapchat or TikTok, keeping our brain worms busy until we get bored again.

However, these AR filters are more likely to go viral because there’s a smaller barrier to entry – you don’t need to download a new app, which is reassuring given the dark histories of many viral photo editing apps. SSome photo apps turn out to be vectors for malwarewhile IIn other cases, users have been concerned about what happens to the photos they upload to these apps. These concerns surfaced around the Russia-based AI editor Face Appwhich later had to clarify in a statement that it may store updated photos in the cloud due to “performance and traffic reasons”, but that most images are deleted within 48 hours.

Some users are concerned about TikTok’s security anyway, but TikTok claims it doesn’t collect or store our biometric data when we use these AR filters.

In any case, while you’re idly browsing TikTok, just remember: one day we’re all going to die!

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