Instagram is not the place we should be looking to for moral cues. This is hardly a controversial or surprising opinion, but it is one Dr Richard Theile felt necessary to spell out, and in no lesser publication than the Australasian Journal of Plastic Surgery.
In an eyebrow-raising opinion piece revealed in The Sun-Herald today, the chair of the Australian Society of Plastic Surgeons’ ethics committee accused some of his fellow practitioners of behaving more like social media influencers than medical professionals. At worst, they were "driven by greed and ego where the patient becomes a commodity".
Peddling images that influence prospective clients opens up an ethical quagmire.Credit:Shutterstock
There has been a rise in surgeons sharing sexualised images on social media and live-streaming medical procedures, even speaking openly about following the likes of Kylie Jenner to stay up to date with the latest trends.
Tailoring surgeries to match a patient’s desires has long been part of the trade, and there is no doubt many patients are walking around today with their heads held high having benefited from the boost in confidence cosmetic alterations can provide.
However, peddling images that influence prospective clients opens up an ethical quagmire, particularly as it has never been easier for plastic surgeons to advertise their wares.
Most of us would not want our surgeon on Snapchat while we go under the knife, but there is a large enough minority who would – and enough doctors apparently happy to do so – that action is being taken.
Dr Theile says there is a real risk of harm to patients, and to combat this trend the Society has laid out some foundations for a new code of conduct. The ethical concerns are myriad, and it is encouraging to see the plastic surgeons’ body grappling with them.
Dr Theile’s concern is, rightly, for the most vulnerable and easily influenced, as they would make the most obvious targets for the unscrupulous in his profession. But there are reasons for us all to worry.
Plastic surgeons are hardly the only ones posting images to the echo chambers of social media and the vast reaches of the internet. Unrealistic beauty standards are everywhere, and, being exposed to more images on more screens than ever, even the thickest-skinned among us will feel some pressure to conform to society’s norms. For some, the response will be to actively reject those standards, while others may react in ways they could come to regret purely out of wanting to keep up with the latest fashion or an attempt to please a crowd.
There is more to self-worth than appearance, of course, but where the internet can reinforce positive beliefs, it can also reflect and distort negative sentiments out of all proportion. People can be belittled and attacked online for everything from how many freckles they have to whether or not they enjoyed the latest superhero film. How a victim of these attacks reacts will vary, but some will take it deeply personally and there can be lasting consequences.
Researchers just last week released a major study showing the "Instagramification" of society was damaging real-life interactions, reducing attention spans and adversely affecting memories. In the study published in World Psychiarty, research from institutions including Western Sydney University found time spent online could result in "acute and sustained" alterations to the brain. Particularly troubling was the potential for damage to children's and adolescent brains.
Science also tells us the phrase "screen time" should become a thing of the past, as it has become a way of life. Research also shows low moods and depression are the most commonly cited downsides of excessive screen time.
Social media and the internet are here to stay, as they are tools that keep the modern world connected, for family and work.
But the echo chambers of the internet and social media are not the places to find self-worth. For that, we need to turn away from the black mirrors in our pockets.
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