It’s a strange sight for anyone over 25, but a perfectly normal one for anyone who’s 13. A photograph of a young girl, wearing her favourite outfit and best lipstick, uploaded to Instagram with a large black scribble over her face.
If you’re a teenager in the western world, it’s likely you’ve seen – or even uploaded – a picture like this. Using Snapchat or a phone’s inbuilt editing tools, many teenagers will lightly scribble over their faces before uploading selfies online. Sometimes, the scribble is over just one eye. Other times, it covers a spot on a teen’s chin. On some occasions, girls scribble over their bodies, covering their cleavage or thighs, or even the hair on their arms.
While it’s difficult to know exactly how many teens scribble over their photos online, it’s far from an unusual occurrence, and has been a phenomenon for several years. On Twitter, young people berate each other for the practice. "Do not understand people who put photos on Instagram and scribble out their own face ????" reads one 2015 tweet with 16 retweets and 30 likes. Another, with 33 likes, from January: "My biggest pet peeve is when someone puts a picture on Snapchat or Instagram and they scribble out their face."
Celebrities, too, have noticed. In August 2018, after she won ITV2’s hit reality show Love Island, actress Dani Dyer lamented on her Instagram Stories that "young kids" scribbled out their faces when uploading pictures they’d taken after meeting her. "It really upsets me that you don’t feel good enough to show your beautiful face in the photo!" she wrote. "Stop scribbling your face out, I want to see all of your beautiful faces."
It almost makes sense to scribble out your face after meeting a celebrity – it’s likely you only got the opportunity to take one pic, and were perhaps a little sweaty and starstruck. If you’re unhappy with your facial expression but want to prove that you’ve met Dani Dyer, why not bring out the drawing tool? But teens aren’t just scribbling out their faces in extraordinary circumstances – they scrawl over their mirror selfies, scratch out their prom pics and squiggle over photos with friends. Why?
"I scribble out my face in photos where I like my body but not my face, or if I like the background of the photo and it goes with my feed," explains Sophia, a 16-year-old from Australia. Sophia first started scribbling on her photos a few years ago, "because I had seen my friends around me do it".
It’s such an ordinary occurrence for Sophia and her friends that she says she doesn’t "think anything of it" when she sees a scribbled out face uploaded to Instagram. "I think it’s normal and I still enjoy seeing the picture whether I can fully see their face or not," she adds.
In an online environment where we’re encouraged to upload everything, it makes sense that teens feel pressured to show off their lives regardless of their insecurities. "I’ve used a scribble a few times when I’ve wanted to show I’ve been somewhere like a party or event but didn’t get any pictures of my face that I liked," Sophia explains. Not everyone she knows scribbles out their face – she believes it’s more common among people who are self-conscious. Of her own self-esteem, she says: "I think it changes quite often. Some days I wake up feeling confident, and others I don’t."
Mark Smyth, a senior clinical psychologist who works with children and adolescents, and is president elect of the Psychological Society of Ireland, says the "occasional" Instagram scribble is nothing to worry about but parents should be concerned if their teens also cover up mirrors, avoid reflections, wear baggy clothes or pull back from socialising. He explains that Instagram scribbling is likely a combination of age-old teenage pressures and new pressures around performing online.
"Feeling wanted, liked and accepted is not a new phenomenon for teens, it’s a typical stage of adolescent development but the rules have changed now," Smyth says, explaining that – like all of us – teens seek online validation via likes and comments. "Obscuring certain aspects of themselves gives them a mostly false sense of security that they’ve hidden the part or parts of themselves that they are most insecure about and allows them to fit in with their peers and share images of themselves online," he says. "It’s a difficult dilemma for them – 'I fear putting myself out there online, but I also fear being left out'."
The bizarre thing about Instagram scribbles, to older eyes, is that they are uniquely confessional. Unlike a puppy dog filter or a few tweaks via Facetune, scribbled-over selfies explicitly reveal the insecurities of the selfie-taker. In one way or another, we all obscure our true selves when we post online – this is just a more literal, and perhaps glaring, way to go about it.
"Now that I’m a little older, I don’t tend to scribble my face out or use emoji to hide anything about my appearance, but I occasionally will hide some facial flaws of mine by only including half of my face in a picture," says Morgan, a 19-year-old from Indiana who began scribbling on her Instagram pictures when she entered high school. Morgan explains that as well as adding scribbles, she used to cover her face with emoji in pictures – another common practice among teens. Yet now she’s older, she finds it "less obvious" to use filters to cover her "imperfections" instead.
"They hide a lot of my insecurities and can make a picture more appealing," she says, adding that unlike scribbles or emoji, filters "draw less attention" to the part of the picture she’s insecure about.
Amelia, also 19 and from New Jersey, has been scribbling over her pictures for roughly seven years. Like Sophia and Morgan, she doesn’t find it remotely unusual when she sees a scribbled-over Instagram picture – it’s simply another aspect of the site. However, she does say it makes her sad to see how insecure her peers are.
"When I see other people do it, it makes me upset to know that they are insecure and don’t see their own beauty," she says. "I’ve found that it is very easy for me to be critical of myself, but I see the beauty in other people so easily. I’m a firm believer that you are your own worst critic."
Amelia has scribbled out her face for various reasons over the years, turning to the drawing tool when she wants to show off her outfit, if she’s not wearing any makeup or if she’s feeling sick. "I have struggled with body image issues for as long as I can remember," she says, explaining that she used to cover her stomach and armpit area with emoji when uploading pictures to Snapchat. She has since deleted the app, and says this decision has vastly improved her mental health.
Many teens grow out of their scribble phase – Morgan rarely does it now, only occasionally choosing to scribble over videos of herself singing, so the focus is on her voice, not her face. Sixteen-year-old Sophia says she doesn’t do it "that often" anymore, and mostly scribbles on days where her skin is acting up. Yet the teen also uses the beauty editing app Facetune to clear up her skin – she says she will often Facetune a picture first, then scribble or place an emoji on her face if she isn’t happy with it.
The pressure to look perfect online is arguably greater than ever. In a 2018 study, "The Selfie Generation: Examining the Relationship Between Social Media Use and Early Adolescent Body Image", researchers from the University of Kentucky found that teens who post more on social media have a heightened awareness of their appearance, which was then related to negative feelings about their body. Self-esteem and social media are entwined in a complicated way – you might scribble on your Instagram selfie because you feel insecure, but the very act of posting the picture online could cause further insecurities.
"I am pretty used to seeing [scribbled-out pictures] at this point," Morgan says. "However, it is definitely disheartening because it is unfortunate that a person has to feel like they have to cover their flaws to be attractive."
To anyone who grew up without social media, it’s remarkable to see scribbles over bright, healthy young faces. The obscured foreheads, eyes, chins, teeth, hips, eyebrows and armpits reveal the myriad ways we can all feel insecure, it’s just that young people today have the means to easily edit themselves.
"Ultimately, I feel like 'flaws' are what make people unique and they should be embraced," Morgan reflects. "That’s easier said than done, even for me, but society has such high standards for how people should look, causing people to feel inferior or defective."